See more of the story

Janis Klecker couldn't watch. Other than a few peeks through her fingers, the former Olympic marathon runner relied on her husband, Barney, the former U.S. record holder for a 50-mile ultramarathon, to provide the play-by-play.

This is how they supported their son, Joe, throughout the 10,000-meter race at the U.S. Olympic Trials in mid-June.

The last of 25 laps remained when Barney offered an ominous assessment of Joe's chances.

His dad thought he was in trouble. "He got boxed in," Barney said, who reversed himself moments later as Joe surged through a small opening.

He needed to finish no worse than third. Halfway through his final lap around the Hayward Field track in Eugene, Ore., Klecker pulled clear of the fourth-place runner. Tokyo looked like a lock.

Throughout his career, however, Klecker's results didn't meet his potential. Injuries hampered all but the last of his Hopkins High School seasons. As a freshman at Colorado, he missed the varsity cut by four seconds and got left off a cross-country team that took second at the NCAA meet. COVID-19 wiped out his individual NCAA title chances in 2020.

Olympics trials success would apply a salve. Klecker wanted it bad. So did Hopkins cross-country coach Mike Harris, who shouted at his television screen watching the final lap. In the Hayward Field stands, Klecker's 1-year old nephew, Norman, repeated the "Go, Joe, go!" cheer he'd been taught.

"I could have lived with the results either way," said Janis, who finished 21st at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. "I just didn't want to see him be disappointed."

Not this time. Klecker placed third in a time of 27 minutes, 54.90 seconds. Hello, Tokyo.

"I wept," Janis said. "I was so excited for him. And I think it kind of hit him that, 'This is what I've worked for.' "

In the Minnetonka home of six intrinsically motivated siblings, four of whom became collegiate runners, Joe distinguished himself. Janis and the Klecker kids contributed to Barney's landscaping and snow removal service by clearing neighbor's driveways. One winter morning, Janis looked up from her shovel to see Joe getting in a run before school.

As an eighth-grader, Joe said, he "started comparing myself against other runners on the United States stage and that got me real competitive." One of those names — Grant Fisher of Michigan — is now a U.S. 10,000-meter Olympic teammate.

Hopkins track and field coach Nick Lovas noticed a change, too.

"I think that's when [Klecker] flipped the switch and said, 'I might be genetically lucky, but if I put in the hard work, where might I end up?' " Lovas said.

Joe Klecker talked with his Hopkins High School track coach, Nick Lovas, after running a 3,200-meter race in 2015. “In 15 years at Hopkins, I’ve never enjoyed watching anyone compete more than I did watching Joe Klecker,” Lovas said.
Joe Klecker talked with his Hopkins High School track coach, Nick Lovas, after running a 3,200-meter race in 2015. “In 15 years at Hopkins, I’ve never enjoyed watching anyone compete more than I did watching Joe Klecker,” Lovas said.

Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune

Injuries hampered Klecker's journey. He spent more time rehabilitating injuries than he did on the post-race podium during his first three years of high school. He missed the state track championships as a sophomore and the state cross-country meet as a junior. Finally, as a senior in 2015, Klecker won the 1,600- and 3,200-meter races at the track and field state championships. Early adversity, Klecker now believes, built lasting success.

"Say I would have won state my freshman year," he said. "Now I'm thinking, 'I've figured it all out.' When I wasn't winning, I had to figure out why not."

Lovas said Klecker grew into a more complete competitor.

"You could liken it to being a really good salesman," Lovas said. "Yes, you have to pound the pavement. But you also need to learn the softer skills important to closing the deal. For Joe, that was things like nutrition and weightlifting. He learned a lot and never made the same mistakes twice."

Klecker's commitment to his trade led him to Colorado.

"When I came to Boulder, it was because I had decided to go all in on making a career out of running," he said. "That's where I needed to go to get the most out of myself."

A nine-time All-America with the Buffaloes, Klecker kept driving at greater glory.

"Winning an NCAA title was the carrot," he said. "It forced me to keep figuring out what I could do better, to keep refining."

After finishing second at the NCAA cross-country meet in 2019, Klecker was poised to win the following year. When the pandemic ended his collegiate dream, Klecker turned pro. He represents On Athletics Club.

After confirming his spot in Tokyo, Klecker stood with a Steve Prefontaine-esque mustache under his nose (Barney grew one in solidarity), flowers and an American flag in his hands, and a medal ribbon bearing "TrackTown" around his neck.

The tradition-rich University of Oregon provided Eugene's nickname, one Lovas borrowed for his program's "TrackTown MN" moniker. While he has helped nurture decorated sprinters such as Joe Fahnbulleh, running the 200 meters in the Olympics for Liberia, Lovas holds a special place for Klecker.

"In 15 years at Hopkins, I've never enjoyed watching anyone compete more than I did watching Joe Klecker," Lovas said. "His races hurt. You run a 400 or 800 and you're done in a minute or two. He does it throughout four- and eight-minute races. There's no shortcut to doing the events he's done, and he is 24-hours-a-day dedicated."

Barney Klecker said his son isn't just glad to be making the trip to Tokyo, where the men's 10,000 meters is the first medal event in track and field on July 30.

"The United States has strong middle-distance runners who will be legit contenders," he said. "And Joe usually makes the most of these opportunities. He will run to his potential. I'm not worried about him laying an egg."