T&FN Interview — Grant Fisher

Grant Fisher had a great Olympics, following up this 10K 5th with a 5K 9th. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

 

THE LOOK ON HIS FACE was one of exhausted disbelief. On the first night of track & field in Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium, 24-year-old Grant Fisher crossed the 10,000 finishline in 5th, his 25-lap effort proving that he not only could make it to the world stage, but also that he could run with the best of them. What a long journey it had been since the Canadian-born (technically a dual citizen) Michigander had jumped into his first races as a 7th grader in Grand Blanc, a small city some 60M northwest of Detroit.

Back then, there were plenty of flashes of running potential, but Fisher’s first love was soccer. As a frosh and soph he competed in both soccer and cross country during the same season. When the State finals for both fell on the same day his 10th-grade year, he chose soccer. It wasn’t until the State track finals that year that he shifted course, saying, “This is something that I want to do.”

Guided primarily by Mike Scannell, a longtime friend and coworker of his father’s — the two had run together at Arizona State — Fisher rocketed to prominence. Under a notably-light training load (rare was the 50M week), he won the Foot Locker title that fall, the next June captured the adidas Dream Mile in 4:02.02 and a week later, the Brooks PR 2M in 8:51.28. As a senior, he got even better: another Foot Locker win, a New Balance Indoor mile win in 4:03.54, and a summer season that brought him a 3:59.38 mile to became the seventh prep under 4:00. (Continued below)



Next came Stanford, where Fisher was often in the mix, winning All-America honors 12 times and grabbing the NCAA 5000 crown his sophomore year. Twice Wisconsin’s Morgan McDonald pipped him at the finish line of a nationals. Straight into the pro ranks afterwards, he joined Nike’s Bowerman Track Club. Under the tutelage of Jerry Schumacher, Fisher has made the leap to the next level. His Tokyo performances — he followed his 10K 5th with a 5K 9th — put him solidly on the world’s radar.

He hasn’t lost a step since. In a season-opening 5000 on Boston University’s fabled fast track, his 12:53.73 crushed Galen Rupp’s American Record and left Olympic silver medalist and teammate Moh Ahmed well back.

We caught up with Fisher after that race, and the soft-spoken (and unfailingly polite, as befits a half-Canadian) runner told us about the master’s degree he’s working on: “Management Science & Engineering. My focus specifically in it is in a smaller subsection called computational social science; that would be using computer science and some data science to predict various things in the world, or understand things better from a big data perspective. It’s been fun so far.”

He adds that it’s part of his balancing act in being a pro athlete: “Some people love to just do everything running related and be totally dialed into that. And that works great for them. I found I do well when I have something to do on the side, because professional running, there’s only so many hours of the day you can train. It’s been nice to apply myself and have something to spend my time on that’s productive, rather than just sitting on social media or playing video games.”

He also shared with us how his outlook on everything running changed over the past year.

T&FN: 12:53! Does that number still seem kind of unreal to you?

Fisher: Yeah, it does. It feels weird to associate that with my name now. I guess that’s a thing about running, you’re defined by a number in a lot of ways in people’s eyes. It’s a weird feeling. There are a lot of people I look up to in the sport that have run under 13:00 and that was always a big goal of mine to try to do that as well. Honestly, I didn’t think it would happen this early in my career, and I also didn’t think I would go so far under 13:00. I’m still in shock, still processing and in a little bit of disbelief.

T&FN: Obviously there’s always going to be the buzz about the BU track and the shoes and this and that, but no one else is running 12:53. You’re in a pretty sweet place right now.

Fisher: It’s a great feeling. Of course, the shoes are helpful and there’s a reason we went to Boston and not to some other track. It is a fast track. It makes me feel a little better that Galen also ran on that track when he set the old record, so it doesn’t feel like I had an advantage there.

I am a big fan of the new shoes and I would prefer to run in them over the older models. So, I’d say that’s helpful. But there are a lot of factors that needed to go right to have the race that my team did and everything worked out.

