When Eric Avila graduated from Bonita Vista High School in 2007, the question was posed at that time whether the Barons’ star harrier was the Metro Conference’s best-ever distance runner. It was too close to call then between the charismatic Avila and Chula Vista High School legend Tim Danielson.
But now, after a highly decorated though prolonged college career, that often debated question can finally be answered: Yes, Avila is the best ever.
In fact, the former California high school state champion in the 3200 meters placed an exclamation mark on that answer by winning the men’s elite race in last week’s celebrated Jim Ryun Festival of Miles, held Thursday, June 5, at Balboa Stadium, with a time of 3:56.89.
Yes, that is indeed a hallowed sub-four-minute mile!
It only seemed appropriate given that the star-studded event was designed as a tribute to the 50th anniversary of Ryun’s history-making accomplishment of becoming the first high school runner to run a sub-four-minute mile.
Ryun, then a self-described gangly 17-year-old from Kansas, went on to future stardom as a three-time Olympian and U.S. congressman after posting the 3:59 to earn acclaim as the world’s fastest teen in 1964.
The sub-four-minute mile remains the standard for elite runners. On the golden anniversary of Ryun’s accomplishment, two local prep products, in fact, achieved running immortality in the same race.
Joining Avila with a sub-four-minute time in the elite men’s race was former El Camino High School and University of Oregon standout A.J. Acosta, who timed 3:57.05.
Perhaps even more fitting, Ryun held the tape at the finish line.
Avila and Acosta joined a very small group of San Diegans to break the magic four-minute-mile barrier. As the race winner, Avila became the first miler to break the four-minute-mile barrier in San Diego in 26 years, a feat last achieved by American record holder Steve Scott in 1988.
The time was 10 seconds faster than Avila had ever run at that distance.
“I’m never going to forget that moment,” Avila, now 24, tweeted to his posse of yellow-shirted fans.
While in high school, Avila had idolized Acosta, an eight-time collegiate All-American, as a role model for running at a very high level. In fact, Avila set a goal of equaling or bettering Acosta’s accomplishments in college. Avila reached his goal by becoming a six-time All-American and a two-time individual national champion in college.
But one goal remained: Avila had never beaten Acosta head-to-head in a high school or college race.
In their epic encounter in Balboa Stadium, both former San Diego Section prep standouts ran side by side for three-and-three-quarters laps until Avila made a final surge to beat Acosta, a top professional runner on the international circuit, by a yard.
For Avila, who will graduate from Southern Oregon University this weekend with a degree in political science and history, beating his longtime idol was a fitting end to his collegiate career.
Avila will participate in the U.S. track nationals later this month and will then hit the professional racing circuit in Canada and Europe.
Then and now
Avila has always carried an electric touch, though it’s taken a while for him to fully energize: He flunked out of Northern Arizona University within a year and a half after graduating from Bonita Vista High School.
“I was a 17-year-old freshman who never went to class,” Avila lamented on a recent trip home.
But there were many in the community who never lost faith in Avila, even if he did for a while. With support from family and friends, the ex-Baron standout got his priorities in life in order, returned to clean up his academic record at the community college level and then got a break when he was asked to compete for a small non-Division I college in Oregon.
Avila was back on track, both figuratively and literally, as he raced to the top of the NAIA charts at Southern Oregon University.
Avila sent shockwaves across the nation’s running plateau when he won the boys 3200 race at the California state championship meet in 2007, timing 9:01.77.
But collegiate greatness would not be his — at least not immediately. After leaving NAU, considered one of the nation’s top running programs, the demoralized Avila worked at odd jobs after returning to San Diego. He put his running career on hold while he brought up his academic standards by attending local community colleges.
The running bug eventually bit Avila again after he and some friends made the trip up to Oregon to watch the U.S. championships. “It was while I was there that I saw guys who were competing in the races who I had raced against four years earlier,” he said.
It was enough to motivate Avila to lace up his running shoes again.
“My New Year’s resolution in 2011 was to get back to racing,” Avila explained. “I started to have fun again while running.”
In his first competitive race after a two-year layoff, at an all-comers meet at UC San Diego, Avila finished second to last in the 30-deep field and was lapped by half the field.
But he was back on track in more ways than one.
