Rankin track starter

Vancouver resident inducted into track officials hall of fame

By Candace Buckner, Columbian staff writer

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There's a black duffle bag stowed away downstairs in Kelly Rankin's Vancouver home.

The space — clean like military barracks but with the atmosphere of a museum — holds some of his most-prized mementos. They decorate the basement wood-paneled walls and tell the story of a life spent at the starting line.

But nothing reveals Rankin better than what's found in the bag.

It's stuffed right there in the closet. As essential to him and his line of work as a house doctor would need his leather Gladstone. He opens the bag, replete with a blue baton — just in case someone lost theirs — rubber shoes and an oily towel necessary to clean his .32 caliber revolver.

"Have gun will travel," Rankin joked.

Rankin, 72, has spent most of his adult life as a track and field starter for countless races. He has donned his 42 short red blazer, marched on to small platforms, with his right hand raised a gun and held runners "on their marks" from the high school track to the worldwide stage.

Rankin served as the head starter for 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and his settling voice, followed by the blast of his pistol, were the last sounds sprinter Michael Johnson heard before making history in Atlanta in 1996. He is the only American to be named head starter for two Olympic Games.

"It's just for the love of the sport," Rankin said, explaining his 43 years as a track starter.

This devotion has now led him into the USA Track and Field Officials Hall of Fame. Rankin was honored at USATF's annual meeting Nov. 30 in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Not bad for something that started as a hobby, just a favor to a fellow teacher many years ago.

In the late 1960s, Rankin taught physical education at an elementary school in Topeka, Kan., that fed into Curtis Junior High. A colleague, Dick Patterson, wanted to hold a first-ever meet at the middle school and needed some help. He remembered that Rankin earned varsity letters while attending the University of Kansas — a sprinter who competed in the 60 and 100-yard dashes.

"All I knew was that the gun went and I went," recalled Rankin, who did not have prior experience in starting but agreed to act as the starter.

He borrowed a pistol, and off he went into a side career as a track official.

Some meets he didn't get paid. Others, he made enough to cover his out-of-town gas expenses and buy a little something to bring home to his college sweetheart and wife, Janice.

Junior and high school races elevated to collegiate meets. In his return to Kansas to earn his doctorate in physical education, Rankin served for many years as the starter at the illustrious Kansas Relays.

Then, a career move to Eugene, Ore. Rankin started every meet for the Oregon Ducks and more around the Pacific Northwest, including the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle.

Rankin moved to Vancouver in 1980 and served a variety of administrative roles for the Vancouver School District for the next two decades, including the district's supervisor of athletics.

Every year, from mid February to mid June. Rain, shine, storm, hail or tornado — once in a small town in Arkansas, Rankin and the runners had to take cover just as a twister buzz-sawed through the bowl stadium — he always showed up at the starting line.

Rubber shoes and all.

The hobby made the lifelong educator sacrifice his weekends — and as it turned out, the hearing in his right ear.

(Note to starters: excessive use of lead-barrel pistols may cause damage to your ears.)

Rankin learned too late — he now wears a hearing aid — but switched to a .32 and Winchester black powder shells. Lots of smoke, blast out of the barrel, not the revolver.

In the years that Rankin destroyed his hearing, he had also built the reputation as the dependable starter with an easygoing personality.

"Some starters try to act like they're tough guys. I never heard Kelly raise his voice at an athlete," said Ken Caouette, the former national chairman of officials for USA Track and Field. "Kelly knew that the athletes are nervous and you do what you can to relax them and that was about it.

"Just his demeanor. He was not strutting around. If an athlete needed help with starting blocks, he would help or find help."

Rankin wanted to blend in like a rose on floral wallpaper. He often told his officiating crews that if they can leave unnoticed then they've done their job. Rankin even wrote that in his book, "Track Starter's Guide."

Rankin merely was there to start the races, have the eyes on the "gladiators." Not the guy in the red jacket. Still, he found himself on the periphery of history when he was chosen as head starter for the 1984 and 1996 Olympic Games.

"That was the shell that started that race," Rankin says, pointing to the mounted projectile that in 1984 blasted before American runner Mary Decker infamously plunged to the grass during the 3,000 meters.

Also on that wall, the burnt shell Rankin used to start the 1996 men's 400-meter final. Johnson won the race in 43.49 seconds, an Olympic-record.

As humble as Rankin desired to be as a starter, he certainly understood the significance of these moments.

"I started this race! Kelly Rankin" reads the small yellow post-it note attached to a magazine photo of Johnson, his arms spread at the flash point of his Olympic glory.

He's been retired as a starter for two years now — "It's been a long career," Rankin explained. "It was just getting time."

His precious office space doesn't just display Olympic souvenirs but also serves as the bedroom for three young grandsons whenever they come to visit. Rankin now spends time with another hobby, building clocks for family and friends. Life as a starter was yesterday.

Yet, when he pulls down that black duffle bag, still neatly packed, it seems that at any time Rankin can throw it in the front seat of his car and take off for the next meet.

A good starter is always on his mark.