A Recovery Run: Secretariat

(posted previously on the old web site)

ronny turcotteLately, I have been obsessed with the story of the great horse Secretariat, but perhaps more specifically the jockey, Ron Turcotte. I remember, even as a child, being caught up in the unfolding story of the great horse about to win the Triple Crown.  Since then I have paid attention and even watched some other horse races, but never to the degree that I did when I was 13 years old watching and admiring the horse, the story, and the emerging legend of Secretariat.

As kids, we even simulated the horse races leading up to the Belmont by racing plastic golf balls down the sidewalk in front of our house.  It sounds stupid, but for us kids, it was an attempt to somehow be a part of the excitement and story of the great horse.  We had plastic golf balls colored green and yellow for Sham, colors representing the other horses and of course mine, blue and white checkered, in honor of Secretariat.  Since then the story of this horse has remained close to my heart and recently has become a symbol of a very important part of my life.

In December of 2010 I was asked to speak at a gathering of high school cross-country coaches representing the best programs throughout the country.  Why I was asked, I still don’t know, but I accepted the invitation, not so much for myself, but for all the kids whose abilities and accomplishments have led me to this point in coaching and in life.  Their names are Betsy Flood, Katie Flood, Ashlie Decker and Heather Tobias. These four, along with a host of other great runners and great people, have showed me, and taught me and brought me to some of the greatest lessons and experiences of my life.   Please remember, it had very little to do with me and everything to do with them, much like what Ron Turcotte probably experienced while riding the horse Secretariat.

That evening at The Nike Headquarters there I was on the stage with some of the great and emerging legends, authors, athletes and coaches of the sport.  Sitting next to me was great runner Adam Goucher, husband of Olympian Kara Goucher along with author Tim Catalano.  They were promoting their new book “Running the Edge.”  On the other side of them was great Nike elite running trainer Jerry Schumuacher.  And then there was this guy…”Kirby who? From Bowling High School?  From where? Des Plaines, Idaho?”  What was I doing up there?

I began my remarks by saying something like, “My coaching philosophy at Dowling simply involves having two All-Americans on my team and not to ruin it with my coaching.”  I went on to say that during the last four years I felt like Ron Turcotte on Secretariat who once said, “I just didn’t want to do anything stupid like fall off.”

These four girls, along with the teams that I have coached, gave me experiences much like I felt back in 1973 when Secretariat won the Triple Crown and perhaps what the jockey may have felt riding along.  Even before the movie about the horse, I have been drawn to watching the YouTube videos of the Belmont Stakes when the horse won the race by some 31 lengths. I still feel a huge wave of emotion watching this incredible specimen so obliterate a field of competitors while doing it with such grace and beauty.  I feel like crying when I watch it, even still.  Why?  Why does watching a horse win a race bring so much emotion?

Apparently I am not alone.  Karissa Schweizer a high school sophomore runner on our team currently and 3k state champion told me that she overheard her father Mike watching the movie “Secretariat” yelling “Go Secretariat! Go!” She also told me that she even noticed a couple of tears in her father’s eyes as he was watching.

Recently, out of the blue, I sent Ann Flood an email and asked her to watch the race on YouTube to see if it conjured up any similar and or familiar feelings.  Actually it was a test to see if she, as the mother of Kate and Betsy, felt the same way I did which might perhaps somehow validate my own feelings when watching Secretariat run that race.  Ann wrote back that she still gets choked up watching that race and remembers it like it was yesterday.

I’ve watched countless other videos and even experienced other human athletic events since then and yet I never feel that same emotion.  With the exception of my experiences in coaching, the only thing coming close to eliciting this same feeling would be when watching the 1968 Olympic race of Billy Mills winning the 10,000m or when the USA Hockey Team defeated the Soviet Union in 1980.  Even when my own beloved Boston Red Sox finally won the World Series, as excited and as emotional as I was, still, I did not feel the same way as when I watch this horse race.  Why?  Why does a grown man react this way over a horse’s accomplishments more so than most relatively comparable and even greater human achievements and dramas?

Perhaps part of it might be watching and appreciating something so pure, honest, good, athletic, graceful, beautiful, perfect and dominant.    Maybe another part is watching someone/something not only fulfill such lofty expectations, but to obliterate even the most optimistic of all predictions.  I think perhaps the biggest part, is the rising to the moment, to perform your best on the biggest stage, against all odds.

It certainly has to do with Chick Anderson’s historical call of the race, his excitement, his disbelief, and his billy millsgenuine joy and happiness in being a part of the great event.  “Secretariat is moving like a tremendous machine!”  One can’t help jump on board with this band wagon the same way as we all joined Al Michaels at the 1980 Olympics in asking the question we all want to answer “yes” to, “Do you believe in miracles?’  The same unbridled joy and excitement can be heard in the announcers as Billy Mills won his gold medal.  “Look at Mills! Look at Mills!”  I get such a kick listening to that announcer and his buddy laughing and cheering in sheer joy and exhilaration in the background.  I know how that announcer feels, because I’ve felt that way several times in my life watching four young athletes accomplish similar things in similar fashion on similar stages.

