We were broadcasting the National Scholastic Indoor Track & Field Championships for ESPN from the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y. It was Sunday, March 11, 1990. Though we had known one another for many years as reporter – athlete, the 1990 National Scholastic meet was the first time I found myself broadcasting alongside 1972 Olympic Marathon champion Frank Shorter.
During one of the breaks in our coverage, we began to discus the news of the day, primarily the tectonic political shift going on in Eastern Europe.
The Lithuanian parliament was poised to secede from the Soviet Union, marking the first break from Moscow by a Baltic state forcibly annexed in 1940. A Lithuanian secession would represent the first independence vote of any kind in the 68-year history of the Soviet state.
The questions we, and many others, had were: how far would the 1989 revolution extend? How would the Soviets and America play it? And what shape would the world eventually take in the aftermath? It was a momentous time.
As action picked up once again on the track far below in the cavernous dome, Frank and I turned our attention to the boy’s two-mile race.
“Frank, what was your high school best at two miles,” I inquired on air.
“9:38,” he replied, recalling his days at Northfield Mount Hermon Academy in Massachusetts, class of `65.
A few minutes later after the race had wound down, an eager-faced young man approached our broadcast location from the stands below. Looking up, he tentatively said, “Mr. Shorter?”
Occasionally, stand-offing with peers, Frank was never anything but gracious with young athletes. Amidst the ensuing conversation with the Olympic gold medalist, the youngster explained that he had come to the Carrier Dome to watch the meet because he’d just missed qualifying for the nationals himself.
“I only ran 9:36,” he told Shorter dejectedly, explaining how hard he’d tried to make the qualifying standard.
“You know,” Frank replied, “that’s two seconds faster than my high school PR.”
The kid’s eyes opened even wider.
“9:38? You mean I might not be finished yet?”
The world at-large may change, invariably reconnecting in new geo-political formulations. Times in sport may change, too – whether faster or slower will depend on the power of detection of rules breaking – which has always been an area of particular concern to Shorter who missed out on a second Olympic gold medal in Montreal ‘76 due to an undiscovered doping violation.
But the drive to achieve will forever remain constant, not the least due to the modeling provided by the heroes who elevate the eyes and encourage the hopes of those who follow In their footsteps. For this new generation of runners, Frank Shorter will always be first among those heroes.