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Olympic Dreams: UW runner from New Zealand qualifies for Tokyo Olympics

Sam Tanner broke the collegiate record in the 1500 meter race in February, qualifying him for the Tokyo Olympics this summer.

SEATTLE — University of Washington (UW) sophomore Sam Tanner could go down as the most decorated runner in UW history. 

He’s already broken the freshman school record in the mile. A few weeks ago, he recorded the 2nd fastest mile in UW history and in February, he broke the collegiate record in the 1500 meter race qualifying him for the Tokyo Olympics.

Tanner loves to run, but it’s not the only thing he enjoys. “I've always said that I'm Sam who runs, not Sam the runner. And I feel like if you put your identity in the sport then if you lose the sport then you lose yourself and so I kind of always keep that as one of my priorities,” he said.

Tanner grew up in New Zealand where he learned how to surf long before he became a world-class runner.

“I was definitely a beach kid. I'd like to say it's my favorite sport and if I could be professional in any sport in the world, it would have to be surfing,” he said. In fact, if there’s a board involved, Tanner’s on it.

“I love things that you know have steep drops. I've always said that I am a bit of an adrenaline junkie and so, you know, I love going fast, which is probably why it's brought me to the track,” Tanner said.

At age 12 he won a national cross-country title. As a junior in high school, he won another. Then after racing the world juniors, Tanner got a message from one of the nation’s top college distance coaches. 

“Andy messaged me, and I was like, all right, I know who Andy Powell is, everybody knows about Andy Powell. And he moved to Washington and I thought 'cool a new start.' It’s a beautiful place, amazing trails, awesome team, came to visit the team and I just love it and here we are,” Tanner said.

As a Husky, it hasn’t taken Tanner long to make his mark.

In February at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix, he broke the collegiate 1500-meter record, running the race in 3 minutes, 34 seconds. “I like to say that I was buzzing, or frothing. I suppose that we also say that if you put in the mahi, which is the work, you get the treats. So, you do the mahi you get the treats, and so you know, I did the work and now we're reaping the benefits from it, so it's exciting,” Tanner said.

Tanner’s time was under the Olympic standard, which means he’s qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. “Yeah, it is pretty huge. I think that, in the moment I'll be like very much in awe of like how surreal the actual situation will be. But it's something that I look forward to with all my being,” Tanner said.

Tanner’s 1500-meter time of 3:34 seconds was only two seconds off the Olympic record set back in 2000. In the 2016 Rio games, 3:38 was the fastest time.