T&FN: What is it like running on that track? Does it take some getting used to?

Fisher: It does take a little getting used to — it certainly doesn’t feel like you’re on an outdoor track. As with all the indoor tracks, there’s a little bit of give, because it’s not solid ground underneath. The unique thing about BU, I’m told, is that the sub-structure underneath is wood rather than steel, which I think most of the indoor tracks have.

The energy return is just a little different. It is a unique feeling. People call it a trampoline, that you get an insane bounce out of it. I do think you get something out of it. I just don’t know how significant or how to quantify it. Psychologically everyone goes to BU to run fast; that in itself is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Continued below)



T&FN: You passed on competing at the USATF Indoor to race a 10,000 coming up in early March. Tough decision?

Fisher: There is a World Indoor Championship this year and, when you’re healthy and running well, it’s hard to pass up on those opportunities. On the other hand, the 10K is a great opportunity to run fast. Looking forward into the remainder of the year, there likely won’t be many opportunities to run a fast-paced 10K. Going forward, most will be championships-style racing, so not as quick, most likely. I mean, any of those can go quick, but [they’ll be] unpaced.

T&FN: Was the attraction of the World Indoors that it represented another chance to learn from and race against the world’s best?

Fisher: Absolutely. My mindset has shifted over the past year or so, and I’m thinking of myself as someone that can compete with those top guys in the world now. I kind of surprised myself and a lot of people at the Olympics with just how long I was able to hang with those guys. Obviously, I wasn’t fighting for a medal or anything, but just being around a Joshua Cheptegei, or a [Berihu] Aregawi — big, big names that last year I thought of as a different level than myself, I’m starting to think of myself as someone that can mix it up with those guys.

So, any chance I can get to compete with them, I think is a good thing. It brings a lot of good things out of myself and it’ll help prepare me for racing them in the future because it’s a different level when you’re with someone that can close in 51 seconds off of a very fast pace, guys that can really dictate races and are a bit more aggressive in everything they do. So, a little experience there is always helpful.

As a Michigan prep, Fisher won the second of his Foot Locker XC titles in ’14. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

T&FN: Being one of the boy wonders of prep running and all the pressure that came with that at the time, has that added pressure as you’ve climbed to the world-class ranks, or is it more just something your teammates might tease you about occasionally?

Fisher: It has gone in waves since I’ve been in high school. Back then, there was a lot of pressure. That was tough to deal with sometimes and going into university, there’s also pressure to perform. People knew who I was and what I had done in high school. And people often will project out what they expect in the future, based on what you’re running currently. There were expectations on me, but I had a great team around me in college and great teammates where I wasn’t the best guy on my college team for quite a while. And that allowed me to grow and kind of not pay attention to those things.

Then same thing when I left Stanford and joined Bowerman. I was by far not the best guy on the team, and I still wouldn’t consider myself that either. It’s been nice to not be the guy in the spotlight, the guy expected to perform.

I guess regarding high school accomplishments, my teammates now just tease me about it. They toss jokes around, especially with more high schoolers breaking 4:00 now: “sub-4:00 in high school isn’t special anymore,” stuff like that.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been more removed from my high school years. The people you race in college don’t care about what you did in high school. The people you’re competing against as a professional really don’t care about what you did in high school. It doesn’t really matter that much in a performance perspective. Obviously, there’ll be always fond memories. And I think learning how to deal with pressure at a young age has suited me very well going forward. Lots of lessons learned then.

T&FN: In hindsight, all those high school headlines, the Foot Locker wins, the sub-4:00, were they important in helping you to get to where you are now?

Fisher: I would say they were important in the sense of learning how to race and learning how to compete and learning how to get on big stages and trust yourself and trust your coach and to have goals and go for them. That part, I think, was very important. The times and the titles, I’ll always look back fondly on them, but the weight of them fades as you get further removed.

