John Treacy tells a good story about running the NCAA cross-country in 1977. Staged at the aptly named Hangman Valley golf course – this race is pure punishment – he fancied his chances of winning despite the revered company of local favourite Henry Rono.
Rono was running for hosts Washington State University, and won the year before, completing that 10km race in 28 minutes and six seconds, still the fastest winning time in NCAA cross-country history.
Treacy, running for Providence College in Rhode Island, on the other side of America and a long way from his hometown of Villierstown, knew the only chance of beating Rono was to hang on as long as possible.
In the field of 298 runners, Rono and Treacy hit the front, and were together at the first mile mark, where coaches typically gather to shout out the split time.
“Four minutes 18, four minutes 19…”
“Christ,” Treacy thought to himself, “I’m barely hanging on here already.”
With that he looked over to Rono, who without pausing for breath declared “too slow . . . too slow”, then took off.
He won in 28:33, Treacy second in 28:51. Certainly no shame in that, Rono unquestionably one of the great Kenyan distance runners of our time. Ask Steve Ovett.
Four months later, running at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow, Treacy won the World Cross-Country, on paper a much bigger deal than the NCAAs, only not necessarily harder to win.
Before or since, only two Irish-born men won that coveted American colleges cross-country title – Neil Cusack with East Tennessee in 1972, and Keith Kelly, also with Providence College, in 2000.
Trace the long trail and plenty others have tried. The NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) was founded in 1906, staging the first cross-country championship in 1938. Except for 1943, when the second World War got in the way, it’s been raced every year since, and I can tell you the first Irish athlete to ever make it that far because he was my father.
In 1958, representing Idaho State University, Tom O’Riordan finished 10th, the then four-mile race staged in Forest Akers golf course in East Lansing, Michigan, a long way from Tubrid crossroads in Kerry.
It was staged there again in 1959, when he finished fifth, one place and two seconds ahead of Billy Mills, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe running for the University of Kansas. Five years later Mills won the Olympic 10,000m gold medal in Tokyo.
Last June, to mark the 100th staging the NCAA outdoor track and field championships, they selected the names of 30 past winners and inducted them into the inaugural NCAA Athlete Hall of Fame.
Names like Jesse Owens, Wilma Rudolph, Jim Ryun, Henry Rono (yes), Steve Prefontaine, Carl Lewis, Jackie Joyner and Merlene Ottey. Ronnie Delany was in there among those names, the sole Irish recipient of what is clearly one of the highest accolades in athletics.
Each of the 30 athletes were chosen solely on their accomplishments while a collegiate athlete: between them they won 205 individual NCAA titles, also breaking 99 world records and winning 19 Olympic gold medals, in or out of college. Some indication perhaps of the always red-hot competition.
Delany’s NCAA career was indeed stellar, winning four individual outdoor titles during his four years at Villanova University from 1955-58, during which time he also won Olympic 1,500m gold in Melbourne 1956. In his final year he completed an 880 yard/mile double, these points helping secure Villanova their first and only NCAA outdoor team title.
Fast forward to 1992, when I was at Brown University, and part of the cross-country team that qualified for the NCAAs, following in the footsteps of my father 34 years earlier.
The Irish connection was still strong. Mark Carroll, Conor Holt, Frank Hanley, Niall Bruton, Cormac Finnerty, Ken Nason, Donal O’Sullivan and Seamus Power were all among the other Irish runners that day in Bloomington.
Sonia O’Sullivan is the only Irish woman to win the NCAA cross-country title, in 1990 and again in 1991, and she won the 3,000m, also for Villanova, in 1990 and 1991.
No Irish man or woman has come even close to winning an NCAA sprint event, which is exactly where Rhasidat Adeleke is right now – at age 20, one of the favourites to win the 400m in Albuquerque this weekend, running for the University of Texas. The blazing of the trail continues.