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New team in town: Under Armour runs into Flagstaff
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New team in town: Under Armour runs into Flagstaff

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Living here, up where the air is rare and trails snake through mountains and traverse verdant valleys, means that you are as liable to see as many elite runners donning corporate-logoed singlets and compression socks around town as you are to spot locals wearing fleece and Birkenstock's.

Yeah, ho-hum, that’s Mo Farah doing squats at your gym. And isn’t that Sara Hall pounding out miles of the FUTS, and Edward Cheserek reeling off sub-50-second 400s at the end of a workout on NAU’s track? Then there’s that thundering herd of Hoka NAZ Elite runners, always striding down Lake Mary Road like so many sleek big cats roaming the savanna.

Flagstaff’s stable of professional runners, some full-time residents but many parachuting in for elevation training, now has grown even more robust — and not just because it soon will be an Olympic year. There’s a new team in town, a corporate-sponsored training group that is fast filling its ranks with numbers challenging NAZ Elite’s civic running hegemony.

The as-yet unnamed group — expect an official "branding" sometime soon — is funded and sponsored by the apparel and shoe company Under Armour. It is headed not by interlopers, but by two track and field veterans who have histories in Flagstaff.

Noted running agent Stephen Haas, who also coaches the likes of 17-time NCAA champ Cheserek, is the driving force behind the team’s formation. He’s been a Flagstaff regular for nearly a decade, first as a distance runner who came here to train, then as a sort of Sherpa for athletes represented by his agency, Total Sports US, and later for several years as executive director of Team Run Flagstaff.

Now Haas has ascended to running his own training group, under Under Armour’s auspices, while still looking after the approximately 45 athletes he represents worldwide, some of whom swoop in here for high-altitude camps and some, like Cheserek, who make Flagstaff home.

Haas is aided in this new venture by former UC Berkeley cross country and track coach Shayla Houlihan, who left Cal after seven seasons last spring. Houlihan, too, has a Flagstaff connection, having trained here earlier in the decade as a pro steeplechaser and then working for two years as a Team Run Flagstaff coach.

So, it’s something of a homecoming for the pair, though you will see a few new faces on the roads, trails and track no doubt wearing the UA logo. They include 2018 NCAA 10,000-meter champion Sharon Lokedi, 5,000-meter elite Rachael Schneider, miler Patrick Casey, 800-meter runner Baylee Mires, Irish marathoner Stephen Scullion and two promising middle-distance recruits fresh out of college, Blake Haney (Oregon) and Taryn Rawlings (Portland).

This new team, perhaps not yet boasting the championship pedigree of NAZ Elite, raises two questions: Is this town big enough for two year-round sponsored training groups, and, is Flagstaff reaching a saturation point when it comes to infrastructure for so many elite runners hitting town to train?

Haas doesn’t hesitate in answering.

“No,” he said. “The five minutes that we cross over in the gym with NAZ Elite is the only time we see NAZ Elite. We’re more track-based, so we’re on the track more than them. They’re on the road more than us. For whatever reason, we have different schedules.

“People ask me this all the time. Yes, there’s a lot of athletes who come to Flag, but if you’re not making the effort to connect with people, well, this is a place where you can be lost in the woods every day. You need to make connections.”

As a former elite runner and now agent, Haas is all about networking and building relationships. His career as an agent soared after being named Total Sports US’s client services coordinator. His stable of athletes include notable pros such as Cheserek, Olympians Shelby Houlihan (Shayla’s younger sister) and Hassan Mead, Olympic silver medalist Sally Kipyego and Rachel Cliff, Canada’s marathon and half-marathon record holder. Just recently, he has signed four-time NCAA champ Morgan McDonald and three-time NCAA titlist Jessica Hull, both Aussies, in addition to two-time NCAA 1,500-meter runner-up Justine Kiprotich, who runs for Hoka (though not NAZ Elite) and trains in Flagstaff.

Perhaps more important, at least to the success of the new team sponsored by Under Armour, is Haas’ connections in Flagstaff.

