Before the start of the Jesuit Invite at Georgetown Preparatory School outside of Washington, DC, on Friday, February 21, sophomore Dan Santino approached Saint Ignatius alumnus Tom O’Hara, class of 1960, near the small grandstand beside the main straightaway. After they had been introduced, Santino politely asked O’Hara a question: “What did it feel like to set a world record?”
Fifty years ago, almost to the day, O’Hara twice set world indoor track records in the mile run, first running 3 minutes 56.6 seconds in New York on February 13, 1964, and then 3:56.4 on a small 11-laps-to-the-mile track in the Chicago Stadium on March 6. More than 18,000 spectators were in attendance for the Chicago Daily News Relays, a hometown crowd for Chicagoan Thomas Martin Ignatius O’Hara, who was running for Loyola University in his senior year. O’Hara, one of the greatest collegiate distance runners in NCAA history, would go on to make the United States Olympic team in the 1500-meters that summer. Touted as America’s best hope to win a medal in the distance races in Tokyo, his portrait made the cover of Sports Illustrated, with a long profile story of a shy, small, red-headed young man from an Irish Chicago family. O’Hara was hit with a strength-sapping illness before the games–likely a result of an even heavier training load than what produced the records, O’Hara admits, as he probably overdid it preparing for the big Olympic test. He reached the Olympic semi-finals, but he didn’t qualify for the final.
In the amateur track days of the 1960s, it was difficult to sustain a running career after college. After graduating from Loyola, O’Hara went on to become a life insurance salesman, based in Villa Park, IL—and a good one, it seems. It is an asset to a salesman, I would assume, when people know you as a former world record holder.
At Georgetown Prep, O’Hara and his wife, Joan, were guests of the generous benefactor who for the second year had funded the Saint Ignatius track team on its trip to the Jesuit Invite. They flew with the team from O’Hare, enduring a three-and-a-half hour flight delay and a 1:30 am arrival at the Bethesda Residence Inn. We had originally planned a tour of the U.S. Capitol the next morning, but we emailed a cancellation to let the boys—and the O’Haras—catch up on their sleep before the big meet that day.
On the night before he flew from Chicago with us, Loyola University honored the 50th anniversary of O’Hara’s 1964 records with a half-time ceremony that included showing the Loyola basketball crowd a video of the Daily News Relays race. Available on Youtube, it was originally aired live on ABC’s Wide World of Sports television show. In attendance at the 50th anniversary event were members of the 1963 Loyola NCAA national championship basketball team. O’Hara himself was an NCAA champion–in the mile and in cross country.
Dan Santino and his Ignatius teammates had watched that Youtube video in a classroom at Ignatius that same week. Santino’s track fan father, Bill, had also gone on E-Bay to purchase copies of the Sports Illustrated magazine with O’Hara on the cover. Santino, one of the top runners in Illinois and just a sophomore, would later present O’Hara with the magazines, which O’Hara autographed.
But their first conversation began with that simple question. “How did it feel to set the world record?”
O’Hara thought a bit before he gave his answer. Then he looked Santino in the eye and said, very simply, “Well, it felt pretty good.”
Santino’s coach, standing with the pair, sought a more complicated answer: The first time he set the record, had O’Hara expected to do it? Did he know he could run that fast?
Once again, the now grey-haired O’Hara gave a simple answer: “I knew that I was running pretty well at the time, yes. My training was pretty good.”
Tom O’Hara’s two days traveling with Santino and the Ignatius team didn’t really include any profound moments of advice or encouragement. He talked with the boys simply and directly, answering their questions–and telling some stories.
He struck the boys, most of all, as simply a very nice man, notably modest about his tremendous accomplishments as a runner. At Jesuit schools we have a mantra that applies to a simple ethical idea: “Men and women for others.” Taking a couple days to travel with them, the O’Haras showed the boys what that means.
Most notably, perhaps, the boys watched O’Hara and his wife find small ways to attend and assist another Ignatius alumnus at the meet, Ray Mayer, class of 1951. Mayer, in fact, was the benefactor for the trip–and it had been his idea to invite the O’Haras along for the ride. A former Army career officer and then a successful real estate dealer in Northern Virginia, Mayer suffers from Parkinson’s. O’Hara had recently had his own bout with medical issues; he has recuperated remarkably from a quintuple bypass last October.
The pair had met at a lunch gathering that afternoon, organized by Mayer’s friend and Ignatius teammate Tom Coyne, who had made the drive from Kalamazoo, MI, just for the lunch and the track meet.
Mayer had been a star runner at Ignatius fewer than ten years before O’Hara.
Among other things, of course, Mayer and O’Hara shared the tutelage of famed Ignatius coach Dr. Ralph Mailliard. Both agreed that while they loved Mailliard like a father, for all his success Mailliard was not an expert coach when it came to the training of distance runners.
As it happened, O’Hara and Mayer had also shared a second coach, Jerry Weiland, at Loyola. Mayer had gone from Ignatius to Marquette on a track scholarship, but, he said directly, “It didn’t work out there. I was terribly unhappy.” So he had transferred to Loyola, where his running still did not develop as well as he hoped under Weiland—although he did run a 4:12 mile. Like Mailliard, O’Hara and Mayer agreed without any disrespect, Weiland might not have been the most knowledgeable coach for distance runners.
