Friday, May 1, 2009

FENECH | Farewell to Knapp

Our first conversation went badly.

"Who are the key players, er, guys, er …," I stammered over the phone to men's track coach Jim Knapp.

He interrupted before I could finish the question.

"We don't have any key athletes," he said, sternly. "We're a team."

Gulp. Nothing like a good first impression.

Right then and there was my first track lesson, courtesy of a cold conversation on an even colder December night: They are not players and it is not a game.

Our second conversation went worse.

"Can you hear me?" I asked, weaving around in a computer chair, searching for one iota of a signal in my dead zone room.

"I … can … he-," said Knapp, barely audible under a cloud of static.

"Can you hear me now?" I repeated.


By the time I sprinted up the stairs, the call had ended.

Shortly thereafter, our conversations became better, our signal clearer and his answers longer. I made jokes, he fake-laughed, which in turn made me laugh.

The first thing I told him was that I knew next to nothing about track, other than people running very fast and jumping very high. He seemed to appreciate that, answering all of my questions from that point on with a track explanation, however stupid or matter-of-factly they were.

One day, I asked him why there are not more scored meets in track and field. (Lesson No. 2: You don't win or lose in track. You improve.)

It seemed as if it was an innocent question, but it drew the ire of Knapp, who went on a lengthy rant about how the sport is suffering because of its non-appeal to those who want a winner and loser, which is probably 99.9 percent of sports fans.

"They put $20,000 into a scoreboard here," he said that day in his office. "And we use it once or twice a year."

Covering the Jack Skoog Open in January, where he was being honored for his retirement, I learned a lot about Knapp the person and Knapp the coach in the days before. I talked to friends, family and athletes and grew to appreciate the gruff, Jim Leyland-esque persona I talked to the first couple of times.

It is why, for all of those frustrating nights trying to squeak another 100 words out of a weekly team improvement story, I was not in that much of a hurry to move along.

Track and field, while definitely not as money-hungry, popular or mainstream as some of CMU's other athletics, offers you the opportunity to get to know people unlike the others.

You can pick up the phone and give Sean Anthony a call or you can see Riak Mabil on campus and chill with him, talking about everything from spitting rhymes to faster times. You can ask Knapp about how his family is doing, how his last trip to Atlanta was.

It is more personal in track.

Track and field is way more difficult than perception has it. It is not only about running fast or jumping high, it is about perfect execution in the discus and all of the steps that go into a pole vault. It is about how to come off the block flawlessly and it is about technical stuff and its about mental stuff and it is just ... crazy.

Tuesday, I stopped by Knapp's office in the Indoor Athletic Complex for the last time. I was only in there a handful of times, but the place looked exactly the same a week before his retirement as it did three months before his retirement.

I said thanks, told him to enjoy his retirement and about what I was doing over the summer. He told me to keep in touch.

Our last conversation went just a little better.

Simply "Oz"

Issue date: 5/1/09

By Anthony Fenech
Staff Reporter

Oz Lifshitz gushed with excitement just thinking about the upcoming Mid-American Conference Championships.

The Israel native now is two years into his stay in the United States, a country he never traveled to before.

"I'm more relaxed now," the sophomore jumper said. "It's much more peaceful here. People are more relaxed. And they drive slower here, too."

He may not know any better - yet.

A new world

Lifshitz's American dream began two Augusts ago, standing around the luggage claim at Detroit's Metropolitan Airport, looking for his coach.

"I was so enthusiastic, even after a 12-hour plane ride from Israel to New York," he said. "I didn't care. I was going to see my new coach and teammates ... and then I couldn't find my coach."

Men's track coach Jim Knapp remembers the moment well, standing alongside sophomore Jacob Korir in the middle of a crowd and holding a sign that said, simply enough, "Oz".

"I had seen pictures of him, but he wasn't obvious in a crowd," Knapp said. "We never saw him and he never saw the sign."

Surrounded by strangers in a brand new world, Lifshitz saw a man in the distance that resembled the coach he was coming to compete for, so he dialed Knapp's number.

"He said he saw me and I don't know if he really did, but we finally met up," said Knapp.

Jumping into Knapp's car en route to Mount Pleasant, a middle-aged American track coach talked to a mid-twenties Israeli track athlete through the help of Korir, who translated the conversation.

"It was interesting," Lifshitz said, laughing. "A long ride but we got to know each other quickly and I loved his enthusiasm."

Years earlier, such a move would have seemed unlikely. He grew up in Rishon LeZion, a city nestled between Tel-Aviv and the Mediterranean Sea. This is where he learned to compete in the sand and on the court, not the track.

