Cooper Teare Runs His Way to the Top
The former Pilot and current Oregon Duck is the best and fastest runner in the history of Saint Joe’s and Alameda, but he’s also one of the fastest high school distance runners ever from California.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
Standing inside the Saint Joseph Notre Dame High School gym on a July afternoon, Tony Fong, the school’s longtime cross country and track coach, points up at the rafters. “Cooper is directly responsible for five of those banners. Jason Kidd has only three.”
If you know anything about NBA basketball, you know Jason Kidd, the most famous Saint Joseph’s athlete ever, a three-time High School All-American who led the school to its first two California State Basketball Titles and starred at UC Berkeley and then enjoyed a storied 19-year NBA Hall of Fame career.
But you may not have heard of former Saint Joseph’s distance runner Cooper Teare. He’s not only the best and fastest runner in the history of Saint Joe’s and Alameda, but he’s also one of the fastest high school distance runners ever from California. The 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Oregon had a remarkable career as a Saint Joseph Pilot from 2013-17: He won the Division 5 High School State Cross Country Title twice and the California State Track and Field 3200 meters (2 mile) Title in 2016. As a high school senior, he ran a 4:00 mile, the second fastest time ever run by a California high school runner. He also ranks fourth fastest in California state history in the 3200 meters (2-mile) and the 5000 meters (3-mile) distances.
Teare’s running began inauspiciously enough at Edison Elementary School. “I remember running in P.E. just for fun. I tried other sports, but running is what I was good at,” he said. His formal running career began with the Castro Valley Track Club. “My first big race was when I was 12 at the Junior Olympics in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where my grandparents lived,” said Teare, whose grandfather was a Michigan state champion in the mile in the 1950s.
He ran in the after school track program at Lincoln Middle School, too, but it was summer 2013 when he found coach Tony Fong’s summer running camp that helped put him on the path to Saint Joseph’s.
Fong recalled he and Alex Mason, Saint Joseph’s other cross country and track coach, watching Teare run for the first time at the camp. “Alex and I were looking at him and his stride — we didn’t know him — and we were like, ‘Wow, if he keeps doing it, he’ll be good,” he said. He ran a 5:20 mile that summer. “It wasn’t impressive, but you could see the improvement when he decided to come here,” said Fong.
Teare did well his freshman year, but was only the No. 4 runner on the cross-country team, which had a core group of seniors — Gabe Arias-Sheridan, and Matthew and Michael Murphy — who led the school to its second consecutive Division 5 California State Cross Country Title. Fong was also selected as East Bay Boys Cross Country Coach of the Year. “It really was a great way to start at Saint Joe’s. It motivated me and kept me interested,” said Teare. In the spring of 2014, he ran a 4:30 mile in track, quick for a 13-year-old and almost a minute faster than he’d run the previous summer. “We knew we had something special. He was beyond our expectations, but we never thought he’d win the state title,” said Fong.
“He had great form, was mentally tough, and very competitive,” said Mason. “He didn’t have any fear or nervousness, which not everyone can do. He had it from the get-go. We didn’t teach him that. Any big race, he’d always step up and not psych himself out.”
But after a disappointing sophomore year, Teare got to work on getting faster, logging 500 miles during that summer, or 25 percent more mileage than ever before. “For Cooper’s junior year, we set big goals: to win the 3200 meters at the State Track Meet and break nine minutes for 2 miles,” said Mason.
In November 2015, Teare won his first High School Division 5 California State Cross Country Title by less than half a second. It was the first state individual cross-country title ever won by a Saint Joseph’s athlete. In the spring 2016 track season, he won Saint Joseph and special invitational meets in the 1600 meters and 3200 meters, the North Coast Section Meet of Champions 3200 meter race, and the State 3200 meters (which he won by .001 of a second by out-leaning the second-place runner in a time of 8:51). “They posted it at first that the other guy had won. They then changed it a minute later and said Cooper had won. We all went nuts,” said Mason. It was the first 3200 meter California State Track and Field Title ever won by an Alamedan.
Teare’s 2016 track season performances garnered an invitation to the Nike Elite Camp at the University of Oregon in Eugene during the July 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials. He ran the exhibition mile in a personal best of 4:06 and finished fourth.
All along, Fong and Mason guided their prodigy, who typically ran between 50 to 75 miles a week. The training regimen also included core training and leg exercises for strengthen and injury prevention. Workouts on the track built speed while runs on Shoreline Drive, Bay Farm Island, and in the Oakland hills built endurance and strength.
After his stellar junior year, Teare had become a hot commodity in the distance running world. Thanks to his solid academic record and 3.75 GPA, too, letters and scholarship offers poured in from more than 40 colleges. Teare made four official college visits: Georgetown, University of Colorado, Stanford, and the University of Oregon. All offered him full scholarships. But there was only one school Teare wanted to go to — the place where one of his heroes, the legendary Steve Prefontaine, ran and where Nike was born: Oregon, Track Mecca of the U.S.A.
