The Most Impressive World Championship Team Isn’t a Country. It’s a Brand.

by Pelican Press
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Dathan Ritzenhein, the coach of On Athletics Club, was juggling a couple of jobs on a brisk morning this spring. As members of his elite distance-running team logged hard miles on some deserted back roads outside Boulder, Colo., Ritzenhein seemed determined to murder his pickup truck’s transmission.

The team, also known as O.A.C., had splintered into packs, and Ritzenhein was navigating the roads like Max Verstappen, hopping in and out of his truck so he could supply refreshments while yelling out his runners’ splits.

Ritzenhein, 40, pulled over in time to see a group that included Olli Hoare, one of the world’s top milers, and Joe Klecker, an Olympic 10,000-meter runner, crest a hill and come into view. Ritzenhein grabbed several water bottles from the truck’s cargo bed.

“You guys want something to drink?” he yelled as they reached for the bottles without breaking stride. “Just toss them at the next corner and I’ll pick them up!”

They ran off and, soon enough, began chucking their bottles into some roadside shrubs.

“YUP!” Ritzenhein shouted. “I SEE ’EM!”

He jumped back into his truck. Andrew Wheating, O.A.C.’s content and operations manager, was enjoying the production from the passenger seat.

“We need to get you a sports car,” Wheating said.

“No, we need to get one of those 15-passenger Sprinter vans,” Ritzenhein said. “I’m telling you: an all-black Sprinter van with a white O.A.C. logo on it. I think that would be too good.”

Olivier Bernhard, a former triathlete who, in 2010, co-founded On, a high-end athletics apparel company, is fond of referring to a team’s “magic,” which can seem like a foreign concept when it comes to a solitary sport like distance running.

But in the three years since Bernhard’s company made a pandemic-era gamble by forming O.A.C., which is now made up of 13 athletes from seven countries, the Boulder-based team has emerged as one of the most dominant forces in track and field — and one that will be on display starting Saturday at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest.

Already this year, O.A.C. has big achievements. Hoare, 26, broke the Australian record for the men’s 1,500. Yared Nuguse, a 24-year-old Notre Dame product, broke the American record in the men’s indoor mile, while Mario Garcia Romo, also 24, set the Spanish record — in the same race.

The list goes on: Alicia Monson, a 25-year-old Wisconsinite who plans to double in the women’s 5,000 and 10,000 in Budapest, owns the American record in both events. And Hellen Obiri, a two-time Olympic medalist from Kenya who joined the team last year, won the Boston Marathon in April in her debut at the race.

“No one can be so good that they’re on a pedestal on our team,” said Klecker, one of eight team members who will be competing in Budapest. “I mean, even Hellen comes in — a world champion — and obviously you respect everything she’s done, but she goes to practice just like everyone else.”

Following a morning workout this spring, the team gathered around Ritzenhein. He interrupted a spirited discussion about two new tattoos on Garcia Romo’s shoulders — he had drawn inspiration from Roman armor — to deliver good news. A long-anticipated makeover of O.A.C.’s gym, located in an otherwise nondescript, Boulder-area strip mall, was nearly complete. He warned them about stray nails.

“Just wear shoes,” he said.

Geordie Beamish, a top runner from New Zealand, recalled the team’s more modest origins, before the national records and the high-end equipment and the increased attention.

“We had access to Ritz’s garage,” he said.

‘A running brand needed a running team’

One of the oddities in the O.A.C. origin story is that nearly everyone involved in it knew next to nothing about On in 2020, back when the company, which is based in Switzerland, began seeking ways to grow its presence in North America.

Steve DeKoker, for example, said he hedged before he took a job as On’s global sports marketing manager so that he could conduct a “nerdy, self-imposed, distance-runner experiment” — a 37-mile run from his home in Seattle to his parents’ house in the suburbs in a pair of On Cloudstratus sneakers.

“My forefeet were kind of on fire for the final 10K,” said DeKoker, now the global head of O.A.C. “But I made it and my feeling was that they have good enough technology that we could work with it.”

Wheating, meanwhile, had joined On in 2019 as a sports marketing specialist after racing in two Olympics. He knew of a surefire way for the brand to legitimize itself among avid runners.