In 2007 it was another great announcer, Drake’s Michael Jay who caused me to get goose bumps as he called Katie Flood’s last 200 meters of her maiden 3000m at the Drake Relays.  I remember with great fondness Michael’s voice soaring above the stadium, “Katie Flood! The freshman sensation from Dowling Catholic!” Just thinking of Michael’s call that day causes the same emotions within me as Chick Anderson’s call of the 1973 Belmont; tears come to my eyes thinking about it even now.  I remember putting a video together for our Dowling track team that year and as I was inserting the video of this race with Kate, Michael Jay and the crowd.  I remember putting my head on my keyboard and crying feeling like many did in 1973 at Belmont.  Sure, it had everything to do with Kate that day, but it also had to do with how everything was perfect, the weather, the announcing, the crowd, the stage and the rising to the moment by a great athlete.

I can think of other moments involving the four runners mentioned previously, some not as encapsulating as drake-2007-original-20722.jpgothers, but remembered with great love, precision, and detail.  Perhaps it was the very first of these memories that I am recalling now.  I heard of Betsy Flood’s sister Katie, of course, everyone had.  Kate had been doing the running thing in record breaking fashion as a middle school phenom, while Betsy was cool to the whole running thing and actually didn’t run cross country at all her freshman year of high school.  She swam instead.

Coming out for track that spring, however, she learned, as we all did, just what a great athlete she was.  By the time Betsy’s sophomore year rolled around she was ready for cross-country, as she began to love running more and more.  After a disappointing state cross-country meet, it seemed as though Betsy made a commitment to her running.  It was rather funny for me being the distance coach, having a kid “wanting” to do the 3,000m, which was generally used by we coaches as a “hammer” or “punishment” for team members not behaving. Now, Betsy was loving the distance and the 1500m, breaking school records all along the way.  By the time the state meet came around Betsy’s sophomore year she was in great shape.  I knew she would have a good state meet, but I never realized how great a meet she would actually have.

At that time, I was still in the good graces of the track officials and was able to get a photo pass, even as a coach, to take photos for the yearbook etc.  I had to promise the officials that I would do no coaching while on the track, otherwise I would be kicked out and perhaps disqualify our kids.  Keeping my mouth shut and not being able to yell for our kids was torture.  It was agonizing to have them run by within maybe a few feet, without being able to say one word of encouragement or advice.

I really enjoyed hanging out with the photographers during those times.  Many of them have become my very good friends.  I had a routine for shooting the various races in which our kids ran.  First the start, then the back stretches and finally run to the finish line to get my spot.  It was important to get to the finish line well ahead of the runners in order to secure a spot and without annoying the officials or any of the news people and other photographers.  The veterans and big time professional photographers got the choice spots along the wall and we all knew better than to mess with them.  Behind the pros it was first come first serve, but there were some unspoken rules about courtesy among the shooters.  The Alpha Males of the group usually kept everyone in line.

I usually looked for Chris Donahue, a good friend and a great enabler of my photography addiction.  Not only is Chris a great photographer who shoots nationally, he knows cameras and has been able to get me great deals on great equipment.  I always know Chris won’t mind if I shoot over his shoulder at the finish of any race.

Another photographer friend is a man by the name of Earl Hurst.  Earl is more like me, in that we just love to take photos of our kids, just for the love of the sport, the people, and taking pictures; not for any money we might make doing so.   He’s usually at the finish line along the wall and I look to where he is situated for a possible spot for me to shoot from.  As I mentioned, Earl and Chris are good friends and so are most of the others, but there are some jerks to be aware of.  These guys are usually to be avoided because they will either get in your way or cause some kind of drama or confrontation. After a race, it is kind of chaotic with everyone maneuvering for position in a moving mob as the athlete moves off the track.  Most guys work really well together, looking out for each other and taking turns getting the shot.  Some guys are selfish jerks and I admit not being afraid of throwing a few elbows to remind the jerks of their call to Christian charity.

Betsy had qualified for the 1500m, 800m and also was in the distance medley.  She was ranked high in the state, and while I had every hope that she would do well that day, winning the race was something, as her coach, I believed she could do, but like other coaches, I am a realist.  Even though I knew Betsy was a great athlete and a fierce competitor, I didn’t ever want to be arrogant or jinx anything by thinking too much about the lofty possibilities.

The 1500m starts at the head of the back stretch, just after the second turn, and so it always offers a unique visual to shoot the start of the race.  You have the entire field coming down the straightaway at you rather than going immediately into a turn like the 3000m or staggered all along the first turn for other races.  Betsy took her position and focused her attention and consolidated it all into the “1000yd stare” as we in our running group use to call the look focused runners possessed.