Racing cross country in the NCAA, Morgan McDonald didn’t care that I won Foot Locker. That doesn’t cross anybody’s mind. All that matters is what you can do on the day. When you get to the NCAA, you have a lot of people from other countries come in and you might have thought that you were the best in your class, but there’s a guy from another country that came in that’s your same age and can really take it to you. And especially so on the professional level, nobody cares how old you are.

Jakob Ingebrigtsen’s a great example of that. He came in at 18 years old and started beating up on seasoned professionals. And I don’t think the pros were taking it easy on him because he was 18.

T&FN: One last anxiety history question, and I promise we’re done with that. Back then I remember lots of people second-guessing, saying you should be training more, that it was a mistake for your coaches to share you with your school’s soccer program for a few years, or that you shouldn’t be allowed on the school team because you were doing a lot of work with a “private coach,” Mike Scannell. If you had ended up at any other random high school, would you still have become a runner?

Fisher: I probably would’ve stayed with soccer and gone wherever that led me. I had a great passion for soccer when I was young. I was playing from a young age and when I first began running, soccer was where my heart was. It was my priority. I dreamed of soccer dictating my life. And my dream was to go to a D1 program in soccer.

I got very, very fortunate, growing up with great coaches and reasonable coaches that saw big-picture things and put development ahead of rigidity. If Mike hadn’t been around and my coaches weren’t as accommodating to allow me to do both sports for a while, I don’t think that I would have gotten into running in the same capacity that I have. Looking back, I feel a lot of gratitude for that because one or two different decisions by other people in my life and things could have turned out a lot differently.
Those are weird things to think about, you know, the cascading series of events that lead you to where you are today. Those were major ones looking back.

If I didn’t have those people in my life and have them make the decision that they did to allow me to explore my passions at a young age rather than force me into specializing earlier, certainly I wouldn’t be at the place that I’m now and I don’t even think I would have been running in college. I would be chasing the soccer dream to wherever it led.

T&FN: And this road led you to Tokyo. Fast forward to standing on the line for your first Olympic race, the 10,000, still basically a new event for you. Were there anxious moments beforehand in Tokyo? What were your worst fears?

Fisher: I was anxious for sure. Last year everything progressed at a really rapid pace for me. It was almost hard for me to process what was going on. I went from in March running a 10K with the hopes of maybe getting a [qualifying] time, so I had an option at the Trials. That 10K ended up going really well. And my confidence grew significantly from there and had a great training camp and approached the Olympic Trials with the idea of trying to win, rather than just trying to make the team.

When I made the team, I was ecstatic. That was the biggest race I’d ever been in and my biggest accomplishment to date by far. And then, a couple weeks later I’m in Tokyo. I’ve never been to Asia before — there’s COVID protocols, things are different. And I’m lining up for an even bigger race, the Olympic final.

I didn’t really have a very gradual on-ramp to the biggest stage that our sport has. I was definitely nervous. I had no idea what I could do and how I stacked up against these guys that I looked up to a year or two years before. Some of that was kind of nice: nobody expected me to really do anything in the final.

Historically there haven’t been too many Americans in the 10K that have really mixed it up with guys. That outside expectations were a bit lower was, I think, great for me. And my race plan was just to hang in there as long as I could and weather the blows, and, if I was there with a lap to go, just give it everything I had. That race was a whirlwind. A lot of things were going on and once I got out on the track, my nerves actually calmed down a lot. I was running and there were a couple moments where I’m like, “Man, I’m next to Cheptegei!” or “I’m next to Kiplimo! I’m next to this guy that has run the World Record, but I’m actually hanging with him.”

And my confidence grew through the race. By the end of it, I was like, “Man, I’m still here. Let’s see what I can do.” My confidence over the course of last year just went straight up almost exponentially. It was a very defining year for me, as far as my attitude and how I approach things.

T&FN: Confidence can come from a lot of directions. What was key in creating yours — training, team environment, coaching?