“It was my dream come true. It was always my goal, but it was overwhelming and pleasing to get the offer from Andy Powell,” said Teare. Powell, the head distance running coach at Oregon, had recruited only four runners, including Teare, that year.
As a high school senior, Teare tied the all-time Division 5 boys’ course record at Woodward Park of 14:59 en route to his second consecutive state title, was selected as a Second Team All-American, and was a team captain who led by example and inspired the team by doing his best. He approached his senior track season with lofty goals: to break 4 minutes in the mile — only nine U.S. high school runners had ever run that fast — and run under 8:45 for 2 miles.
First accomplished famously by the Englishman Rodger Bannister in 1954, going under the mythical 4-minute barrier is a feat that most runners still only dream about. But today all milers must run a sub-4-minute mile to be considered above-average collegiate and potentially Olympic-caliber runners. Teare felt it was a mental barrier he had to try and overcome. “Every year, I was dropping 10 to 20 seconds. I ran 4:06 as a junior. It was looming over my head. I was so close,” said Teare.
Teare’s final season began at the New Balance Indoor Nationals in New York City on March 12, where he won with a 4:06 mile. The next week, he won the Texas Distance Festival 5000 meters in 14:13 before a record-setting performance at the Arcadia Invitational on April 8, when he finished in a meet-best 8:41 in the fastest and deepest 3200-meter race in high school history. Nine runners came in under 8:50 and 25 under 9 minutes. Teare’s time was 10 seconds faster than what he ran to win the 2016 state crown. On April 14, at the Mt. SAC Relays, he ran his fastest mile yet in 4:00.16, narrowly missing his goal as he flopped onto the track afterwards. “It was definitely a little heartbreaking, disappointing, but also I couldn’t ask for anything better than a 6-second PR,” he said.
With each race, his celebrity grew. Media showed up in greater numbers. The Alameda Journal had a weekly report about his sub-4 quest and KPIX TV Channel 5 did a story, too. He handled it all in stride, giving interviews after each race.
About three weeks before the California State Meet, Teare broke a pinky toe walking out of his room at home. He taped it and he tried to keep running, but the pain was excruciating.
Nevertheless, he won the 3200 meters at the North Coast Section Meet of Champions and headed to the State Meet to defend his title but ended up third in a race he probably would’ve won, if healthy. “It was disappointing. I was still happy I finished that well,” said Teare.
Coach Tony Fong smiles with Cooper Teare, the best runner he has ever coached.
His toe healed, and he capped his season with a 4:02 mile and second-place finish in Seattle, qualified for the 1500 meters (metric mile) at the USA Track and Field Junior Championships, and won a bronze medal in the 1500 meters at the Pan American U-20 Championships in Peru. He finished ranked the fourth best distance runner in the country while his second fastest times in the mile and 2-mile earned him All-American status from Track and Field News and All-American honors from USA Today and Mile-Split.com. But his failure to break 4 minutes remained in his mind. “It was the thing I tried the hardest for and didn’t get it,” he said.
Longtime high school track expert and PrepCalTrack (www.PrepCalTrack.com) editor Rich Gonzalez said Teare’s 2017 track season showed tremendous talent in terms of consistency and was one of the best ever in California distance running history, comparing Teare to the top three California high school runners of all time, German Fernandez, Jeff Nelson, and Rich Kimball.
“What separates Cooper a bit is he had a series of strong outings, one after another, where some others had one or two. And his sub-4 mile attempts were done mostly on his own. He didn’t have faster, elite runners pulling him along as some have had, nor pacesetters,” said Gonzalez.
Gonzalez rates Teare one of the top five California high school distance runners of all time. “With his accomplishments, he has to be part of that conversation. He’s put in the work and taken his skills and made good use of them, and it’s paid off for him,” he said.
Following his stellar high school running career, Teare continued his success at Oregon his freshman year. At his first cross-country race in September 2017 in the rain, he was the No. 1 runner for the Ducks and ninth-place finisher. “It was crazy. It was a great feeling. I felt no pressure. I’d had some really great training,” said Teare.
He worked well with Oregon coach Powell and his assistant coach, former Duck and the 2016 Olympic Gold Medalist in the 1500 meters Matt Centrowitz Jr. Teare was selected The Pac-12 freshman of the year, finished as the top rookie in the Pac-12 Championships, earned all-Pac-12 second-team honors, and took 44th place at the NCAA Championships with a 10-kilometer time of 30:06.77. “I got into a groove of training. Every race, I got more used to it. Got more experience, more races under my belt,” he said.