I don’t remember much about the middle of the race, but I do remember getting so nervous and excited for Betsy as she remained in contention for the lead throughout the race.  As the bell lap began, I gave up trying to take photos from too many positions and just went to the finish to suffer in silence, hoping and praying that Betsy would have a good race.  Earl and Chris realized that one of my runners was doing well and offered me a good spot to shoot from and some encouragement to me as my role as the suffering coach.  I remember just grinning, not knowing what to think or to say.

As the pack of three or four leaders hit the final 200m mark I could see how well Betsy was doing, how strong and powerful she seemed, and I knew what would happen next.   While shooting at the finish, obviously you are able to capture incredible photos of the athletes finishing, but your perspective of the race is limited since everyone is coming at you and you lack the depth needed to appreciate the racing taking place.  As Betsy and the others came off the fourth turn, they were all together bracing for their kicks.

As the pack headed for home, it was becoming more and more obvious that Betsy was going to win the race and now Earl, Chris and some of the other photographers who knew me and knew that I was Betsy’s coach, began to cheer for her and to congratulated me and pat me on the back…I just grinned that stupid grin, nervous, happy, giddy and overjoyed all at the same time.

As Betsy neared the finish line, a news videographer suddenly stood up in front of me to ready himself to get an immediate interview with Betsy after she finished. Now I was blocked of any view of the finish and I would not be able to get “the money photo” of Betsy finishing, a photo that I knew would be precious for her, her family and, of course, her coach.  Earl and Chris saw this happening, and they, along with many other photographers, screamed at the news guy for his insensitivity and blatant violation of the unspoken photographer finish line code, especially as they realized how I was blocked and understood that this moment and these next photos I clicked off were so very important for me.    The videographer quickly ducked back down and now I had a perfect line to capture Betsy’s finish.  This camaraderie among my fellow photographer friends will forever touch my heart.  Their sensitivity and appreciation of my feelings, emotions and desires at that moment is symbolic of what true friends are.  It was a moment that many coaches dream of.  Couple that with me being a photographer trying desperately to control my emotions while trying to stay calm enough to capture the moment is, all at once, the height of many emotional highs any coach or photographer might experience.  Knowing that my friends were there with me, understanding and appreciating all of this, supporting me and fighting for me is something I will be eternally thankful for and be kept in my heart forever.

A word about my photography during moments like these.  Anyone who knows me knows how excited I get as a coach.  Athletes, friends and fellow coaches are well aware of my nervous idiosyncrasies, my talking to athletes as they run as if they could actually hear me or even want to hear me; my comical hand gestures and my ridiculous way of cheering.  Knowing that this is how I am, you might appreciate my problem in trying to take photos at the same time.  “To cheer or to take photos?”  This internal struggle, often times, causes no photos and me to seize up at big moments and do nothing at all, no cheering.  I have to constantly remind myself to point the camera and to press the shutter.  At the moment of Betsy’s State Championship victory, I almost forgot to press the shutter, so mesmerized at what was actually happening.  Thank God for my television camera operator days where I was forced to learn how to separate myself from being a viewer to being the guy pointing the camera.

Betsy did not disappoint anyone, not the media nor the crowd, as she flashed the biggest brightest smile any state-day-3-Dowling168athlete has ever displayed at any finish.  She made everyone’s job easy that day.  How could you not run with video like that for the news that night or that photo for the newspaper the next day?  She did it and the crowd, photographers and officials were all smiling and celebrating with her.  It was a childlike joy and happiness that was unconstrained by anything. It just was fun, beautiful, simple, refreshing and touching.

Some of my most treasured and favorite photos that I’ve ever taken are of Betsy moments after that race as she basked in the enormity of what she had just done.  Smiling, radiant, honest and humble, trying to put it all into words for reporters.  It was funny that I remembered to find out where Betsy’s family was sitting before the race and I even managed to take a few photos of them agonizing and suffering many times more than I during the race.  Now, Betsy went to find them, and when she did, she reached up to give them all hugs.  I think those photos of Betsy with her parents are particularly touching for me in the pure emotion contained in them.  As a coach, I imagined a small portion of the pride they must of had at that moment, but also the release of nerves and anxiety, now transformed into joy and pride.  It’s hard to take photos while tearing up.  Sure, I could totally separate myself from those emotions, but who wants to be a robot or those calloused, cynical, lifer photographers I’ve know and meet through the years that have learned to avoid.

Like with watching Secretariat in the Belmont Stakes, just typing this, I can feel the tear ducts opening.  It’s the same feeling.  It has to do with how everything was perfect, the weather, the announcing, the crowd, the stage and the rising to the moment by a great athlete.  Being a part of something like that is something to be remembered for a lifetime.

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