It didn’t take long for Avila’s natural talent to re-manifest itself. He received a call from Southern Oregon University and, from there, Avila’s running career slowly began to build to eventual greatness at the NAIA level.
“The rest is history,” Avila said with an all-knowing grin.
Avila wrapped up his collegiate eligibility this spring. To say that he left his mark on the sport is an understatement.
While at Southern Oregon, Avila won a national cross country championship (finishing first out of 320 runners last fall with a time of 24:02.5 in the 8K race), won two indoor titles, and concluded an All-American career by winning a national championship in the 1500 meters at May’s outdoor nationals (3:48.93) after finishing second the previous year.
Avila made headlines during the regular season by setting the top times in the NAIA in both the 800 and 1500 distances.
He set the nation’s top time in the 5000-meter distance with a time of 13:43.05 at the Stanford Invitational in April, besting a number of Division I runners in the process.
At the 2014 NAIA outdoor championships, Avila won the 1500-meter event while finishing 11th in the 5000 in 15:20.47. Prior to that, he won Cascade Conference titles in both the 1500 (3:46.96) and 5000 (14:452.11) while finishing second in the 800 (1:50.83).
At the Oregon Relays in April, Avila finished second to U.S. Olympian and world championship silver medalist Matthew Centrowitz in the 1500 (3:42.18). The former Baron standout led at one point in the race.
Centrowitz won by a mere 0.33 second.
After regaining his racing legs after the two-year lay-off, Avila was a model of consistency his senior year at Southern Oregon with top times for the Raiders in the 800 (1:50.83), 1500 (3:42.18), mile (4:07.32) and 5000 (13:43.05).
He was Southern Oregon’s first Cascade Conference men’s Track and Field Athlete of the Year since 2002.
Becoming a national collegiate champion was not an easy one, according to Jeff Phair, Avila’s former BVHS coach.
“Eric was heavily recruited out of high school and received a full scholarship at Northern Arizona University, one of the top running programs in the country,” Phair explained. “Eric’s teammates were on the Olympic teams for several other countries from around the world.”
But the intense workouts and concentration on running left little time for studying for Avila, who was also intent on partying. As a result, Avila did not complete enough units and maintain a suitable grade-point average to retain his scholarship.
Phair was among those who never lost faith in the ex-Baron standout.
“Since his comeback two years ago, Eric has re-dedicated himself to performing at a high level, both in his running and in academics,” Phair said. “Eric didn’t give up when his first year of college was very difficult. Instead, he learned how to balance athletics and academics. His perseverance has now opened several doors for him.
“Eric’s high GPA qualifies him for graduate school. But he is also considering offers from several international sport products companies to run professionally as a corporate spokesman. Eric’s story of success is a good example for other young college students to not give up when college becomes tough.”
Avila’s message to young athletes is clear: It’s not whether you get knocked down, but whether you get back up again.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Eric Avila is the best South Bay runner of all time,” Phair summed up. “We will see him running in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.”
Thursday's event featured elementary school, middle school, high school and elite men’s and women’s races. The event brought out together elite runners from seemingly everywhere, including former Olympian Mary Decker Slaney (top finisher in the mixed mile run ElliptiGO) and several top-grade performers from the Olympic Training Center-Chula Vista.
Avila and Acosta were the top participants in the elite men’s field. Both were clearly deserving of the celebrated feat they accomplished.
Acosta, the San Diego Section’s 2004 Runner of the Year, scored a rare feat when he won the boys race at the 2005 Footlocker National Cross Country championships at San Diego’s Morley Field. Acosta would go on to compete nationally for the celebrated the University of Oregon’s track and field team.
As a sophomore with the Ducks, Acosta timed 3:58.52 in an indoor mile race to break a 35-year-old record held by Oregon legend Steve Prefontaine. Acosta also won two national titles as part of the Ducks distance medley relay team.
Avila, the section’s boys cross country and track and field athlete of the year in 2006-07, recovered from an abortive career at one of the nation’s top Division I running programs at Northern Arizona University to earn All-American honors at Southern Oregon University where he was a NAIA national cross country champion and outdoor champion in the 1500 meters.
While in high school, Acosta was Avila’s idol.
In fact, Avila, sporting body paint, was part of the A.J. Nation fan support group when Acosta won the Footlocker Nationals.