Wednesday, November 23, 2016
Guest Article by John Walshe...DONIE WALSH – NCAA CROSS-COUNTRY 1970
DONIE WALSH – NCAA CROSS-COUNTRY 1970
By John Walshe (Irish Examiner, 18/11/2016)
Last Saturday saw the culmination of the American collegiate cross-country season when the 79th NCAA championships took place at Terre Haute, hosted by Indiana State University.
Considering the major impact Irishmen on scholarship have made over the years, it may come as a surprise to learn that just three have come away with the coveted individual title – Neil Cusack (1972), Sean Dolman (1991) and Keith Kelly (2000).
But undoubtedly one of the greatest performances ever by an Irish runner occurred on November 23, 1970, when Corkman Donie Walsh finished runner-up at the NCAA finals which took place in Williamsburg, Virginia.
The then 21-year-old Leevale athlete finished just eight seconds behind the iconic idol of the day, Steve Prefontaine, but what was just as remarkable was the number of famous names he left in his wake.
Prefontaine was a teenage sensation, winning every meet he contested in his junior and senior years in high school. He had also established a national high school record of 8:41.6 for two miles.
Recruited by the University of Oregon under coach Bill Bowerman (later to become one of the founders of Nike), Prefontaine had already taken the bronze medal at the NCAA cross-country the previous year of 1969.
In his first year on scholarship at the famed Villanova University, Walsh had finished a highly promising 11th that day, after an over-ambitious start. “The mistake I made that year was that I went out too fast. I went through the first mile in 4:15 which was a second faster than my personal best for the distance at the time,” he recalls.
His form leading into the 1970 decider was good, and he had also learned a valuable lesson. “I said this time I would go out slow, and went through the first mile in 4:30. They were all gone from me; I was way at the back.
“But as the race went on I was coming through and coming through and with about a mile to go I was able to see the leaders. I then just picked then off one by one. Prefontaine was dying ahead of me but he got there before me.
“If there was another couple of hundred metres left I might have caught him, but he judged it better than me.”
Villanova had won the team title in 1966, 1967 and 1968 and finished second behind UTEP in 1969 and so were amongst the favourites once again.
Initially, they were given second behind Oregon but a few days later, after reviewing the video, Villanova’s fifth scorer was awarded 62nd place instead of 67th and so they were crowned champions by a single point.
1970 ** National Champions
Team: 1st (85 places)
2. Donal Walsh
9. Marty Liquori
23. Wilson Smith
37. Chris Mason
62. Les Nagy
85. Bill McLoughlin
168. John Hartnett
Greg Fredericks of Penn State finished fourth in 28:12 and two years later he set an American record for 10,000m and also qualified for the 1980 Olympic team. “I could never beat Fredericks on the track but in the cross-country I had the upper-hand on him,” admits Walsh.
The second scorer for Villanova was Marty Liquori, who finished ninth. Three years before, Liquorihad gained national prominence when becoming only the third high school runner to break four minutes for the mile.
Liquori went on to win indoor and outdoor NCAA and AAU titles and in 1977 was ranked number one in the world for 5000m after setting an American record of 13:15.1.
Back in 15th place that day was Australian Kerry Pearce who had set a world indoor two-mile record and won the NCAA steeplechase two years previously.
But of course Prefontaine’s star would shine the brightest of all. With his brash running style, his film star looks - some people, in fact, referred to him as the ‘James Dean of Track’ – he was destined for greatness.
In 1972 he missed out on a medal by eight-tenths of a second in the 5000m at the Munich Olympics and he would go on to hold seven American records from 2000m to 10,000m before his untimely and tragic death in a car accident on May, 30, 1975, at just 24 years of age.
Today, back living in his native city, Walsh contributes in a major way to the sport he so enriched by coaching a large group of runners from both Leevale and UCC, along with the Midleton club, four days a week.
He still dispenses the same common-sense knowledge and enthusiasm that over four-and-a-half decades ago saw him mix it with the best, the day that Donie Walsh took silver and led Villanova to team gold at the NCAA championships in the historic city of Williamsburg, Virginia.
Addendum : Last weekend, the NCAA C-C was won by a Villonova athlete, Australian Patrick Tiernan.
The last time a Villanova man won the individual title was 1963 and the last time they won the men's team was that year of 1970 with Donie.
Tieran is coached by Marcus O'Sullivan (an interview on Lets Run) and of course Marcus was coached here in Cork by Donie!