When it comes to the Olympic Trials, 4th is the cruelest number.
No one knows that better than Andy Bayer, who finished in that undesirable position in the 1500m in 2012, missing out on London, and four years later in the steeplechase, losing a trip to Rio in 2016. To add insult to injury, he also finished fourth in the steeple in 2015 and 2017, failing to make the U.S. world championship team.
Bayer finally placed 3rd in the steeple at the 2019 national championships, earning a spot on the team at the World Championships in Doha. This was to be his year to finally represent his country on the biggest stage.
But when runners line up on the track in Eugene this week, Bayer will be missing. Back in February, just four months out from the Olympic Trials, he walked away from the sport.
A Practical Financial Decision
It wasn’t that Bayer didn’t stand a chance to continue his 2019 fortune by making the Olympics this year. He did, and a good one.
“I was disappointed because I knew that there was still a lot left in the tank,” said Indiana University coach Ron Helmer who coached Bayer in college and for the last five years of his professional career. “He had done some things work-out-wise that really started to be very encouraging.”
Bayer’s choice came down to a practical decision of balancing running dreams against financial reality. At the end of 2019, he was dropped by Nike, and after a year of trying, he was not able to pick it up again. Chelsea Blanchard, his wife, works as an art teacher, but couldn’t carry the weight of a mortgage and parenting two foster children.
He was awarded a scholarship through the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee for a degree in software engineering and has been hired by the Indianapolis-based DemandJump, an Indianapolis digital marketing company DemandJump. This past year he has been in classes eight hours a day and spent evenings doing homework.
Sure, to some it may seem feasible for Bayer to have made running into a side-hustle. But running at a world-class level is all-consuming. On top of the 20-30 hours a week of running, he points out that he needed time to prepare proper specialized diets, commute to a track, make it to more medical appointments and ensure he gets heavy doses of sleep a night.
More than any of that, though, Bayer understood that sacrificing life stability for Olympic running dreams would rob the joy from the sport.
“I guess if you’re concerned about fame and fortune, you need to go to the Olympics for it to matter,” Bayer said. “I got into track and field to see what I could do. I only wanted to do this because I enjoyed doing this, and I don’t want to make my life miserable — and that’s what I felt was going to happen, running without a contract.”
Bayer’s Balanced Philosophy
Whereas other athletes might have struggled with the transition, those close to Bayer have known how he handles things with balance and perspective.
“One of the things I said about Andy is that running isn’t who Andy was, running is what he did, and I think for most people, that’s a healthy way to approach it,” said Helmer. “He was a pre-med biology major with great, great grades when he was in school, and I think he had a lot of things he had to offer and a lot of things he could do. I think he’s also passionate about the next phase in his life.”
Blanchard also respects Bayer’s balance: “I think Andy’s always had a good sense of priorities in his life, so for him, he had huge goals but it’s still just running track and field, and I don’t think that he gave more weight ever in his life, but he’s still super passionate and very hard working and he think he cares more about a lot of other things.”
While this mixture of passion and perspective might seem a contradiction, Helmer said, “The ordinary runner who only dreams about doing the things that Andy Bayer did probably can’t understand it, because they run, but they’re not chasing a meaningful dream. There’s a lot of people who are in love with the idea of doing it, Andy was in love with doing it.”
A Legacy Bigger Than 4th Place
And Bayer has done it plenty. Those infamous fourth place finishes aside — which, by the way, are pretty damn good finishes at the world level — his career has been full of ambitious goals and impressive achievements.
Hailing from the Fort Wayne suburb of Leo, Indiana, Bayer describes himself as a late bloomer to the sport. While he had been running since 6th grade, he didn’t start getting good until his senior year of high school.
That year, Bayer qualified for state in cross country in the fall where he finished 6th. As outdoor track was approaching later that year, he wrote a list of goals including winning the state title in the 3200 meter championship.