In his days as a distance runner, Haas shared a house with NAU cross country and track coach Michael Smith and the two remain friends. His tenure as executive director of Team Run Flagstaff, in Haas’ words, “gave me a community of people, friends, right away, a social circle.” His duties with TRF dealt with a lot of financial issues, such as gaining sponsorship, but he left the organization because his career as an agent and burgeoning coach was ascending.

“Team Run Flagstaff was great, but it wasn’t a great fit for me,” he said. “I liked more of the elite side of the running world.”

Even before heading TRF, Haas was spending enough time in Flagstaff to be considered a regular in the running community. Total Sports US eventually tasked him to make Flagstaff his home base, because “it seemed a lot of the work we were doing was helping athletes get settled in Flagstaff, get housing, get track access and physio (therapy) and massage access.”

Now that his role has widened, Haas finds himself in a potentially conflicting position. Unlike other top agents in the U.S. — say, Ray Flynn, Hawi Keflezighi or Josh Cox — who solely represent athletes, Haas is negotiating deals for clients with companies sponsoring teams that are direct competitors to the newly-formed Under Armour group.

“Now I’m dual recruiting for the agency, obviously, but also for the group, too,” he said. “It’s a unique situation. We could be interested in a (graduating college) kid who signs with another agency and that’s OK, too. It’s nice to have Shayla here because we can kind of separate a little bit. She can focus on recruiting for the group, and I can focus on recruiting for the agency. That gives the athlete a little more clarity as well. But I’m not closed off …I can work alongside as a coach (with) another agent that represents a kid that I want to recruit. I guess it could be counter-intuitive for the group, but my first and foremost job for any athlete we sign to Total Sports is to try to get them the best contract as possible. Justine is a perfect example.”

Kiprotich, who lost the NCAA 1,500-meter title last year by one one-thousands of a second, is a Haas client. Haas was negotiating an endorsement deal with Under Armour, the sponsor of the new Flagstaff team, for Kiprotich. But Hoka came in with a better offer and he signed with that brand. But instead of joining NAZ Elite or other Hoka teams, Kiprotich was allowed to move to Flagstaff and train under Haas.

“We’re lucky enough that Under Armour still allowed him to come here and train with us,” Haas said.

There’s a similar situation concerning Cheserek, who signed with Skechers. He trains in Flagstaff and jumps in occasionally to work out with the Under Armour athletes as well as other elites who hit town.

Houlihan’s role with the new training group is essential, Haas said, especially since he travels more than 200 days a year. Though a veteran Division 1 coach of both men and women, Houlihan is trying something new coaching pros. Then again, many of the athletes signed by Under Armour are in the early stages of their professional careers.

“I was definitely ready (to move up),” she said. “Coaching at Cal, I was in charge of a lot of mature young adults, people that knew what they wanted for the most part. I had a really mature group of men who graduated this past year. They were making that transition (to a new career phase), and I felt I was ready to make that transition too.”

Houlihan had feelers from several Division 1 programs, but opted for the (relatively) unknown by agreeing to coach a new elite group. In fact, she was sort of quasi-represented by Haas when talking to other NCAA schools but, in the end, agreed to join him in the new venture.

She’ll be one of the few women coaches in charge of pro training groups in the U.S. Lack of representation among women has become a hot-button issue in the track and field world, after charges of verbal abuse were levied against disgraced coach Alberto Salazar of the now-disbanded Nike Oregon Project.

“I thought a female option would be better for our group because we had targeted a few female athletes who wanted to come in, like Sharon and Taryn Rawlings,” Haas said. “We’re strong on the women’s side on the Under Armour group, and Shayla puts us in a better position.

“The athlete-coach relationship can only be strengthened when (female runners) know that there’s another female who’s been through the same thing they’re going through. I could be the best coach in the world but there’s things they could be not confident in talking to me about that they can with her.”

These are still early days for the group, still unnamed and barely marketed yet. The comparisons with NAZ Elite will be unavoidable, perhaps, even though Haas’ team is decidedly more track-based. Eventually, Haas said, he wants the group to span the range from 800-meter runners to marathoners.

“And the great thing about Flagstaff is you can have that (range) working out in the same practice.”

Sam McManis can be reached at smcmanis@azdailysun.com or (928) 556-2248.

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