By Brian Metzler
For a hot moment in 2019, the Tinman Elite professional running team seemed to be all that.
The Boulder, Colorado-based post-collegiate running group burst on the scene a few years ago with young star-in-the-making Drew Hunter and savant coach Tom “Tinman” Schwartz as the centerpieces of what was bound to be a different kind of team.
When it started in 2017, Hunter was an Adidas-sponsored pro a year removed from a record-setting high school career in Virginia punctuated by a national indoor mile record of 3:57.81. After he settled on Boulder and began training under Schwartz (who coached him remotely in high school), he began training with Morgan Pearson and eventually Reed Fischer and eventually started the Tinman team organization that included Sam Parsons, Jordan Gusman, Connor Winter, Joey Berriatua, Jeff Thies, Sydney Gidabuday and Brian Barraza, among others.
While Hunter was already a household name — Adidas had given him a 10-year contract and tuition to pursue a college education — the rest of the guys were all good to very good All-American-caliber runners in college. The team wanted to become one of the top elite running teams in the U.S., with a stated goal of qualifying its athletes for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo in events from the 800m to the marathon. But, as Runner’s World declared in a 2019 article on the team, “beyond the drive for accolades and medals, there’s a second, equally important ambition: to make elite running more transparent, relatable, and fun.”
They succeeded at the latter to some extent, but haven’t yet achieved the former.
The Tinman Elite announced their presence with authority, pumping out dozens of social media images and videos that gave followers a behind-the-scenes look inside the daily existences of their tattooed, wild-haired rock star lives. They also created a logo and sold Tinman-branded Adidas apparel and accessories to a large fan base. (As of this week, the group has 78,000 followers on Instagram and 50,000 on YouTube.)
As they were starting to improve as runners, the Tinman Elite crew set a new standard for what the brand of a professional training group could be, becoming more visible than established teams like Nike’s Bowerman Track Club, HOKA’s North Arizona Elite, the Brooks Hanson’s team and Team Boss. From the start, Tinman Elite was sponsored in part by Adidas and also picked up the backing of Whoop and their social media following gained a lot of eyeballs for each brand.
Back then, all of the athletes seemed to buy into Schwartz’s coaching and his “keep the ball rolling” theory of training. Things were good for the Tinman runners: they were popular, making money, training hard and living the good life in Boulder. But as early as 2019, tensions and control issues began to surface. Schwartz had been coaching the team remotely from Idaho on a $2,000 per-month stipend, but his charges insisted he move to the Boulder area. Schwartz, who was working on finishing a Ph.D. in exercise science, picked up his family and moved, though without any real job security or management control of the team that bore his nickname. At the same time, the Tinman Elite athletes also hired former elite runner and Arizona State coach Cory Leslie as the team’s director and assistant coach, as well as Christopher Lee as its strength and performance coach — both were reportedly paid more than the team was paying Schwartz.
Still, going on five years, elite-level results have been rare for the Tinman Elite. Hunter, now 23, won a U.S. indoor title in the 2-mile run in 2019 and also earned a spot in the 5,000m on the U.S. team that competed at the 2019 World Championships in Doha, Qatar, even though he was hurt and couldn’t compete. Parsons, 27, made the German team in the same event (based on his family roots), but didn’t make it to the finals. Gusman, Fischer, Barraza and others also showed some improvement, but none yet indicative that they could compete on the world stage as the team had hoped.
Still, that set up hope for 2020, but when everything was postponed for a year, so too were the Tinman Elite hopes of emerging on the world stage. But Hunter, Parsons and Gusman were plagued by injuries and, as the massive social media efforts and merchandise production continued — Tinman Elite allegedly sold $2.5 million in merchandise last year — a situation of infighting, injuries and insurrection began to emerge.
The house of cards began to tumble in 2021, as the team fired Schwartz, fought to keep the right to the Tinman Elite name (which they trademarked on their own behind his back) and eventually brought Hunter’s mom, Joan Hunter, to become the new head coach. (She’s an accomplished coach with a background in exercise physiology and a former college and elite runner herself.) In the meantime, Gidabuday and Thies both quit or were kicked off the team (reports vary), though both seem to remain close to the team and will continue training in Boulder.
As for the Olympic year results, there were a handful of modest bits of success. Reed Fischer had qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in February 2020 based on his solid 1:01:37 half marathon PR, but he fell several times in the race in Atlanta and finished 97th in 2:24:48. On the track, Barraza lowered his 3,000-meter steeplechase PR to 8:24.39 and two good races at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene in June, making the finals and placing 11th. Gidabuday also made it to the Olympic Trials in the 5,000, but he ran unattached (not wearing Adidas or Tinman Elite gear since May) and finished seventh in his preliminary heat (13:48.75), failing to make it to the finals by a half a second.
Despite other Boulder training groups — Team Boss, On Athletics Club, Team Boulder — sending athletes to the Olympics this year, the Tinman Elite crew had to go through a humble reckoning and start focusing on 2022. (But to give credit where credit is due, they did raise $5,000 for a relief fund to support the families impacted by the March 23 supermarket shooting in Boulder.) There’s a fine line between success and failure in competitive running and history is littered with good runners who trained hard but still never made it to the world’s biggest stage.
The good news is there is still hope. Hunter is finally healthy again after a long injury battle with femoral stress reactions and a partially torn plantar and is young enough to become a great runner as he enters his prime. With new leadership, a new mix of athletes and the 2022 World Championships in Eugene and the 2024 Olympics in Paris right around the corner, the Tinman Elite could be poised to be all that as soon as next year.
In the meantime, their latest social media video, called “Reckoning,” just dropped.