Fisher: I’d say it mostly came from the guys I was training with. I’m really lucky to be in a group where a lot of the guys have accomplished things that I hope to accomplish in the sport. We have American Recordholders, British Recordholders, Canadian Recordholders, World medalists, Olympic medalists. Things that every young athlete dreams of and that I dreamed of too, and I continue to dream of.

When you’re able to hang with those guys in workouts and you’re able to do the things that they’re doing in training, especially Moh who was coming off a 12:47. I definitely thought, “If I’m anywhere remotely close to hanging with this guy in training, that’s an excellent sign.”

As the year went on, I was able to do more and more and feel more comfortable with the same paces and having those guys around me, just showing me the way and preparing me and telling me what to expect when you race some of these top guys from Europe and Africa. It definitely boosted my confidence and I started viewing myself at that level.

When you get to train with — I guess at that point Moh hadn’t yet gotten silver in the Olympics — the future silver medalist in the 5K, it’s a great metric to evaluate yourself on. He definitely was really helpful in just building my confidence. And Jerry as well, just knowing how many accomplished athletes he has coached, when he expresses a voice of belief, you definitely take it seriously. Those were big factors.

T&FN: Assuming you made the team, was the plan always to double?

Fisher: There was never a doubt. That was always the plan for both myself and Woody [Kincaid]. We wanted to try to do the double at the Trials and hopefully make both teams and then do the double at the Olympics. Our training had been adapted to prepare us for that double; you do a hard effort and then you just have a few days and then you have to go all out again. The training mirrored that schedule.

Thankfully we both made the 10K team and then at that point, the pressure was a bit lower to make the 5K team because we were already on one, but we still really wanted it. We lined up with the intention of hopefully making the team and going to Tokyo. This was decided well before the Trials. We knew.

T&FN: If all goes according to plan, is doubling something that you would want to do at this summer’s Worlds?

Fisher: I would love to double. The qualification system for the U.S. in the 5 and 10 are a little different this year with the 10K being about a month earlier in May. So, it does make qualifying a lot easier. The double at the World Championships would be difficult again, because you won’t have that much time between, you’ll just have a few days. I’ll look at it and talk to my coach. I haven’t fully decided.

If anything, I think the plan would be to double at the U.S. Championships at least. I believe at that time, I’ll have made a decision of, “Do I want to?” Obviously, I have to race and try to make the team first, but if everything goes perfectly, would I want to double? Right now I’d say my answer is yes, but a lot can change. There’s a lot of things that have to go right between now and then to even be in a position to make those decisions. So, I’m focused on that for now.

T&FN: Did you undergo any special preparation for the nasty hot weather that you knew would happen in Tokyo and you also encountered earlier in Eugene?

Fisher: We actually did. We were doing a training camp at Park City, Utah, which can get quite hot in the summer. Doing some of our sessions in the heat of the day, just trying to get used to that element. And then right before Tokyo, we flew to Hawai‘i and did a training camp at Honolulu to get used to the humidity and heat and get closer to that time zone because Tokyo is kind of a long ways away.

We were staying up until 2:00 AM and waking up close to about 11:00 AM to get used to that time zone. And then we were working out at about 3 or 4 PM of the hottest part of the day, the most humid part of the day, to try to get prepared for that. A lot of intentional prep work because Tokyo was hot. Yeah. It was very hot.

As a collegian, Fisher won the ’17 NCAA 5000 crown for Stanford. (MIKE SCOTT)

T&FN: From the journalist’s perspective, Tokyo was quite different from any other Olympics, having to stay in a “bubble” away from the public as part of the COVID measures. How was your experience in that regard?

Fisher: Things certainly seemed weird. The Village was isolated, which I believe most Villages are just for a security purpose. But I was surprised with the military presence in the village. We were on essentially a peninsula in Tokyo Bay and the only way in and out was a military-style checkpoint. COVID tests every day. The perimeter of our peninsula had a massive fence and then coast guard ships outside that.

