The Right Track
By Lori Shontz
When the call came in September 2014, Annie Davis Usher, BARC '03 was home, enjoying her second month of maternity leave. “Annie, you need to get back,” the callers said. “We’ve got a project. You’d be the perfect one for it.”
The project: Transforming the Oregon Convention Center—home of fitness expos, beer and wine festivals, and dental conventions—into a one-of-a-kind, 7,000-seat stadium for the 2016 IAAF world indoor track and field championships.
The assignment was unusual. Vin Lananna, University of Oregon associate athletic director and president of Tracktown USA, said he had heard plenty of people asking how a 7,000-seat stadium would fit in the convention center. “And I was asking myself the same questions,” he said.
Usher wasn’t fazed. “It was a big puzzle,” she said. “And I love puzzles.”
Among the puzzle pieces: two giant columns, around which she had to fit the 200-meter track and seating bowl, and a low, 30-foot ceiling.
The ceiling affected the all-important position of the finish-line camera, which is required to be at a 20-degree angle. Stationing it behind the back row of bleachers is usually sufficient, but because of the low ceiling, the bleachers had a 10-degree rise. “That was a head-scratcher for a while,” said Usher, who solved the problem with two 20-foot high lifts.
The venue received near-universal praise from the athletes and organizers. Lananna, speaking March 20, the last day of the four-day event, remembered the early questions as the championships wrapped up. “The answer is, it fits; it works,” he said. “I think the sellout crowds really enjoyed it.”
When she took on the project, Usher, a 2003 University of Oregon graduate who specializes in athletic architecture for GBD Architects in Portland, immediately enlisted her mother and mother-in-law to help care for her newborn daughter and her toddler son. And no wonder.
She’s the daughter of parents who founded a youth track club, a former 1,500-meter runner for Oregon, and a mother whose 3-year-old son loves track so much he is begging for his own set of starting blocks. So, yes, she was a natural fit to design the venue—and not only because she could explain track banking and shot put nets and crash walls.
“We like to hire college athletes because we know what they’re made of,” said Gene Callan, director at GBD Architects. “One, it’s clear to us that they can work as part of a team. Two, they’ve got a work ethic. Annie is a perfect example of that.”
Usher, 37, grew up in a family of runners—not only her parents, but her older sister Marie, who was a six-time All-American for the Ducks in track and cross country. Usher began her track career in kindergarten in a 100-meter race: “I got run over by the girl next to me, and I remember coming down the track with cinders on my face.”
She attended Oregon partly because of a strong family tradition (there’s one uncle, a black sheep of sorts, who went to Yale), partly because of its architecture program, which allowed her to get started with classes immediately rather than waiting until her third year, as some programs did. “And running,” she added. “You can’t pick a better place to run than Oregon.”
Usher’s track career was plagued with injuries—asthma, then shin splits. After three and a half years, she quit competing. “I loved running so much, but my body at that time couldn’t take it,” she said. “I didn’t want to push it so much I couldn’t keep running for the rest of my life.”
After three weeks, Usher was bored, so she walked on to the golf team. “I always try to be part of a team in some way or another,” she said. “I just thrive off that kind of stuff.”
Again, Usher had a strong base—her father, Gaylord Davis, had spent four years on the Ducks’ golf team, and he is a founding owner of the Pumpkin Ridge course near Portland.
When she graduated, Usher put her architecture degree to use, doing golf course clubhouse master planning and other such designs. When her bosses at GBD and Douglas Obletz, president and co-founder of project management company Shiels Obletz Johnsen, called with the track assignment, she was ready for the scale and technical demands the project entailed.
Usher, now a competitive cyclist and triathlete, enjoyed the elite meets at the venue. But just as important, she said, were the community running events at the House of Track, in a Portland warehouse that housed the track before the elite events arrived. That’s where her son, Alex, competed Monday nights in the 60, 200 and 400 meters. (Her 1 1/2-year old daughter, Hattie, did not run. “She wanted to,” Usher said, laughing, “but she would not have stayed at the starting line.”)
“I’ve told everyone that the end of this project is really hard for me,” she said. “It’s been a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”