Like so many seniors in the spring of 2020, Joe Klecker’s collegiate running career didn’t end at all the way he envisioned.
The former Colorado distance specialist was in the hunt for a national title in the 5,000 meter run at the NCAA indoor championships when the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled the competition. Soon, Klecker’s final campaign at CU, the 2020 outdoor season, was canceled as well.
Klecker mulled the idea of returning to CU for that final season this year, per the NCAA’s pandemic eligibility relief, but it was a brief internal debate. The only eligibility Klecker had remaining was that lone outdoor season. And there was a sense it simply was time to move on. Greater things awaited.
That decision paid off big-time for Klecker on Friday night, as he earned a spot on Team USA for the Tokyo Olympics next month by finishing third in the 10,000-meter run at the US Olympic Trials.
“There was definitely a thought to coming back next year, but for school it wouldn’t have made any sense,” Klecker told BuffZone exactly one year ago this week. “It was always my plan to move on, and there wasn’t really another program I could do in one year for advancing my education.”
Soon after opting to turn pro, Klecker signed with On Athletics Club and began training under Dathan Ritzenhein, another former CU All-American and Olympian who last month was selected to be part of CU’s 2021 Athletics Hall of Fame class. In roughly one year, Ritzenhein has helped continue the remarkable progress Klecker began building at CU.
Klecker’s CU career could be held up as one of dozens of prime examples of how elite runners improve under longtime Buffs coach Mark Wetmore. As a true freshman during the 2015-16 season, Klecker redshirted during the cross country season and, the following spring, finished a distant 20th in the 1,500 at the Pac-12 Conference championships. In the fall of 2016, Klecker finished 28th in his first appearance at the NCAA cross country championships.
By the time his CU career came to an abrupt halt, the Minnesota native had posted a runner-up finish at the NCAA cross country final, owned the Buffs’ indoor record in the 5,000, and had earned seven All-American honors.
After Friday’s remarkable race, Klecker noted that his Olympic-qualifying time of 27:54.90 marked the first time he has raced under Ritzenhein that he did not record a new personal-best.
“I have been fortunate that I haven’t been injured much,” Klecker said in a press release from CU. “There are setbacks along the way. To come here today and get this done means a lot. I let go of a lot of opportunities because Dathan said that our goal is to make an Olympic Team. You gotta have a one track mind. You can’t be chasing all these different things. I had to have a pretty perfect race to beat some of these veterans.
“(Ritzenhein) doesn’t believe anyone had a more perfect buildup for this race. First race time I haven’t PR’d since he coached me. More fit and more ready than you have ever been. Comes down to who wants it the most. When Dathan speaks, you listen. Do you want to make this team? This is my profession now. I am not in college. On has been an incredible sponsor. I’m not just representing them, I’m a part of them. I want to perform to elevate the brand.”
Now comes the fun part, but also the hard part, for Klecker. He likely won’t be the only former CU athlete at the Games — most prominently, Emma Coburn begins defense of her steeplechase bronze medal in the first round on Sunday, while fellow bronze medalist Jenny Simpson was set to compete in the 1,500 semifinals on Saturday night, with the final slated for Monday.
Unlike his fellow former Buffs, however, Klecker admitted after his race on Friday the trip to Tokyo will be his first time setting foot outside the United States. His passport, secured years ago, features a photo with a more youthful look with shoulder-length hair. These days he sports a cropped cut with a suave moustache. It’s a new look for a new stage for Klecker, who became the fourth CU athlete to qualify for the 10,000 at the Olympics, joining Ritzenhein (2004 and 2012), Jorge Torres (2008), and Kara Goucher (2008).
“So many Olympians have come out of Minnesota and now, to have my name up there, it means a lot,” Klecker said. “I got my passport a long time ago. My hair was down to my shoulders. The closest I have been is in Minnesota. I’ve seen Canada but I don’t know what it is like on the other side.”