Returning home to Ohio
- Charlie Powell is inviting the world to Spire -
one meet, one camp, one class at a time.
By Phil Grove
When it comes to track and field, Charlie Powell knows a thing or two about special places.
For 30 years, Powell had "office hours" at venerable Franklin Field in Philadelphia as men’s coach at the University of Pennsylvania. While his new “office” has all the bells and whistles of a modern track and field mega-complex, it still pales in comparison to the home of the storied Penn Relays Carnival.
“I really consider Franklin Field the citadel, the cathedral of track and field in this country,” Powell declared. “Some say track and field is dying. That’s a bunch of bull. Anybody that believes it is dying, go to the Penn Relays and see a crowd of (50,000 people).
Photo courtesy of Penn Athletics
“I’ve watched that meet grow from 10,000 to now 20,000 athletes in a week’s time going through there. Franklin Field is the cathedral. It’s what U.S. track and field is all about.”
Then with track and field going through an international renaissance thanks to Usain Bolt and others, why leave “the cathedral” behind and take over as director of track and field at SPIRE Institute, a sprawling all-sports complex in the middle of Ohio’s snowbelt?
“A part of it is just for my mental sanity and physical health and to get off the college coaching treadmill after 30-odd years,” said Powell, who also served as director of Penn Relays Distance Night, coordinator of track events and a member of the Penn Relays Planning Committee. “It’s a new direction, a new challenge. This place allows me to stay in track and field at the highest level and give back to the sport with the ability to run and direct great meets and coach top-level people but not go through the day-to-day grind with travel and recruiting.
"It's similar, but it's different. I think it allows me a whole different avenue and way of looking at things. One great thing is I will not be on the road every weekend."
Tip of a Very Large Iceberg
Located only a few miles from the shores of Lake Erie, SPIRE Institute’s indoor track facility has seating for 5,000 and features an eight-lane, 300-meter Beynon surface. The 10-lane main straightaway can contest the 110-meter hurdles, while a 100-meter event – dash or hurdles – can take place on the other straight.
The mammoth structure also features two pole vault pits, two high jump areas, two long/triple jump pits, six different areas to throw the shot and two locales for the weight throw. Plus, it has a 25,000 square foot banquet, hospitality and meeting space overlooking the track.
“It might be the ultimate indoor competition area in the country,” Powell said. “There’s not much we can’t do.”
He admitted to being complimentary but not overwhelmed by the facility when he first saw pictures of it.
“I've been to a lot of places for things that I’ve done in track and field – high performance camps in Colorado Springs, Lake Placid, Chula Vista,” he said. “When I first saw pictures, I thought (SPIRE) was a nice facility. Other people have good facilities, there are nice facilities overseas.
“Until you drive in here, and then you get the full view of the expanse of what is here now and what is going up later. It does kind of hit you like it's not some pipe dream, it's reality.”
Part of the nonprofit Geneva Area Recreation, Education and Athletic Trust (GaREAT), SPIRE Institute opened in 2009 with a 215,000 square foot multipurpose building housing a turf field for soccer, football and the like, and a unique surface suitable for volleyball, basketball, tennis and mat sports.
Powell’s 240,000 square foot “office” followed. Then came the neighboring 7,000-seat football and soccer stadium with a 400-meter track, and the next piece of the all-sports puzzle was a state-of-the-art aquatics center and foodservice facility.
"It's quite an amazing campus, it's an athletic campus.” Powell said, adding that track icon Michael Johnson says SPIRE has the finest indoor track facility he has seen. “There's nothing like it around here in this country.”
Finally – for now – there’s a training center that bears the name of the world record sprinter and SPIRE Fit, a health and fitness club. Construction on another outdoor track venue – a planned IAAF-certified, throws-friendly stadium with nine-lane oval and seating for 15,000 to 20,000 – has stopped for the winter.
A northeast Ohio native and entrepreneur provided much of the initial money for construction of the GaREAT project, which is being funded entirely through private donations. Next to come on the 120-acre site will be a sports medicine center and classroom facilities, a cross country course and dormitories.
Dorms? For the first of its kind U.S. track academy system that Powell has been building the foundation for since starting his new job on January 2.
Academy to Provide Year-Round Focus
Powell, who stepped into responsibilities at SPIRE that went unattended for about six months, will oversee all track and field training programs on site – including summer camps – and SPIRE’s post-graduate residential academy with a high school boarding academy to follow.
“We want this to be a place where high-end scholastic to post-collegiate athletes can train at a very, very high level,” the veteran coach said of the goal of the academy system.
Powell said SPIRE will phase into its academy plans later in 2012. The initial attendees will include post-high school graduates and current high school juniors and seniors.
“We can’t go full speed because not all the dorms are completely built,” he said.
Plans call for the academy to include grades 9-12, post-high school grads and post-collegiate athletes in 2013.
“We want it to be a prep school with athletic excellence,” said Powell, who has started to assemble a coaching staff for the academy. “Why can’t you have both?”
He noted that the planned academy also will benefit student-athletes by having one set of coaches year round and focusing on what’s best for the individual. Some top high schoolers have three or more coaches that “many times don’t see eye to eye,” putting these talented athletes in difficult situations, Powell said.
“The poor kids are torn constantly: where are my loyalties and where are my priorities? What do I want out of track and field? It’s a tough place to put a kid,” he said.
“This whole academy has never been done in our sport. I think it can be an outstanding advancement where an athlete can come here and train year round, not just say he’s doing cross country or football, do nothing for a month and then track.”
Build It and They Will Come
SPIRE’s indoor track facility already has landed some top-level meets, and more are on the way. When Youngstown State’s new indoor facility was not completed in time for the Horizon League’s 2011 indoor meet, the championships were moved north to Spire.
And the NAIA national championships moved to Spire in 2011 for a two-year run after 10 years at East Tennessee State’s Mini-Dome, which played host to some of the world’s finest for the storied Kodak Invitational meets of the 1980s.
“Track and field is fun,” Powell said. “I would like to have a fun meet in December or January with relays and things like that. It would be a lot of fun, and kids can have fun coming here. We can be user friendly but run quality meets.”
Plans call for one or two major invitationals for Division I athletes and a major invitational for Division II and NAIA each year. Powell also noted that the 2013 Big Ten indoor championships – a combined men’s and women’s meet – will be held in Geneva.
When asked about the future of track and field at SPIRE, Powell said the facility will be on the national track map. He described Eugene, Ore., “as the highlight center” but said the Ohio facility will be a player nationally and possibly internationally.
“We are going to give them a run for their money here in Ohio,” he said. “It doesn’t always have to be Eugene, maybe it will be Eugene and Ohio.
“Down the road, don’t be surprised to see things happening,” Powell said, alluding to possible meets at SPIRE under the Visa or IAAF banners.
Despite everything that he has to look forward to in track and field at SPIRE, Powell said leaving Penn – and Franklin Field – was the “hardest thing I ever did.”
“For 30 years, that was my family, my program and my baby,” Powell said. “Like every child, you raise them to be able to move on and run their own life. It got to the point it was time. Both for my mental and physical health, it was time. It was really tough.”