PORTLAND — The white Olympic flag hung from the roof. Red, white and blue bunting glowed in one of the windows.
Inside the home Bill and Kathy Mitchell, anticipation crackled like static electricity.
I sat in a small room with Galen Rupp’s grandpa on Saturday and watched NBC’s coverage and commercials during the men’s 10,000 meters from London. First, let me say I was honored to be invited. This was a special and deeply personal event for this family. In 2008, I watched the 10,000 meters at the home of Greg and Jamie Rupp and documented their effort to try and find a live feed from Beijing for The Oregonian.
This time, Galen’s parents were in London watching the race in the stadium.
Bill and Kathy Mitchell have five daughters and one of them is Jamie, a former Oregon state champion from La Salle High School.
In the Mitchells’ house Saturday there were two rooms with TVs playing and a grand total of about 12 people. One of Galen’s aunts was there. A couple cousins. A few close family friends.
Someone asked Bill what it was like to have a grandson running at the Olympics.
He mulled the question for a second and then, said: “Well let’s turn that around. What’s it like for Galen Rupp to have a grandfather like me?”
And with one line, the gravity of the moment evaporated by half. Who doesn’t love a grandpa like that?
Nobody stood on the couch and shouted at the TV during the race. There was no screaming. Sure, it was a big deal but Galen’s been in races like this before. His little brother, Colin, showed up at the house 10 minutes into the race. No biggie.
From Bill Mitchell, Galen inherited a competitive drive that burns red-hot and does not yield. Not only that, this zeal has been practically tattooed on him at every family function since he was an infant.
There is a rule in the house. If you want to keep your seat to go to the bathroom, or go into the other room for something to drink, you have to say “I am aware of my chair.” Otherwise, you could be out of luck against someone in the Mitchell clan looking for an upgrade. Competition and rule of law. It’s no wonder that we are in the home of a lawyer.
There used to be family soccer matches for a period of years until they got too rough. So someone decided to make a croquet tournament instead and the competition remained cut-throat.
Another rule at the Mitchell house comes alive for the annual family Easter egg hunt. The youngest go first. That rule has been protested vociferously by Galen’s aunt, who maintains that cooling her heels on the porch while an Olympic 10,000-meter runner gets a head start on the eggs is not fair. She asked Galen if he would consider moving back in the order and he flatly refused.
When was this?
“Last year!” she said.
With two laps to go in London, silence in the Mitchell house was interrupted by several outbursts of “C’mon, Galen!” Bill Mitchell held a glass of white wine in his right hand and watched the final kick unfold. Hearts began to beat harder. Hands started to shake.
In London, around the final bend, Galen slipped out into lane two because one of the Bekeles was in his way. And then he ripped down the home straightaway so fast that we could barely comprehend it beyond stunned silence, and “Wow.”
Bill Mitchell smiled. Pride alone could have blown the walls out of the house in that moment. In Galen, the family has realized its ultimate competitor. And now the world knows, too.
“Alberto gets a lot of the credit for this,” Galen’s grandpa said within minutes of the finish. “He has had a plan for this all along and Galen stuck to it. Alberto runs a tight ship.”
I asked whether Galen has ever been to Omak, Wash., the little town in northern Washington where Bill and Kathy grew up and met.
The Kenyans point to roots in Iten. Galen has Omak.
“Let me think about that. I’m not sure if he ever has,” Bill said.
And then be begins to tell me about the time he took Jamie and one her cousins canoeing on the Okanagan River when they were teenagers. And he stood up and left the room for the first time all afternoon and found a photo album so that he could show me snapshots of a young Jamie swinging over the edge of the river on a rope they had discovered that day hanging from a limb.
Somewhere in the photo was a faint echo of what we all witnessed Saturday. The form, the style, the willingness to go for it. There was probably a competition involved.
Bill is proud of those photos, too.