In between spending his days in the water and playing soccer on the beach, Lifshitz was a tennis player, once ranked as the No. 8 player in the country as a 16-year-old.

But his passion for tennis was starting to fade. At this point, one of his high school gym teachers suggested he try high jumping.

"It wasn't serving my purpose," he said, referring to tennis. "I did one jump and fell in love with it."

Military experience

After high school, Israeli students flock to the military much the way American students flock to college. In the summer of 2003, Lifshitz was no different.

"In Israel, kids say, 'I'm going to be that soldier. I want to and I'm going to protect my family,'" he said. "It's not mandatory, but it's basically something that you do."

Serving in the Air Force for three years, he doesn't feel right elaborating on his time there - "It's just something that you carry on and do not talk about" - but he acknowledges that he was a changed person, a boy becoming a man, after he completed his first boot camp.

"It was such a relief and accomplishment," he said of finishing. "They make you think that you are nobody. When you come out, you are somebody."

It was near the end of his third year in the military when an Israeli national track coach came up to him and said they were going to turn him into a triple jumper.

In Israel, a country that holds just seven million people, there are three track facilities. In June 2007, he posted a second-place finish and personal-best distance in the triple jump, a distance which would qualify for NCAA Nationals in America.

"I started contacting coaches and seeing if I could come over to study and train," he said. After mostly misses - it was June and most teams are set by then - Knapp decided to make Lifshitz a part of the team.


Lifshitz has found immediate success since coming to America, taking second and fourth place as a freshman in last year's indoor and outdoor MAC Championships, respectively.

And he is doing it on an entirely different continent than his family, in an entirely different culture.

"I definitely miss my family," he said as he took off his sweatshirt, revealing the Star of David on his necklace. "Lets just say it's a consistent battle between myself and how I miss everyone back home."

His eyes watered up looking at the necklace - he said he was thinking about his grandmother, who passed away three weeks ago.

"She gave this to me and I'm going to give this season to her," he said.

The year of redemption, Lifshitz calls it, with his eyes set squarely on May 14 and the MAC Championship in Akron, Ohio.

"He is a very mature individual and he continues to grow," Knapp said, "And we see it every day."

Two years into his American journey, Lifshitz is excelling at both his studying - 3.5 GPA - and his training, the two reasons he jumped over.

"I'm so thankful that I got an opportunity to come here," he said. "Especially if it's for free."

Lifshitz said he is becoming 'Americanized' each and every day, whether it be waking up to snow or watching a different brand of football.

"Especially drinking," he said. "We don't chug, we sip. It's fun to chug and it's fun to do whatever, but our culture isn't like that."

It is just another step toward being 'Americanized.'

Men well-rested for weekend

Issue date: 5/1/09

By Anthony Fenech
Staff Reporter

Men's track coach Jim Knapp will get his wish.

Just two weeks before the MAC Championships in Akron, the entire men's track team will travel to Columbus for this weekend's Jesse Owens Classic, the 15th annual meeting of the prestigious event.

This is the first time in three weeks the team is together as one, something Knapp enjoys.

"I would rather have my whole family with me," he said.

He called a 9 p.m. team meeting on Monday night to let his athletes know what tasks are at hand the next few weeks.

"It's going to be tough," Knapp said. "This will be a step up from the MAC meet."

CMU is well-rested after the majority of the team took last weekend off.

"We're going to need to step up our performance just to be in the mix there," he said of the upcoming weekend, noting he likes the Jesse Owens Classic format.

Looking forward to the conference meet, Knapp said it is critical the team stays healthy, but keeps competing at the same time.

"On paper, we look to be in the lower level but that's simply because of our lack of numbers," Knapp said. "The people we put on the track will take care of business, I have no doubt about that."

Junior thrower Greg Pilling looks to continue his good fortune this weekend and into the conference championship.

"He's throwing extremely well now," Knapp said. "He measured some outstanding throws during the week in practice and he's a great competitor."

Pilling, older than most of his teammates because he attended a missionary after high school, serves as a mature and calming influence on the team.

"I think I'm a little bit more focused," Pilling said, "Having the couple extra years of schooling made all the difference."

Knapp said this team is not as elder and experienced as some of his in the past.

"This isn't a put-down to my team," he said, "But we're not as mature as teams here have been in the past. We only have seven seniors. Just three years ago, we finished graduating 39 seniors in three years."

Some competitors whose events begin today left yesterday, but most of the team will head south Friday.