By Mitchell Boatman
That would have been very impressive for a first-time competitor.
Instead Oleen finished 76th overall in the race, and 47th in Division 2.
He finished so low because of his unselfish dedication to his team.
Oleen’s teammate, senior Mitchell Johnson, had been running one of his best races of the season in the state finals, and was pushing for a spot in the top 20 in the home stretch.
But suddenly Oleen passed Johnson, and noticed he was obviously struggling from exhaustion. What happened next sounds like something straight from the movies.
“I passed him and I see him on the ground almost,” said Oleen, who was among the top 40 runners in all classes when he stopped to assist Johnson. “I stopped and turned around. It was a quick thought, I just stopped and helped him.
“That kid had been working hard all season. He hadn’t really seen it pay off, but at regionals he ran a really good time, then for state he has this time set in his head and he wants to run it so bad, and he’s really going all out for it.
“When I saw him I thought, ‘This kid has worked so hard. I can’t hesitate.’”
Oleen helped Johnson up, and they walked the remainder of the race and finished together. Johnson finished 46th in Division 2, one spot ahead of Oleen.
Oleen says he would do it again in similar circumstances.
“I would handle it the exact same way,” he said. “That’s what our coaches taught us – we’re a team.”
Assuming nothing similar happens this year, Oleen has a chance to do much better in Saturday’s Michigan High School Athletic Association state finals at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn.
The senior ran away with the individual championship at the recent Greater Muskegon Athletic Association City Meet, then won an individual Division 2 regional championship last weekend.
He has to be considered a contender for an individual state title on Saturday, which would be nothing new for Oleen. Last spring he won a Division 2 state track championship in the 400-meter dash.
“My basic goal is to be top 10, but obviously I want to be better than that,” he said. “I’m shooting for top five. That’s what I’m going there to do on Saturday.”
Oleen may have been a state champion by now in cross country, but he only picked up the sport last year as a junior.
He admits the only reason he gave cross country a try was to help sharpen his skills for track. But now he’s very happy he did.
“I went in thinking it was just going to be for track, that I wouldn’t really enjoy it,” he said. “My (track) coaches convinced me to swap it for football, and I absolutely fell in love. It’s just an awesome experience. It really has been more fun.”
Fruitport cross country coach Randy Johnson said Oleen had little problem becoming a distance runner, after starring in shorter-distance events in track.
“The distance wasn’t a big deal for him because he had ran road races before – we just didn’t realize he had so much speed,” Johnson said.
The coach believes his top runner has a chance to win a state championship. He just wishes Oleen had more experience in the sport.
“I think if I had him for another year he’d be the state champion in cross,” he said. “Right now he’s just really inexperienced. He runs great races, but he’s the kind of guy that sits and kicks.”
Johnson means that Oleen typically runs with the pack, hanging close and saving his energy for the end. He then turns on the gas and sprints his way to close victories.
This year’s city meet was a different story, however. Oleen impressed everyone by breaking away from the pack of local competitors and winning the boys race with ease.
“He was able to run a 15:53 on a hill course just running by himself, so I know he has a 15:30 in him,” Johnson said.
Oleen won that meet by 36 seconds, and all it took was a change of mentality.
“That’s the first time I’ve run a cross country meet like that,” he said. “My coaches have been telling me all year, ‘You should be a front runner, you should be leading the pack.’
“It got in my head, I’ve got to the front, like this is where coach wants me to be. It felt a little weird at first, but it ended up working a lot better.”