“A running brand needed a running team, because I’d seen it play out everywhere,” he said.

In his early days with On, Wheating pitched the rough concept of a team based out of San Diego that would be known as “The On Squad,” with new uniforms for every meet. His bosses had questions.

“What is this? A cartoon?” they asked.

But Bernhard was on board. In fact, Bernhard had been hoping to launch an On-sponsored team for years, he said, but not just any team. He wanted one made up of athletes from different countries so that they could push each other without turning every training session into a competition, which is the danger with athletes who are constantly fighting for the same spots on national teams. Instead, when the focus is on the world championships and the Olympics, instead of the trials just to make a team, there is room for everyone.

“You want to see your friend in a final at the Olympics next to you,” Bernhard said.

Bernhard and Wheating sensed that DeKoker shared their view.

“Steve was like, ‘We need to build a team,’” Wheating recalled.

They needed a coach, and they needed athletes — but not necessarily in that order. In their embryonic quest to make it happen, they faced another challenge: the coronavirus pandemic, which had a chilling effect on the business of athletics.

“Every other brand had frozen their budgets,” DeKoker said. “So I went to leadership and said, ‘Look, you guys want to be relevant in the U.S. and in this sport, and we can win right now if you give me money, because we will get the athletes.’”

Klecker was one of the first targets. A nine-time all-American at the University of Colorado Boulder, he was weighing whether to turn pro when he connected with Wheating and DeKoker, who shared their revised vision of a team that would now be based in Boulder. Klecker expected other offers.

“But as the process got further along, all these other brands were just kicking the can down the road,” he said, adding: “On was the only brand that was continuing to talk to athletes.”

Still, Klecker had concerns — namely, that the team had not hired a coach. DeKoker mentioned three candidates, including Ritzenhein, and invited Klecker to interview them.

“I want you involved in how we build this thing,” DeKoker told him.

Sage Hurta-Klecker, who was dating Klecker at the time and had athletic eligibility remaining at Colorado, recalled watching him go through the process.

“It was a totally unknown team without a coach,” said Hurta-Klecker, who joined O.A.C. in 2021 and married Klecker last year. “So it was a huge leap of faith to the point where we were moving into a new apartment and Joe was messaging our agent: ‘Can I sign a lease? Will I be able to afford the rent?’”

A three-time Olympian, Ritzenhein was winding down his decorated running career when DeKoker reached out to gauge his interest in coaching. Like everyone else, Ritzenhein was largely unfamiliar with On. But he trusted DeKoker’s judgment, and then Bernhard called him.

“We’re both enthusiastic people, and it felt symbiotic, like there was a connection there,” Ritzenhein said. “But when I got off the phone, I still didn’t know if they would want me.”

First, Ritzenhein needed to survive another conversation — this one with Klecker, who grilled him about training. Ritzenhein also sought to reassure Klecker about his level of commitment by telling him that he was ready to sell his house in Michigan.

Sure enough, a few days after he took the job, Ritzenhein flew to Colorado so he could ride his bicycle next to Klecker on a 20-mile training run.

“I don’t think we get Joe without Dathan,” DeKoker said, “and I’m not sure we get Dathan without Joe.”

But there was just one problem. After signing Klecker and Ritzenhein, DeKoker realized that he had blown through the team’s original budget. (On representatives declined to provide figures.)

“I kept going back to management and saying, ‘I need another X amount of money for this athlete,’” DeKoker said. “And they said, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ They just kept giving me more money.”

DeKoker hoped to give some of it to Hoare, a star at Wisconsin. Klecker sent Hoare a text message, acknowledging the unknowns — that the team was starting from scratch, that no one knew much about the brand, that On lacked some fairly essential product. (As Ritzenhein put it, “We were starting a track team and didn’t have a track spike.”) Klecker urged Hoare to consider the upside.

“If it turns out to be this powerhouse, we’ll be at the start of it,” Hoare recalled Klecker telling him.

Like Klecker, Hoare had questions for Ritzenhein, who was known primarily as a marathoner. What did he know about coaching milers? Ritzenhein cited the years he had spent training with Matthew Centrowitz, the 2016 Olympic champion in the 1,500, along with his experience as a volunteer assistant coach at the college level. Hoare also heard from Bernhard.

