Randall's Island: A look back at athletic history, by Elliott Denman

Usain Bolt setting WR at RBKGP 2008, photo by PhotoRun.net

So, after having watched track and field on this hallowed ground for sixty-nine years, what does Elliott Denman consider the greatest moment in either Downing or Icahn Stadiums? Read on, curious reader! 

Randall's Island retrospective story

NEW YORK - Thanks, Mom.

Thanks again. And again and again.

  For being the great Mom you were, of course. For pointing me in all the right directions, of course.  And, all these years later, let me say one direction in particular.

  You loaded me,  your fifth-grade second son, into the old family Dodge that June day in 1945, chauffered me down from 225th Street, down over the Triborough Bridge, down the ramp to the chunk of land seemingly equadistant between the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens, and to the discovery of
Randall's Island.

   Who'd have ever figured that short expedition would evolve into a life-changer?

   Well, go figure?

   It sure was a life-changing journey.

   To be precise, it was the 30th of June 1945.  V-E Day had been celebrated some six weeks earlier.  The Pacific War was in its concluding stages. And kids like me were soon free to start building addictions to every sport under the sun.

   Sixty-nine years after the fact, I can say that I was so-so-very-very fortunate that Mom-the-chauffeur had delivered me to the National AAU Track and Field Championships at Triborough Stadium, where I promptly got hooked on the sport that - who'd have ever guessed? - would engross me ever since.

  I got to see a Californian - who was this guy? - stun New York's hometown hero, Tommy Quinn, to win the 1500 meters.  He was - don't you  remember? - Roland Sink.

   I got to see a tall, elegantly-striding lad from Illinois, the name was Bob Kelley, beat another New Yorker, Stanton Callender (who with brother Maurice formed a noted twin combination) in the 800 meters.

  I got to see the magnificent Herb McKenley - by my reckoning all these years later, as good a one-lap runner as any man who ever lived - take the 400 over Jimmy Herbert, whose best efforts always seemed to come indoors rather than

  I got to see a man named Elmore Harris, who was a primary McKenley nemesis at the 400, find another challenge and win the 200-meter low hurdles (anyone out there remember that event?)

  I got to see the immortal Norwood "Barney" Ewell, the old Penn Stater who'd been a big winner in the sport since the late 1930s, and would continue at the top of his game, all the way to the 1948 Olympics, outduel Texas flash Perry Samuels and win the 100 in the meet record-equaling time of 10.3.

  I hadn't really studied up on the 1936 Berlin Olympics - Jesse Owens' Olympics - but when the announcer reminded the crowd that Mr. Dave Albritton, who'd competed in those '36 Games, taking the silver medal in the high jump, back of teammate Cornelius Johnson, who had just won the 1945 national championship. I knew it was a very special achievement. 

  Later, I checked it all out and saw that while all those other 1936 Berlin veterans were long gone from the sport, the ageless Albritton was winning national championships as late as 1950, 14 years after Berlin.

   Wow, and when I got to garner autographs from the likes of Ewell, Sink, Harris and Albritton, I knew it had been a very big day.

  It didn't take much more to get me completely hooked on this sport, first as a wide-eyed kid,  then as a tag-along to big brother Marty (a sprinter at NYU and LIU), then as an athlete (fortunate enough to win a couple of national titles in my own right, and make an Olympic team) and then as a working man,  pounding out prose from press boxes all over the landscape.

  That first trip to Randall's Island, would lead to more...and more...and more.

To this day.

  In time,  I could find my way to Triborough Stadium blind-folded, but not a very good idea given a typical Triborough (now RFK) Bridge  traffic day.

   The stadium had opened with the staging of the 1936 Olympic Trials; it was renamed Downing Stadium in 1955, then torn down and replaced with the truly state-of-the-art Icahn Stadium in 2005.

    With Gunder "The Wonder" Hagg and Arne Andersson now on the disbarred list (for professionalism), Lennart Strand became the heir-apparent to the Swedish milers' throne and I got to see Strand win the mile in 4:09.0 at a charity-based meet at Triborough in 1946.  It was #2 time in the world that year and stamped him as the early 1948 Olympic 1500 favorite; alas, he'd settle for the silver in London back of Swedish teammate Henry Eriksson.

  I got to see a bunch of great Metropolitan AAU, Met Intercollegiate and IC4A Championship meets at Triborough.

  I remember an epic 1947 Met IC 440 where Fordham's Harry McDonnell (47.2) stunned NYU's Jim Gilhooley (47.6) and Manhattan's Johnny Quigley (47.8), with all their times making the year list.

  I remember the famous 440 at the 1950 IC4A's where Cornell's Charley Moore (destined to win the 400 hurdles at the 1952 Olympics to cap an unbeaten career in the one-lap barrier even) earned a narrow-narrow win over NYU's Hugo Maiocco (both clocked in 47 flat) with Manhattan's Dean Noll (47.2) and NYU's Reggie Pearman (47.4) right on their heels.

 And I remember the great mile at that same 1950 IC4A meet, Yale's George Wade leading the way in 4:10.3. (Fast forward four years, to the Iffley Road track in Oxford, England; May 6, 1954, the winner and history-maker, Roger Bannister in 3:59.4; fifth place, George Wade, USA.)

