The Bronxville Middle Distance Program

by Mike Byrnes

An interesting article came across my desk a few days ago.  It pertained to the growing number of young women taking part in sports at the high school level, according to a survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations.  The survey shows that 4.45 million boys and 3.17 million girls took part in sports in 2009-10.  This showed an increase of 33,078 boys and 58,546 young women up from the previous year.  The two top sports for boys, football (#1) and basketball (3) and for girls, basketball and volleyball, saw slight losses in participation while track and field, #2 for boys and #1 for girls both showed significant gains, 14,116 for boys and 11,445 for girls.

One of those high schools, Bronxville (NY), is in a very small community, almost exactly 1 square mile.  It had a 2010 graduating class of 45 and an average SAT score averaging between 1550 and a perfect 1600!  Comparatively, the average salary of the working parents is similar to their children’s academic achievements.  Sprinkled liberally among those parents are bank presidents, highly successful Wall Street operators, CEO’s of major corporations and the like.  “We lack for nothing,” commented the refreshingly frank COURTNEY CAMPBELL when asked why their relay team was always one of the best in the nation.  She went on, “I think we’re good because excellence is expected of us and because of who we are we strive to fulfill those expectations.”  For close to 35 years successive groups of young women have given their all to a sport where success is defined by the amount of pain incurred.  For anyone who has ever to run competitively that description is chillingly accurate.

To illustrate, let me recount a story told me many years ago by Walter Murphy.  (Murphy is one of our sports true experts. You will never see a telecast where Murphy is not in the background feeding those “expert” announcers the facts which they announce.)

His cousin, Tom Courtney, won the Olympic gold in the 800 at the 1956 Olympic Games.  Let me paraphrase his account of, but this was the Olympics and you never quit.  He ran a little too wide and I edged past him with less than 50m left.  But, coming on the outside was the Brit, Derek Johnson and he took the lead.  I was finished, holding off Boysen had drained me utterly.  I’m pretty sure I was semi-conscious but I knew I had to fight back.  Unperceptively, I gained.  I went by, regained the lead and won the gold.  I remember nothing of those final yards. Absolutely nothing.  I lay, collapsed, on the edge of the track, virtually comatose.  For close to thirty minutes I remained there.  Efforts to get me to my feet failed.  I simply couldn’t move.  All I CAN remember is the pain, the unbelievable agony those final meters were.  My lungs and thighs were on fire, the pain relentless, someone told me I’d won.  At that moment a feeling of joy burst into my consciousness and I thought, IT WAS WORTH IT.’

But I digress, forgive me.

A question comes to mind, how does one get young women such as these to do so? 

At Bronxville, one group stands out, the 4x800 relays team for girls.  Virtually every year, this team has ranked in the top 25 throughout the nation, peaking at 8:53.3, #10-AT.  This tiny school has made the 4x800m relay its ‘signature’ event.  “We’ve broken 9:00 five times with a 33 year average of 9:21+,” replied Coach JIM MITCHELL when asked about his team’s stellar record.  Just as Ms Campbell does what’s expected of her and her teammates, so does Mitchell.  He literally EXPECTS to run faster than 9:20.   And, with a 33-year average of 9:21+m his expectations are justified.

“I’ve never had a truly outstanding half-miler,” Mitchell recalls, “They were all terrific kids who gave all they had.  From August to June none of them ever missed a day of practice.  Their level of commitment never faltered.”

When I went back to Ms. Campbell and wondered how/why they did it, she answered quickly, “We have the greatest coach in the world.”  But the converse could be true as well; I’m certain Mitchell would say he has the greatest kids in the world.

Recently the quartet won the Millrose Games 4x800m on the brutally slow wooden track in Madison Square Garden.  Mitchell is justifiably proud of that win.  Mostly though, he’s proud that his great teams have all been great without a truly great individual on the team.  But that may change.  Three of this year’s team return for the 2012 season and he may have a super runner at last.  “Mary Cain may be the one,” he muses. “She ran a 4:57 mile in the seventh grade and a 2:12 leg at the Garden.”

Three returnees and Mitchell is already excited about next year.  He won’t predict how fast they’ll run but he will say, “Our school record, 8:53.2 will go.”  Why so sure?  “As I said, three return.  This team is made up of an 8th grader, two sophomores and a senior.”  You can bet there’s another solid runner in the wings.  Why am I so sure?  Tradition.

Just who is this amazing coach?

He’s been coaching for 45-years although one would never expect it of one so young looking. Mitchell has been at Bronxville for the past three decades+. As a coach, he is also a teacher…of Latin.  Latin?  “I teach 17 classes of Latin, which for some reason earned me a deferment during the Vietnam war,” he said.

There is no indoor track at the school so twice a week the team makes the thirty minute drive to the 168th Street Armory, home of indoor track throughout the East.  “The rest of the time we either shovel the snow off the outdoor track or run in the halls of the school.” 

Despite these obstacles the Bronxville team continues to be successful.  “As I said, I have the greatest kids in the world.  Every obstacle is just another something in their way, something to overcome.”  Their record shows it.  Their dedication and success reminds one of the old SeaBee’s motto back in WW II; “The difficult we can handle easily, the impossible takes a little longer.”  They might well have added the Bronxville mantra, “It’s expected of us.”

Such dedication along with a splendid coach makes Bronxville the success that it is.

To that one can only add, “THANKS COACH.”

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