“I thought, ‘Well, if I’m having a phone call with the founder, surely something is going to happen,’” Hoare said.

Next up was Monson, who had also run at Wisconsin. Monson’s boyfriend, Benjamin Eidenschink, was roommates with Hoare and several other members of the men’s track and field team.

“They were really obsessed with Dathan,” Monson said. “And I was like, ‘I don’t know? Sure? I guess he sounds like a good guy.’”

By August 2020, Monson was part of O.A.C.’s original eight-person team that was introduced to the public amid a barren sports landscape that had been blighted by the pandemic.

“Frankly,” DeKoker said, “if there were any other bids for those athletes, they probably would’ve taken them. It would be super naïve of me to say that they all picked On because they believed in our project. Maybe that was a part of it. But part of it was also that there were so few opportunities.”

A highly selective powerhouse

There was a learning curve for everyone involved. Klecker described the team’s first batch of On training sneakers as “adequate.” Monson noticed that the wide grooves in the soles tended to vacuum up pebbles on long runs. “You’d have to stop like six times,” she said.

Ritzenhein, though, stuck with his approach: compound a lot of pretty good training over a long period of time. And while the team had modest expectations for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 — “We thought Olli would be our one guy,” Klecker said — Hoare was joined there by four teammates.

In the process, the calculus for the team changed. No longer was O.A.C. some sort of semi-anonymous upstart in intergalactic sneakers. Instead, in the space of a year, it had become a highly selective powerhouse.

Garcia Romo was competing for the University of Mississippi at the Millrose Games in January 2022 when Ritzenhein invited him to coffee. Garcia Romo recalled thinking, “Wow, they really want me.” He went on to finish fourth in the 1,500 at last year’s world championships.

Recruits visit Boulder to see whether they would fit well. The goal, Wheating said, is to avoid “me monsters” who are toxic to team chemistry. At the same time, Wheating said, team members are encouraged to share their stories and “bring some swagger” to a sport in search of a broader audience.

Morgan McDonald, an Australian Olympian who joined the team in 2021, has his own YouTube channel. He also co-hosts the “Coffee Club Podcast” with Beamish and Hoare, who described the weekly show as three friends “talking absolute garbage.” Hoare’s 3-year-old English bulldog, Gus, is a popular guest.

But track and field also has a seamy side, and DeKoker acknowledged that the team has its skeptics.

“It’s mostly internet trolls,” he said. “People just assume, ‘Oh, you’re having success, so you must be doping; you must be cheating.’ And there’s zero truth to any of it.”

Since last year, On has created two more teams: O.A.C. Europe and O.A.C. Oceania. The Boulder team remains the flagship, though, and O.A.C. recently announced the addition of an assistant coach, Kelsey Quinn, to help Ritzenhein, who might as well live on an airplane.

“I think you have to be a little bit crazy to do that job,” Beamish said.

The brand’s innovation team, which designs products for its elite athletes, has grown from three employees since O.A.C.’s inception to 27. The team’s first track spike was released to the public in June. Jordan Donnelly heads the department.

“At this point, he’s basically a friend who happens to develop all our footwear,” Klecker said.

More projects are in the works.

In recent months, Beamish has worked to turn himself into a 3,000-meter steeplechaser. While the 1,500 has never been deeper — Beamish himself has run 3 minutes 51.22 seconds for the indoor mile — there are fewer world-class steeplechasers. The idea was that if Beamish could use his athleticism to adapt to the event’s gantlet of barriers and water jumps, he likely would have a better chance of contending for global medals.

Ritzenhein has been heavily invested in the venture. On is a multibillion-dollar company, but when Ritzenhein discovered that a barrier costs about $3,000, he built one himself, spending $250 at Home Depot on some treated lumber and a handful of bolts and brackets.

“Oh, that thing could take a missile,” he said.

When the barrier is not at the track, it lives in Ritzenhein’s garage.

“My wife’s not happy about that,” he said.

Beamish has competed in the steeplechase six times since April, breaking New Zealand’s nearly 39-year-old national record while cracking the top 10 in the world rankings.

He was willing to try something new. It was worth the risk.

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