 I remember seeing the 1952 USA Olympic Team taking its final warmup strides at Randall's Island before heading out to Idlewild (now JFK) Airport to fly off to Helsinki.

  Among those history-bound '52ers: Manhattan College's own Lindy Remigino, Harrison Dillard (finally getting the chance to run his real Olympic event, the 110 high hurdles; shot put immortal Parry O'Brien, and Walter "Buddy" Davis, the Texas A&Mer who many figured would be the first man to high jump 7 feet in official circumstances, but never quite made it, the honor going to Charley Dumas, four years later.

  I remember the 1960 Met ICs, not so much for the deeds of the local collegians. but the presence of visiting "fans" from Cuba, members of the Fidel Castro entourage taking time out from their headline-making  United Nations appearance to attend a gathering in the sport that would soon prove Cuba's ticket to world sporting prominence.

 After a 16-year interlude.  the National AAU Championships returned to Triborough Stadium in 1961, and one performance transcended everything:  Frank Budd's classic 9.2 world-record 100 yards (running in the chewed-up lane one) that at last bested the series of 9.3's clocked by the likes of  Mel Patton, Jim Golliday, Leamon King, Dave Sime, Bobby Morrow, Ray Norton and Harry Jerome.

  I remember the women's 1964 Olympic Trials at Triborough (the USA Trials would not become a coed gathering until 1976), where Edith McGuire doubled the dashes, Olympic medalists Willye White (LJ) and Earlene Bown (SP) took  their specialties, and Sandra Knott won the 800 for the chance to run the first Olympic two-lap race since 1928.

  Oh, and a Manasquan (NJ) High School freshman named Barbara Friederich placed sixth in the pentathlon; three years later, she tossed the javelin 198-8 for (all at once) a U.S. Open, U.S. junior and U.S. national high school record (which was never beaten as a HS standard.)

The National AAU's were back on Randall's Island in 1966 (with imperial distances still in place) and I was back, too, on time to see Jim Ryun run NYC's first sub-4 outdoor mile, in a 3:58.6 win over Dyrol Burleson (4 flat exactly), Jim Grelle (4:00.6), New Yorker John Camien (4:01.6) and British invitee Neil Duggan (4:02.2.)

  Fast forward again, to 1991, again for the Nationals, but now the TAC Nationals, at the refurbished Downing Stadium.  Carl Lewis had lowered the world 100-meter record to 9.92 at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, but this time it was training partner and Santa Monica Track Club buddy Leroy Burrell lowering the boom on Carl.
  He crossed the line in a world-record 9.90 wth Lewis (9.93), Dennis Mitchell (10 flat) and Andre Cason (10.05) this time relegated to supporting roles.

  With Icahn in place by 2005, Randall's Island was ready to make all-new track and field headlines. .

 The coming of the global (first Reebok, then New Balance) Grand Prix set the stage for all kinds of new rounds of sensational doings.

  Much remembered:

  Jarred Rome's 219-3 meet record discus whirl in 2005, Jenn Suhr's 16-1 1/4 pole vault in 2007, Veronica Campbell-Brown's 10.91 100 in 2008, Tyson Gay's 19.58 200 in 2009, Lukas Verbicas's 3:59.71 high school mile in 2011, and
David Rudisha's 1:41.79 800 and  Valerie Adams' 67-2 shot put in in 2012.
  But, topping everything all-time at Icahn was Usain Bolt's 9.72 world-record 100 in 2008.

 The new world sprint king was born, the man who'd go on to take sprint doubles at the 2008 (Beijing) and 2012 (London) Olympic Games, who'd improve on the 9.72 with his 9.69 at Beijing in 2008 and 9.58 at Berlin in 2009, was on his way to all-timer status. .

   Chasers Tyson Gay (9.85), Darvis (Doc) Patton (10.07) and Michael Rodgers (10.11) never had a chance.  On this day, "the Lightning Bolt" was in a league of his own.

  And it's to be remembered forever and ever and ever.

 Of course, of course, the 2014 adidas Grand Prix high jump was one for the memory banks, too.  No one had ever cleared  2.42 meters/ 7-11 1/4 and lost until Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar gained that distinction on June 14, 2014 at Icahn Stadium.

  Ukraine's Bohdan Bondarenko went 2.42 / 7- 11 1/4, too, and won it on the countback, in this dazzling display of high flying that many will call the greatest high jump competition in the history of the sport.

  Neither had another  clearance - as Cuba's Javier Sotomayor remained the only man in history to soar 8 feet 2.44 (in 1989) and then 2.45 / 8-0 1/2 (in 1993.)
   Originally, Randall's Island was named Minnahanonck by its first Native American residents.  In 1637, Dutch governor Wouter Van Twiller  dubbed it Tenkenas, again of Native American origin.

 Little Barn Island and Montresor's Island were among its other names in later years.

  In 1784, it was purchased by Mr. Jonathan Randel, eventually becoming  Randalls (or alternative usage) Randall's Island.

  I have my own name for it - one sensational place for the great Olympic sport of track and field.

  So, one more time, thanks, Mom, for getting me there in the first place.

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