“Andy, his senior year, wrote out his goals for that track season, he wanted to be state champ,” said Dan Tim-Zimmerman, his coach and second cousin. “And I thought, don’t set yourself up for disappointment, because no one in the country could beat Mike Fout (the Foot Locker National Cross-Country champ the previous Fall). Andy really just blew me away as far as any limit that I put on him, he surpassed.”
Bayer won the state championship and dropped 36 seconds for his 3200 meter time and 20 seconds for the 1600 that year.
Because he accomplished those feats only after the signing period, Bayer didn’t get a scholarship or even a guaranteed spot on the team at Indiana University. Coach Helmer told Bayer that he would have a chance to contribute eventually if he worked hard. And that’s precisely what he did.
By his first outdoor season, he had the best time on the team in the 5000, and the following indoor season he finished 3rd at NCAA nationals.
“I bought in pretty quickly to Ron Helmer, I felt like he was a pretty good motivator,” said Bayer.
Helmer quickly bought into Bayer too. “You point him in the right direction and you race as hard as you could — and that takes great passion, you don’t do that because someone told you to,” Helmer said.
By the time he graduated IU, Bayer had 11 All-American honors and left a national champion — by 0.01 seconds.
The race saw Andy kicking down previous NCAA champion Miles Batty to take the win with a dive. His hometown news station in Fort Wayne replayed the clip, calling Bayer the best athlete in any sport to come from the area. Along with eventual Olympic Gold Medalist Derek Drouin in the high jump, Bayer is the last national champion the Indiana University men’s program has had.
Finding a Home in Bloomington
Bayer has often stated that his five years at Indiana University were the time he most enjoyed running.
After college, Bayer joined the Nike Bowerman Track Club in Oregon with Jerry Schumacher who trained him to do the steeplechase. Schumacher’s list of clients is a who’s who of national record holders and Olympians including Matt Tegenkamp, Shelby Houlihan, Evan Jager, Lopez Lomong, Garbriela DeBues-Stafford, and Matt Centrowitz.
In 2016, after a disappointing Olympic cycle that again saw him finish 4th in the Trials, Bayer moved back home to Indiana to train under Helmer.
“There’s a reason we moved back to Bloomington, we have a lot of support for our school, and we both feel really proud…We love going to meets,” said Blanchard, who also competed at IU.
That support was there in full-force when Bayer finally made the world championship team in 2019 in the steeplechase.
“When he qualified for worlds in the steeple, I was with some of my wife’s family and we stopped [what we were doing], to have everyone watch the race, and I explained what this race meant… I was quite emotional and I was so happy for him,” said his old high school coach Timm-Zimmerman.
It’s Bayer’s performance in Doha that he considers to be the main highlight of his career. There he advanced to the final and placed 12th — but he’s quick to point out it was the fastest final in history. His time of 8:12.47 makes him the 7th fastest U.S. runner in history in the event.
What Matters When It’s All Said and Done
“Maybe that’s one of the problems in the sport is that you put it all on one thing. I’m the guy who’s always remembered as getting 4th, but I was making Diamond League finals,” Bayer said.
Still, when discussing public perceptions of him as an athlete or choices he had to make that might not have panned out, he seems to look on them with a nonchalant and analytical approach.
Perhaps, the only exception to Andy’s dispassion is on the topic of how contracts work in the sport.
“Part of why I didn’t get signed, is I didn’t market myself a large amount,” he said. “I don’t use Instagram or use Twitter…. It’s not just about being the fastest but you also have to have 30,000 instagram followers, because they’re doing it for marketing.”
When Bayer announced his retirement, one of the first people to text him was Hilary Bor, who outraced him for an Olympic bid in 2016. Bayer considers Bor, along with rivals Stanley Kebeni and Mason Frelic, as close friends in the sport.
“I feel like that’s what I miss the most currently is that track feels like a small family,” Bayer said.
When it was pointed out that it was likely that one of his good friends would miss the Olympics, considering there are only three slots, Bayer, intimately familiar with that situation, had sage advice.
“The Olympics are a once in a four-year cycle, so it feels like there’s so much weight,” he said, “My advice would be ‘it’s running, life will go on.’”