Craig Engels arrived with a moustache, mullet haircut, 1992 Dodge Caravan and a dream. He left with the belief that he could one day win a national championship, pro running contract or perhaps even more.
Coming in with the goal of making the semifinals in the 800 meter run at the USA Track and Field Olympic Trials, and listed as an alternate in the 1500 meter, Engels ended up making the final in both, finishing fourth in the 800 — one spot away from qualifying for the Olympics — and fifth in the 1500.
That wasn’t exactly what Engels, a graduate of Reagan High School and runner at Ole Miss, had in mind for the 10-day event.
“Not even close. That was just like nuts. I’m still wrapping my head around it,” Engels said by telephone on Monday.
The big week started in the 800, when a few top runners were scratched from the event. With the field opening up, Engels found a new level of confidence.
“I got a little bit lucky, you know. Three of the biggest hitters were out in the first round, and that gave me the confidence that I could compete with everybody else now that the biggest guys are out,” Engels said.
Perhaps the luckiest moment came in the 800 semifinal, when Engels got tangled up with Shaquile Walker and fell during the race. After a protest, Engels advanced to the final.
“Well, it was very controversial, and it was left in the hands of the officials, and I don’t know if they made the right decision, not letting Shaquille advance if they let me,” he said. “Everything after that was, ‘I’m going to try to make my family proud.’”
Shockingly, Engels came from nowhere with a late kick to finish fourth in the 800 final — easily, the most celebrated fourth-place finish of his career. Considering the 800 isn’t his best event, Engels was pleased.
“I think I was the only happy fourth-place finisher at the trials,” he said, laughing.
When three runners pulled out of the 1500, Engels took advantage, winning his first round heat before things slowed down in the semifinals.
Engels was one of 13 men in the 1500 final, and the only collegiate runner in the field.
Standing on the starting line with defending world indoor champion Matthew Centrowitz was a surreal moment.
“We knew from the get go, that people were going to push the pace and try to get that Olympic standard of 3:36,” Engels said. “I wasn’t too keen on leading the race, so I’m just going to race for a top-five, just do whatever I could to stay in front of the pack. It went out a little harder than I expected, so I just settled down and stayed calm.”
Down the stretch, Engels only had one regret as Centrowitz and Robby Andrews broke away.
“I think there was a little bit, that I was settled in my mind with a top five,” he said. “I think if I had made a move a little bit earlier, I may have been able to get top three and get the standard. Late in the meet, I was confident, but a little bitter, because I think I gave up a little bit mentally.”
In the end, Engels ran a personal-record of 3:37.66 and will begin his trek back home with a bright future on the track.
The only question is whether his van — recently purchased on Craigslist for $750 — will survive the cross-country roadtrip.
“I’m going to keep those odds pretty high,” he said. “I’m real confident leaving the trials, and I’m confident about the van, too.”