By Carlo Cuccaro
Given the length of my interview with Don Paige, I decided to present it over the course of several columns. I hope you enjoy it. Here is Part I
What were your Top 3 Running Accomplishments?
Well, they sort of break into periods. With the first one in high school; One of the fond memories I have is winning the double, indoor track and then outdoor track my senior year. That always sticks very clearly in my mind. It’s rarely done, you know it’s not an easy double to accomplish and I still remember Chuck Wiltse and John Arcaro talking about it thinking, “Can he run 1000 and he’d come back and win the mile?” And “Can he go outdoors and run the 880 and the mile? So in high school it was probably winning great races like that. I came from Baldwinsville for God’s sake - small town outside of Syracuse but all my big competitors were down in the city. And those city kids they had this attitude that they were just going to eat you up and spit you out. And you know after the race, after you beat them, you go by and you shake their hand and you say hey nice race. And they’re like, “Wow… you kicked my butt.”
An accomplishment that sticks in my mind for the wrong reason came from high school. After the indoor season, we went down to Princeton to run in the East Coast Regional and I was to run 1000 yards, and I had to run against this kid named Billy Martin. Billy Martin was this cocky, outspoken, wild kid. I had heard about him, and we run our race, I finished first, he finished second, and when we are getting our award, I go to shake his hand, and you know what he says to me? “That’s my gold medal.” I didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry, maybe next time you’ll beat me instead of me beating you.” But you know what? In college, we became great friends and we raced many times and he remembers that. He remembers how I spoke to him, and how during the indoor season in college I always said hello, would always shake his hand before the race, and I made it seem like we were good friends. He told me later, “I started off that season like a real jerk. You would always come over to say ‘Hi’ to me and wish me luck”, and now we’re great friends. He’s a great guy and still see each other, even today.
The third event that really sticks in my head, Chuck Wiltse and I wanted to go to the Jr. Olympics that were being held in Lincoln, NE. You had to qualify for nationals so we go to Maine, run and qualify to go to the Nebraska. We flew to Lincoln, our first time on an airplane. I’m a junior at the time, and had to run against the best milers in high school. I was so scared, and so nervous, and Chuck did everything in his power to keep me relaxed. I ran 4:13 in Lincoln to win the Jr. Olympics. That was very important for my confidence. I never had a great deal of confidence when I was in high school or in college for that matter. I was more nervous than everybody going into every race.
Was there an event or a time when that changed?
No, never. Well I mean, not at the world stage. If I was going to a small meet I wouldn’t be that nervous. I can remember in 81-82, trying to be #1 in the world. They notice you on the starting line, as #1 in the world, so by golly you better have you’re A-game ready because everybody is after your butt. Chris Evert Lloyd said “It’s easy to get to #1, the hard part is staying #1.”
In college, breaking 4 minutes in the mile for the first time was very important to me at a Pepsi meet at UCLA.
In 1979 I won the NCAA double and it was a major breakthrough for me physically and mentally; running 5 races in 3 days and having 20 minutes rest; winning the mile, we ran I think 3:39 – so what’s that for a mile today? So I ran like 3:54 for the mile and come back 28 minutes later and win the 800 meters, and running a personal best at the time of 1:46.
I can still remember coming around the first turn of the 800 and thinking “Oh my God I’m never going to finish”, but then that mental ability takes over and winning was just a great thing. What made it so special is I was resting after the 1500 meter, almost every athlete came down to where I was and congratulated me. That was really motivating . They all wished me well, it was classy. Before I knew it, it was 3rd call for the 800 meters.
Running the Penn Relays for Villanova would be the third great thing in my college career. I ran 9 college races, and I was 9 for 9. You can’t just win 9 out of 9 at Penn Relays without having 3 really good teammates on your team every year, every race. They never ever put me out of the race. Never. Yeah, these guys were wonderful. So, Penn Relays were very dear to me.
I left Villanova in the 80’s and went to the Olympics trials and one of the most moving times for me was winning the Olympic trials in Oregon with my mom and dad both present in the stands. It was the fastest 400 time in the world that year, 44.5 and it held up all year. And that was really special. I have a great photograph that Rich Clark from Sports Illustrated had sent to me and I was on the cover of Track and Field News. The photo captured me right after I finished the 400, looking up into the stands. If people didn’t know better, they would think I was very religious, looking up into the heavens giving thanks, but I was looking up into the stands to see my mom and dad.
Anytime I ever wore a jersey that said USA on the front of it was thrilling for me. When I put that on, it instantly gave me such a sense of pride and I always thought about the great milers or half milers before me that built up the reputation. It was the same way when I had my Villanova jersey on as a freshman, I still remember thinking, “Wow, I’ve got this Villanova jersey.
It’s different when you are running for yourself or a business like “Athletic Attic”. Marty Liquori was the owner of Athletic Attic running stores, and I would run for Marty’s team after college. But by golly when I had those letters, USA on my chest, I was not going to lose. If I could have, I would have run every race I ever ran in that jersey. Because I would get such strong feelings from it and that would have benefited me mentally.
That’s intangible. You really can’t measure that.
A lot of people ask me about boycotting the Olympics in 1980, thinking it would bother me. Well, no, there’s no ill feeling at all. People want to know what I missed most by not going to the Olympics. And my answer almost always surprises them. Everybody thinks that I want to be in the final of the 800m to compare myself to the other great athletes of the world. That’s number 2. Number 1, the thing that I missed the most was walking in the opening ceremonies with all of those athletes from around the world
And with that jersey on
That’s what I missed the most. That would have been such a treat.