So, it did feel a little weird, but the Village [itself] felt normal. Things were cool just seeing all the athletes from other countries and then meeting people – as much as you could, there was still a scare of COVID. One positive test and you were knocked out of the Olympics, so you still wanted to be careful.

The race environment felt a little different. That stadium would’ve been just so electric to be in with a full crowd, but it was dead silent. That was a little weird, but once you started racing, you kind of shut all that stuff out anyway, and it just felt like a normal race. If anything, it might have diminished the pressure that I might have felt from a full-scale Olympics.

Things were certainly different. The excitement, the buzz around the city, the crowd, all those things were muted. I was just thankful that [the Games] happened. I had serious doubts in the months and weeks leading up. So, whatever protocol that was set forth, I think most people were willing to do. It’s something that comes around every — in that case — five years, so to have it canceled would’ve been pretty devastating. I’m sure a “normal” Olympics would’ve felt different, but I’m just thankful they happened.

T&FN: In distance running terms, you’re still a kid at age 24. How much longer do you think you want to try to stay competitive?

Fisher: As long as I’m able. This is a dream job; it’s so much fun. You get to be with your best friends all the time, go to beautiful places and test yourself against the best people in the world at what you do. It’s what a lot of kids dream of and something that I dreamed of too. And I know that someday this will all come to an end and I’ll be old and slow [laughs]. But for now, I hope to go as long as I can.

Some people are like Lopez [Lomong] or [Bernard] Lagat and they are able to go until their late 30s and even 40s. I’d say they’re the exception. Most people get to their early 30s and the body starts to fatigue and isn’t as resilient as it was when you’re young. I have no illusion that someday this won’t come to an end, but I’ll let my body tell me when that time is. It’ll come eventually. It’s been an incredible ride so far, and I hope that going forward that I’m able to have as much fun as I’m having right now.

T&FN: It would seem from a distance that your career has been on the perfect path from the beginning till now, all the right moves, but I’m wondering, are there any decisions you’ve made that you regret?

Fisher: Oh, that’s a good question. Not too many. Even ones that led to subpar outcomes, they did teach me a lot and I learned about what not to do, so I wouldn’t say full-fledged regret.

I think there was a big period in college when I was a junior where I was trying to find myself in the sport again. My passion was kind of starting to wane and I wasn’t giving forth the same effort and I didn’t have the same fire that I had before. Several subpar decisions were made in that period. And even though they led to disappointment and coming up short in a lot of things, I think it taught me a lot about myself and I found my reasons why I wanted to keep running and do it at the highest level I could.

I had to have some very, very honest conversations with my coach at the time, Chris Miltenberg. Even though I was making mistakes and didn’t really know what I was gonna do going forward, looking back those things built me into who I am now and those reasons for running that I found in making mistakes have led me to where I am now. So I wouldn’t say regret. I really don’t like thinking of things that way, even when they don’t go great. I wouldn’t say I regret much.

T&FN: I want to ask you about the aftermath to the Shelby Houlihan case. We saw a variety of critics, mostly anonymous, pushing the idea of guilt-by-association and pointing fingers at the Bowerman group. How do you personally deal with that? Is it something that you are able to shield yourself from?

Fisher: Those things definitely bother me. It’d be hard for me to say that it doesn’t. You know, this sport and doing things the right way is really, really important to me. For people to think those things about me, it really is sad and it makes me disappointed. You know, I sometimes can be a bit of a people-pleaser. I desire for everyone to think that I’m doing things the right way.

And I found that at the end of the day, you can’t really control people’s opinion. Sometimes people are going to say things and they’re going to hurt, or they’re going to hit you in different ways, but you can’t please everybody. I approach this sport in a way that I think is the right way and if other people have negative things to say then, those are just things that I have to live with. It definitely can be hard sometimes, anonymous people on the Internet can be kinda mean.

You do have to get used to shielding yourself from that and just blocking it out and kind of thinking that there’s always going to be people trying to drag you down and diminish what’s going on. But you know, if you believe in yourself and know that you’re doing things the right way in your heart, all that stuff doesn’t really matter.

