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Wildfire-ravaged Oregon community hosts Irish track team ahead of international contest

Irish athletes came to the McKenzie River Valley to train for the World Athletics Championships. It's a sign of hope and validation among residents in the community.

LANE COUNTY, Ore. — The Irish team is ready for the Oregon22 World Athletics Championships starting in Eugene this Friday.

“We're here to do business. We're here to compete. We're here to compete against the best in the world and represent Ireland. So yeah, trying to get the game face on,” said Paul McNamara, the Irish team lead.

This is the first time the international track and field event will be held in the United States. The best athletes from close to 200 countries will be competing.

Some of those teams have chosen to practice and relax in more rural parts of the state. KGW caught up with the Irish team in the McKenzie River Valley outside Eugene. 

The team has been practicing for the last week or so at the McKenzie Community Track and the Aaron and Marie Jones Community Field. While the address is listed as Vida, Ore., locals say the track is in the town of Blue River, about 50 minutes east of Eugene.

RELATED: Oregon prepares to welcome the world for the World Athletics Championships in Eugene

Some of the athletes said they're filled with nerves and excitement as race day approaches. While days have been filled with a lot of practice, they said they have been enjoying their stay in the McKenzie River Valley.

“It's so beautiful and nice and everyone's been really welcoming,” said Sarah Healy, who runs the 1,500 meter.

“It's been really, really good. Lots of people [have been] supporting us,” said Healy’s teammate, Mark English, who runs the 800 meter.

English said his goal has been to get acclimated to the weather during the lead up to his race later this week. Healy said as her race day approaches, she’s trying to stay both relaxed and excited.

For the people who live in the area, it's been an honor to host the team after a hard couple of years. The Holiday Farm Fire burned through the area in September 2020.

RELATED: Oregon town burned in wildfire to host Irish track team for World Athletics Championships

“The Irish team being here is just further validation that this is a cool place,” said Jeff Sherman, a Blue River resident.

Sherman was the main person who advocated for a new track back in the early 1980s. He said he was a school teacher for 31 year at McKenzie High School and was also a track and cross country coach.

“The Irish being here is like yeah, there's hope. It's good hope,” Sherman said.

The Irish team, Athletics Ireland, is getting ready to compete in World Athletics Championships Oregon22 that start in...

Posted by Christine Pitawanich/KGW on Monday, July 11, 2022

The exciting opportunity to host the Irish team has brought hope for the future among many residents and validation that the area is coming back after the devastating wildfire.

Michael Bergmann was key in bringing the Irish team to the McKenzie River Valley

“The vision was really to, you know — once the fires happened in September 2020 — how do we bring more people up here and bring economic impact to this community,” said Bergmann.

He said he envisions more sports teams coming to the area in the future.

“If us being here adds something to the recovery of the local community, that means an awful lot to team Ireland,” said McNamara.

McNamara said it was a conscious choice to stay in a small community rather than a bigger city, and it was the right choice.

“It's one of the greatest places on earth as far as I’m concerned,” said McNamara.

He said back home in their team room in Ireland, they have a slogan that says, "Tough times don't last. Tough people do." He said the people in the McKenzie River Valley are tough, as they recover from the fire. The team hopes they can bring some of that same toughness to the track in Eugene.

Bergmann said there is a smattering of other international teams staying in different areas. He said the Spanish team was staying at Corban University in Salem and the Finnish team was staying in Junction City.

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