EUGENE, Ore. – Having reached the semifinals of the United States Olympic Trials this month, Versailles graduate Sam Prakel already is looking forward to competing in the trials again in 2020.
But with the next Olympic Trials still four years away, the 2013 Versailles alumnus knows there’s still a lot to look forward to before then.
“I’ll definitely still be in good condition in four years,” Prakel said. “It’s a little far down to the road to start thinking about it too much, but that’s the long-term goal.”
Prakel recently completed his third year at the University of Oregon where he’s a member of the Ducks’ cross country and track and field teams. He had a breakout season this past year, finishing fourth in the mile at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships and helping lead Oregon to the national championship as a team. He then finished fifth in the 1,500 meters at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships and qualified for the Olympic Trials in the 1,500 meters.
Prakel’s recent success has him confident about his abilities, but there was a time when he wasn’t so sure.
When Prakel first stepped onto the Oregon campus as a freshman he didn’t know if he could compete with the Ducks, even though he won six state championships in high school, was the Ohio Gatorade Runner of the Year and was the 2012 Wendy’s High School Heisman winner among a long list of other accomplishments. It was a stressful time, he said, but his persistence paid off as Prakel now has established himself as one of the best distance runners at Oregon and in the nation.
Prakel credits his time at Oregon, which has 17 Olympians this year, with helping him become the runner he is today.
“Especially in 1,500 the Oregon talent is pretty deep,” he said. “It’s because of those guys that I was able to get to this level of running.”
While Oregon helped get Prakel to the Olympic Trials, the Olympic Trials helped bring him to Oregon.
Prior to his senior year of high school Prakel attended the 2012 Olympic Trials in Eugene as a spectator. At that time he wasn’t considering Oregon as a college choice, but the atmosphere and the campus made him fall in love with the university.
It was at that moment that Prakel set two goals: attend the University of Oregon and return to the Olympic Trials as a competitor.
“It was awesome,” he said. “Ever since I came out here four years ago for the 2012 trials I set the goal to compete here in 2016.”
Prakel accomplished both goals, wearing the Ducks’ green and yellow as one of 24 athletes in the 1,500 meters at the United States Olympic Trials in Eugene.
“It’s kind of special to be an Oregon athlete at the trials,” he said. “You kind of have the home field advantage, and the crowd is behind you all the way.”
One of the biggest differences between being a spectator in 2012 and a competitor in 2016 was controlling his emotions, Prakel said. Four years ago he was star struck by the talent of the athletes.
“That’s something I had to get over this year,” he said. “I had to focus on my own races and couldn’t get caught up in the aurora these athletes have.”
The quarterfinal race of this year’s trials went as Prakel expected. Being just the first of three rounds, the lead runners set a slow pace as to not waste energy.
It was a little nerve-racking, Prakel said, as he hadn’t been in a slow, tactical race in a while, but it worked out as he finished fifth in his heat with a time of 3:50.73, qualifying for the semifinals.
“Being in the mix to make it to the finals was cool,” he said.
In the semifinals Prakel again found himself in the slower of two heats. He hung with the pack and moved to the outside with 300 meters remaining but came up just short of qualifying for the finals. The top five in the heat advanced, and he was in sixth place with a time of 3:48.55.
“I’m happy with how I held on and stayed strong,” Prakel said. “Just proved I’m able to compete against a lot of those professionals and Olympians.”
Even though he didn’t advance to the finals, Prakel said he learned a lot during his time at the Olympic Trials. Getting to hear the inspirational stories of the nation’s best athletes will only help motivate him to continue working hard, he said.
“If anything I learned they’re just normal athletes and they worked as hard or harder than anyone here,” Prakel said.
Hard work is nothing new for Prakel. In addition to being one of the country’s premier athletes, he has a 3.967 GPA while studying biochemistry in college – giving him the highest cumulative GPA of any athlete at the NCAA outdoor track and field championships.
“The course work and the classes throughout the week keep me busy,” Prakel said. “I’m a person who likes to keep busy.”
Prakel has two years of athletic eligibility left for Oregon. During that time he hopes to lead the Ducks to a national championship in cross country and win individual national championships in the indoor mile and outdoor 1,500 meters while finishing his bachelor’s degree.
“I think I’m one of the top returners, and I have the coaching the training partners to make that run again,” he said. “I can’t wait, but at the same time it’s just something you can’t rush. It’s a process.”
The process began years ago when Prakel was just a kid in Versailles. He said he appreciates all the support he’s received from Darke County from his days in junior high through the Olympic Trials.
Prakel wasn’t the only Darke County athlete competing for a spot at the Olympics. He closely followed his former high school teammate Mitchell Stover, who competed at the Olympic Trials in swimming, and former Tri-Village runner Clayton Murphy, who qualified for the Olympics in the 800 meters in track and field.
“It was really fun to watch him compete and win the 800,” Prakel said. “It was a lot of fun to hang out with him at the meet.”