Oregon's Catholic Youth Organization sponsors one of the largest junior-high track and field programs in the nation. Most of the credit goes to a man with a slim build but a tenacious spirit.
Michael Bergmann, a former competive runner who has worked in product development at Nike for 28 years, has set the torrid pace for CYO track and field expansion over the past 15 years. An organizer and coach, he's approached the tasks with the same efficency, discipline and persistence he used as a runner.
It was 15 years ago when Bergmann's son volunteered him to become coach of Holy Trinity School's CYO track team. He recruited pals from Nike to join him — including several who had run in Olympic trials — and assembled what was surely the most accomplished grade school track coaching staff on record.
In his second year at Holy Trinity's helm, he started asking tough questions about the eligibility of some runners from other schools who showed up at a championship meet. Sister Krista von Borstel could tell he cared about justice and fairness and so put him in charge of CYO's track commission.
Bergmann, always up for a challenge, again asked his running friends to join him in the effort. The committee revamped rules and added meets, making sure the events don't take all day. They added advanced technology to timing and measurement. Bergmann began placing results on the web and hired former CYO runners to act as meet officials, helping those teens get experience in conflict resolution and leadership.
A good spirit sprung up in the program and spread. As a result, participation surged, from about 600 in 1997 to 1,500 in 2008 and 2,000 now.
Stars have emerged from CYO track and field for sure, among them Galen Rupp and Kenny Klotz, both standouts at the University of Oregon. But Bergmann is even more proud of the thousands of athletes who competed hard without going elite.
"I feel like a lot of sports now are so intense that a lot of kids get spit out of them by age 12 or 13 if they are not on a classic team," Bergmann says. "Our program is very inclusive. It's more about people going for their personal best."
Bergmann encourages young athletes to try all kinds of events, perhaps finding new talents and having a lot of fun in the process.
For years, Bergmann was a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Beaverton. Recently, he felt called to serve among people in need and so joined St. André Bessette Parish in Portland's Old Town. He already sits on the pastoral council. He's helping the church, once known as the Downtown Chapel, to continue its ministry to homeless, poor and mentally ill Portlanders.
Under his leadership, CYO track and field helped get a new inner city school, well, on track. When St. Andrew Nativity School started a decade ago, CYO track was its first official sport. Nike donated shoes and uniforms. Bergmann would like to see more teams emerge at North and Northeast Portland schools.
He led a drive to build a track on the Beaverton campus of Holy Trinity Parish. Completed in 2007, it hosts meets and practices, but is also open to neighbors for jogging and walking. The underlying goal was to use the track to build community. Bergmann helped with a similar track project at Roosevelt High School in North Portland.
Bergmann has coached cross-country at Central Catholic and St. Mary's Academy. He teamed up with Jesuit High cross-country coach Tom Rothenberger and began a middle school cross country running program called the PDXC Youth Running Series. A national running website just featured the program.
He and Elaine, married for 24 years, have four children. One is a student at Central Catholic while the others are at Catholic colleges — University of Portland, Seattle University and Gonzaga.
"Michael is an all-around fine person: a man of integrity, generosity, hard work and good spirit," Father Dave Gutmann of Holy Trinity wrote in a recent award nomination letter.
Dave Frank, cross-country coach at Central Catholic, says Bergmann's management know-how and good sense were invaluable during his stint as an aide at Central.
"Even greater than these contributions to our program was Mike’s uncanny ability to simply get things done," Frank says. "Mike is a man of action; where many simply look at things and complain about the current status, Mike sees the situation, imagines a solution, and executes that solution."
Richard Recker, who helps with advancement at Roosevelt High, was a youth distance runner at the same time as Bergmann.
"I only knew Michael remotely at that time — but he distinguished himself as hard-working, fiercely competitive and motivated by team loyalty," Recker says. "I don’t see that much has changed in him — except perhaps the ever-expanding definition of 'team.'"
Recker told an awards committee that Bergmann "helps stir up hope for people who need it most and in an era when it can be in very short supply."