O’Hara had fared better at Loyola, he thought, partly because during his time at Loyola Weiland had taken on an assistant, Don Amidei. Amidei had been the coach of phenom Tom Sullivan at Evanston’s St. George High School. Weiland had hired Amidei, it seems, expecting he could recruit Sullivan to Loyola; Sullivan, at the last minute, chose Villanova, instead. A 4:03.5 miler in high school, the fastest high school miler in history before Jim Ryun broke the 4-minute barrier in 1964, Sullivan never matched that time as a collegian; he did, however, become a doctor, a pediatric neurologist, in fact. Sullivan’s loss was O’Hara’s gain. Amidei left Loyola to coach at DePaul after a year, but it was Amidei’s training program, O’Hara said, that he followed through the glory years of his college career, with Weiland holding the watch for the workouts and providing motivation.
(As an aside and to complete the circle, in a way, Amidei went on to be the head track coach at Northwestern. He was, in fact, my coach there when I ran track and cross country my freshman year. But Amidei also returned to high school coaching after he left Northwestern, and he coached at Saint Ignatius from 1983 to 1985. At Saint Ignatius Amidei coached Karamath Khan ’84, father of junior Kallin Khan.)
O’Hara said he really believed that Weiland had developed his own ideas as a track coach from his experience and interest in race horses. He told a story to prove his point. When the runners at Loyola complained about shin splints, Weiland showed up at practice one day holding a bottle with a strange chemical name on the label. “It was horse liniment!” O’Hara laughed. O’Hara didn’t let the coach anywhere near his legs with his horse liniment wraps.
Mayer, listening intently, didn’t miss a beat. “Coach,” he whinnied to O’Hara, “we’re running as fast as we can.”
It was an entertaining lunch.
Later, at the meet, Joan O’Hara procured an office chair for Mayer, which she thought would be more comfortable than his combination walker-chair. O’Hara supplied him with water and candy as they watched the meet together.
The Ignatius boys, when they were not busy with the meet, stopped in for short conversations.
A year ago the Ignatius team had fallen behind early in the meet and then rallied to win at the end. They had made Mayer very happy when he hoisted their trophy.
The meet features East Coast Jesuit school teams from New York City (Regis, Xavier, and Fordham Prep), Baltimore (Loyola-Blakefield), and the DC-area (Georgetown Prep and Gonzaga). The New York teams were clearly resting some of their best runners, looking ahead to the big Eastern States meet closer to home in the Armory the following week.
In the 2014 edition of the meet, Ignatius fell behind once again but could not rally all the way to victory, as Fordham tallied 122 points to our 112. Mayer said he was not disappointed with the outcome. We noted that we still had a second-place trophy to take home on the plane to Chicago.
We also had some outstanding performances. Senior Conor Dunham won the 55-meter hurdles in a time of 7.60 seconds, which at the time was the top performance for an Illinois high school runner in 2014; it was also a new meet record for the Jesuit Invite. Senior Chris Hawkins, close behind Dunham, ran 7.77 seconds, at the time the number two performance for Illinois. Dunham later won the 300-meter dash in 36.64. Hawkins won the long jump with a distance of 20 feet and 5.25 inches.
Senior Chris Korabik won the 1600-meter run with a furious finish, as he closed a ten-meter gap with a 62-second final 400 to run 4:23.94. His time beat the meet record set the previous year by Ignatius’s Jack Keelan. Korabik now has the number two performance at 1600 meters for an Illinois runner in 2014.
The O’Haras had five children, who did some track and cross country running of their own. Joan O’Hara described Tom running around the cross country course exhorting the runners—and especially his own kids. He was more subdued at our meet.
On Saturday morning, after the Friday night meet, Tom and Joan O’Hara joined the team after we checked out of the Residence Inn in Bethesda and traveled by Metro to the National Mall for some sightseeing. After the terrible cold of a hard Chicago winter, the boys and the O’Haras all seemed to enjoy the sun and 64-degrees of Washington, DC, as much as they did the Smithsonian museums they visited. The boys spent more time playing Frisbee near our park bench “baggage camp” than they did sightseeing. They did manage, however, to take some photos of their trophy in some interesting locations.
At the airport, after passing through the TSA with the trophy, Dan and his teammate brother Brian Santino approached Tom O’Hara with the Sports Illustrated magazines purchased by their father. O’Hara graciously signed them.
The Santinos then presented one of their magazines to their coach. O’Hara later told me, “I signed yours in gold.”
His inscription: “Dear Ed, My best wishes. Thank you so much for inviting me to the track meet. I enjoyed it so much. Tom O’Hara.”
Later, as they left the plane after arrival at O’Hare, O’Hara shook hands with each of the boys.
My friend and colleague Patrick McHugh, track coach and athletic director at North Shore Country Day School, has written in his own blog about an idea that he calls “team touch.” It is important, he says, for teammates to make physical contact with each other during the day of a big meet—shaking hands, patting each other on the back, team huddles.
For a weekend, Tom O’Hara generously joined our Ignatius team—and touched our team. We will be a better team because of it.