T&FN: In high school, I know that your coaches advised you to stay away from the stuff that popped up on message boards about you. Do you still stay away from it all, or occasionally do you dip your toe in to see what people are saying?

Fisher: I generally stay away from all that stuff. Sometimes those forums can have really useful stuff and have great information and cover the sport in a great way. And I think open dialogue about the sport is a great thing. Other times the anonymous nature of it can create a bit of, not an incentive to say something outlandish or wild, but just more of an opportunity to say things that you probably wouldn’t say if it were associated with your name.

I do try to stay off the message boards now that people I know and myself are topics of discussion. I’m absolutely fine with that discussion happening. That’s just not something I need to deal with on my day-to-day. This is a bit of a niche sport that we do and the community is small and tight, and I think discussion and dialogue grows the sport in a good way.

It can be negative at times, but I’m sure there’s message boards about the NFL and NHL and NBA where people say equally negative and damning things. And I doubt LeBron is on Let’sPlayBasketball.com, you know, concerning himself with that too often. So I try to stay off.

T&FN: Medals and records are obvious goals, but is there anything else in the sport that you want to check off your list along the way?

Fisher: I’d love to be in more Diamond League races. I was in my first two last year, and they were really cool experiences and I loved them a lot. Unfortunately, being in the U.S. and with the nature of making U.S. teams, you can’t really be hopping back and forth to Europe all the time to race. So the opportunities are kind of slim, but being in Lausanne last year for a Diamond League was just an electric experience. The fans over there are so, so passionate and know the sport and come out in full force.

That was an incredible experience. I hope to get a few more of those, maybe try to make a Diamond League final, because there’s a whole ’nother aspect of the sport that I think sometimes in the U.S., we either don’t have the opportunities or kind of neglect, and those are those big invites, those Diamond League races. We’d love to get over for more of those. (Continued below)



T&FN: Looking at what the Union AC did with their women’s distance medley recently, I wonder, do you miss running collegiate DMRs? Would Bowerman ever put one together?

Fisher: Oh, it’d be fun. I’ve actually run several relays since I’ve been professional. We ran that Michigan Ekiden race this December, and that was a blast. We hope to do that every year now. It’s just a nice switch-up from an individual event and really solidifies that team mentality. That was very, very fun. The prior summer we ran a 4 x 1500. I enjoyed that a lot. We ran some 4x4s and mixed 4x4s, and that was a blast.

We were hoping this past winter to get over to Japan and for an actual Ekiden race against some of the Japanese teams, but COVID kind of ruined that. Relays are such an exciting aspect of the sport. I loved doing the DMR in college. That was always our focus indoor season, running a good DMR so it’s cool to see professional teams starting to do more of that.

T&FN: It’s been more than three years since you’ve run cross country. Have you ever had any thoughts of competing in the World Cross Country Champs?

Fisher: World Cross would be awesome. But we don’t really have a non-outdoor track championship year for three or four years. That’s always going to be the focus and if cross country fits well into that, then I would love to do it. Cross is another team sport aspect of running that I think is really fun. I think the Bowerman crew did it in big numbers, maybe in 2017 or ’18. That was cool to see; I was still in college at that point. It’d be very fun.

Unfortunately, there aren’t too many invitational cross country meets. I know there was one in California this past year, which was cool, but not as many opportunities and fewer incentives to do stuff like that with a big World Championships in those same years, but I’m definitely open to it.

T&FN: Now, the burning question that I have, are you ever going to jump into a fast mile so that people will quit talking about your PR [3:59.38] being from high school?

Fisher: I do think it’s kind of funny that that my PR is from high school. It’s kind of a running joke. As a pro, most of the races that we do are 1500. So there aren’t tons of opportunities, but it would be fun just to knock that number down a little bit. But as of right now [laughs], it’s the running joke on the team that I haven’t improved since high school.

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