There is an obvious shared background between Joe Klecker and Dathan Ritzenhein as two of the elite distance runners among the dozens that have passed through the Colorado track and cross country programs.
Beyond that, however, an entire generation spans the distance between their collegiate careers. And until last summer, Klecker and Ritzenhein were only casual acquaintances. Little did they know the heights they would reach together just one year later.
Not long after Ritzenhein, the former CU All-American, bid farewell to his professional racing career, he accepted a coaching position with On Athletics Club. One of his first priorities was to sign Klecker, who will make his Olympics debut in Tokyo in the 10,000 meter run on July 30 after posting a third-place finish last month at the Olympic Trials.
“I think the one thing that has really worked well with Dathan and I, since he ran under Mark (Wetmore) at CU he just knew exactly where I was coming from. He just kind of knew right where to pick up when he started coaching me,” Klecker said. “Obviously it takes a little bit for a coach to get to know you as an athlete, but with the lack of racing the first six months that he was coaching me, we kind of had a good buffer zone to try new things, kind of experiment with training.
“On paper, with all the PRs it looked like it clicked right away. And it did click pretty fast. But those first six months was just kind of learning the new system. If I had been racing those first two or three months, I don’t know how it would’ve worked out. Dathan really gets to know you as a runner and what you do well.”
The Olympic Trials was the 11th race for Klecker with Ritzenhein as his coach. In the first 10 of those races, Klecker established a new personal record each time. That run ended at the Trials, but Klecker nonetheless punched his ticket to Tokyo under hot conditions in Oregon, finishing third with a time of 27 minutes, 54.29 seconds.
Klecker will be the third CU athlete to compete in the men’s 10K at Olympics — the first since Ritzenhein represented the US in 2012.
“We clicked right away,” said Ritzenhein, who will be inducted into the CU athletics Hall of Fame this fall. “It helped build the rest of the team. We kind of started with (Klecker) and moved from there. For me, Joe is really the original. He’s had 11 races with us and 10 PRs until the Olympic Trials. And then he made the Olympic team. He has just been so focused, so locked in. That was really one of the big reasons we wanted him as our first athlete on the team. It sets the tone of hard work and belief and discipline. He’s been like that since the get-go. I don’t think he’s missed a workout. The only one time was when he got his COVID vaccine. He pushed himself for weeks afterward to make up those miles.”
A little more than a year ago, Klecker was taking aim at possible national championships in the 5K and 3K at the NCAA indoor championships, but that was one of the first events scuttled by the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. A nine-time All-American at CU, Klecker had an opportunity to return to CU for a final year of outdoor track eligibility but opted to begin his pro career instead.
The pairing with Ritzenhein will culminate at the Olympics. Although Klecker still would have had an opportunity to make Team USA in the 5K at the Trials — he withdrew after securing his spot in the 10K — he said the entire year was spent working toward that berth in the 10K.
“Once I crossed the line and realized I made the team, there was just so much relief,” Klecker said. “That’s what the whole year was really geared for. The way I looked at it going in, I couldn’t imagine not making the team. It would have felt like so much energy and so much effort from this whole year, it didn’t go to waste because I’ve gotten a lot better as a runner, but so much was put into making this team. If I didn’t make the 10K I would’ve had an opportunity to come back in the 5K and try and make it.
But I was so invested in making it in that 10K, if I didn’t make it there it would’ve been hard to come refocus and get up for another race.”