And that elusive 4-minute mile finally came for Teare in January 2018 at an indoor meet in New York City. He ran 3:59 and finished fourth in the race, behind several other Oregon runners. It was a bit anticlimactic, but still very satisfying. “It was surreal, especially after having tried it so many times,” he said. It was another milestone for Teare.
He continued to impress during his freshman outdoor track season at Oregon, running a personal best of 13:46 for 5000 meters — a 4:26 per mile average for three miles — in April. He was the only men’s Oregon runner to qualify for the NCAA Outdoor Track Championships in Eugene at 5000 meters, and he placed second at the USA Track and Field Junior Championships in the 1500 and 5000 meters, earning a ticket to Finland to compete in the IAAF World U20 Championships in July, where he placed 10th in the 1500 and 14th in the 5000 meters. At 18, Teare ran against top runners from Kenya and Ethiopia and held his own. “It was a whole different experience, especially being able to represent USA and run for my country. It’s an honor and definitely a privilege to be the midst of some of the world’s best runners,” he said.
Teare relished his first collegiate season as a Duck, especially since it allowed him one track season running at historic Hayward Field that has seen Oregon distance legends and Olympians such as Bill Dellinger, Alberto Salazar, and Galen Rupp, along with many other Olympic and World Champions who have run and set world records there. Eugene is called Tracktown USA for a reason: It’s where the fans live and breathe running. “It was amazing to have all the support there and have so many knowledgeable people, which you don’t normally have. It’s cool,” said Teare.
Hayward Field was demolished after the NCAA Track and Field Championships in June to make way for a new, modern track stadium that will host both the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials and the 2021 IAAF World Track and Field Championships. So Teare and the Oregon team will have to train at a Eugene high school track until the new facility is built.
As he heads into his sophomore season at Oregon, the business major has created a new set of running goals. “I’d like to be an All-American and be confident to run with anyone. After the first year, I feel like I’m ready to compete on the college level,” he said.
He will have to do so under a new coach, since Tony Powell departed Eugene for Seattle to coach for the University of Washington. The new Ducks cross country and track coach will be Ben Thomas, who comes from Virginia Tech.
Even with a college scholarship of $200,000 or racing internationally representing the United States, Teare doesn’t feel performance pressure. He thrives on the challenge of the competition. “I’ve been running for so long, the pressure has turned into excitement mostly, because I’ve gone through most of the stressful situations you could think of in terms of racing and experienced it all before, so now I’m used to it and I just look forward to what each race brings,” he said.
Back at the Saint Joseph’s gym, a proud Tony Fong talks about Teare, the best runner he has ever coached. “He’s a humble, humble kid. He could have a huge ego with his accomplishments, but he doesn’t. He came out with me today in the van and was encouraging our current runners along their route. In July he traveled to Lake Tahoe with us for our annual altitude running camp that included runners from other high schools. He took time to meet the kids and take photos with them,” said Fong.
Teare stays in touch with Fong and Mason regularly because he appreciates what his mentors gave him at a small Catholic high school in Alameda. “I feel like St. Joe’s was the place for me and I wouldn’t have had the same success elsewhere, mostly because of my team and the fact that my coaches were so knowledgeable about the sport,” he said.
Fong said Teare has set the standard for Saint Joseph’s running program and helped put it on the map. The Cooper effect has also led to more runners coming out for cross country and track. In the middle of the main island, Saint Joseph’s doesn’t even have its own athletic field or track, but yet has produced one of the best high school track runners in California history.
Teare definitely has one eye on the 2020 Olympic Trials in Eugene, which could be quite a home field advantage for Teare. “The Olympics are definitely a goal for the future, but I’ll take it one step at a time,” he said. “I think the 5K will be my best distance, but I’ll continue to run the 1500 meters to improve my speed.” Mason also thinks the 5000 will be Teare’s path to a possible Olympic run. “He has a strong aerobic system, so he tends to lose less speed than other runners,” he said.
At 6 feet, 2 inches and 145 pounds, Teare’s frame is perfect for a miler but bigger for an elite 5000-meter runner as the top runners tend to be about 5 feet, 7 inches and 125 pounds. (Prefontaine was 5 feet, 9 inches and 139 pounds). Teare’s already run faster than Prefontaine did at 18 in the 5K and the mile; Prefontaine set an American record in the 5000 and represented the United States at the distance in the 1972 Olympics. Teare set personal bests in both the 1500 and 5000 meters as a college freshman.
Through it all, Teare is a typical teenager in many ways who likes to hang out with friends, laugh, and play video games, and whose favorite movie is Napoleon Dynamite, but running is never far from his mind. “I really try to keep a low profile because there is always a run or workout I have to be looking forward to the next day, so the amount of stuff I can do outside of running and rest is fairly limited if I really want to run well,” he said.
“I don’t see any limitations for Cooper. He keeps improving,” Fong said.