Watson steps out of the shadows to be Notre Dame's top runner
BY CHRIS FEDERICO
Ask people what they consider the greatest accomplishment in sports, and running a four-minute mile is likely to be high on that list.
For years, people thought the feat was impossible. But on May 6, 1954, a now famous British physician named Roger Bannister shattered that belief by completing the mile race in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds.
In the 49 years since that day, nearly 1,000 people in the world have accomplished the feat.
And on Feb. 8, Notre Dame senior Luke Watson joined that prestigious list by conquering the Meyo Mile in a time of 3:57.83 against an extremely competitive field — four other runners broke the four-minute mile mark in the race.
"[The four-minute mile] has been a career long goal of mine," said Watson, The Observer's 2002-03 Notre Dame Senior Male Athlete of the Year. "To accomplish that was tremendous. I was really happy to just get that done and etch my name in with that upper echelon of runners. It's a fairly elite club."
With his time, Watson became just the second Irish runner to break the four-minute barrier after Chuck Aragon did it in 1981 with a time of 3:59.9.
The race placed Watson in the national spotlight of the running world as he recorded the fastest time for the mile in 2003 at that point in the year. It was a harbinger of a spectacular track season to come and the highlight of a stellar career for Watson at Notre Dame.
"On the track, I'd say the four-minute mile would have to be right up there [as one of my greatest accomplishments]," Watson said. "It's just good to establish myself on that level. It's kind of the sign that you've arrived onto the elite running scene here in the U.S."
Not the full story
Watson's accomplishments in the mile do not tell the whole story of the excellent year the fifth-year senior has had on the track in 2003.
Running the mile and 3,000-meter race in the indoor season and the 3,000-meter steeplechase and 5,000-meter race in the outdoor season, Watson led the Irish mens track and field team to first-place finishes at both the indoor and outdoor Big East track meets. The victories marked the first time the Irish won both seasons in the same year since joining the league.
That success was due, in a large part, to the strength of the Irish distance team, lead by its senior and most-decorated member, Watson.
"I think our Big East indoor and outdoor track wins were based on the fact that we scored a huge number of points in the distances," Watson said. "I think we scored 70 points in the distances indoors and another 62 outdoors."
Watson himself was spectacular in both Big East meets. At the indoor meet, Watson ran to a convincing two-second victory in the mile and then earned a second-place finish in the 3,000-meters. In the outdoor meet, he garnered two first-place finishes for the Irish, with victories in the steeplechase and the 5,000-meters.
"We love that pressure that's put on us. We love being known as the Notre Dame distance team," Watson said. "When people talk about the Big East, they talk about how strong Notre Dame's distance team is … and I think the guys on the team really take pride in that."
At the NCAA Indoor Championships, Watson picked up his third Indoor All-American designation and sixth overall with his third-place finish in the mile race and added another All-America title with an 11th-place finish in the 3,000 meters.
Watson now has one last chance at the NCAA Outdoor Championships to capture the elusive national title, a feat that has escaped him for four years. With the four-minute mile and two team Big East titles under his belt this year, Watson hopes the National Championships on June 12 will provide the stage to accomplish another goal on his list.
"Individually, the goal is to win an NCAA title," Watson said. "This is a really tough year, and I think a really good race will put me in the top three or top five, and I'd be fairly satisfied with that, but I'm still looking for that NCAA title, because that's the one thing I haven't done in my time here."
Out of the shadows
Even with his seven All-American titles in track and cross country, Watson has had a difficult time coming into his own in the Irish track and cross country program before this year.
Running alongside 10-time All-American and national champion Ryan Shay, Watson often ran in the shadows of the elder Shay.
Together, they helped the Irish cross-country team to a sixth place finish in 2001. Watson even beat Shay at the championship meet, earning a fifth-place finish to Shay's sixth.
The two top Irish runners often felt some friendly competition between them, as the drive to be the top runner in the nation often caused one to have to beat his teammate.
"As far as competition, yeah there was definitely competition, because we both wanted to be the best guy in the nation, and to do that, we had to be the best guy on the team," Watson said. "Inherently, there will be competition in that situation."
But the drive to outdo each other pushed the pair to new limits. They often worked out together, increasing their training efficiency and teaching each other new ideas to improve their running.
"I think we certainly helped each other out in that when you're doing these really long training runs and these really long integral workouts on the track, it's really hard to do by yourself," Watson said. "I think it's been really great to have had someone like [Shay] just to trade leads with in workouts and things like that. I learned how to run higher mileage and how to become a stronger athlete from him, and I brought some speed to the table, so hopefully that helped him along the way."
When Shay graduated in 2002, Watson remained as the premier runner for the Irish. Even though he had used up his eligibility in cross country, Watson still had one year left in track in 2003, after sitting out his junior track season due to a knee injury.
When the 2003 track season rolled around, the pressure was on Watson to be the leader of a strong, but young, Irish distance team.
"I didn't really feel there was any more pressure, because I basically looked at myself in that light. I expected myself to be the premier athlete on the team," Watson said. "I kind of wanted to be that top athlete since freshman year, and I've been right there since sophomore and junior year, so this year wasn't much different."
Looking to the future
Even as Watson's eligibility runs out at the end of this track season, the fate of the Irish cross country and track programs appears to be on the right track from the impact that the senior has had.
Watson has helped take a young and inexperienced Irish distance team and make it one of the best in the history of the program.
"I think we were at a high point in 2001 in cross country," Watson said. "This year, we came down form that a little bit with a young squad, and even the older guys on the squad didn't have a lot of experience in cross country. But I think they matured so much through that cross country season and into the early indoor track season, and I think they'll be even better the next year."
Watson helped young, talented runners such as freshmen Tim Moore and Vincent Ambrico and sophomore Eric Morrison develop from high school standouts into serious collegiate threats.
"I think a coach can only tell athletes so much, and the rest they have to pick up from their peers, so hopefully the younger guys have been able to learn from some of the things that I've been doing," Watson said. "Freshman year is really tough for those guys, because they come in and they're used to high school training, which is half of what we do here. So it's a big jump to make, and the older guys on the team always play a crucial role in bringing them up."
As the Notre Dame track program looks to the future, so too does Watson. After the completion of this season, Watson begins training for the 2004 Olympics, his ultimate goal.
"The first thing that everybody asks about is the Olympics," Watson said. "Those come up in 2004 in Athens, and that's the main goal of mine."
But even with all that work and preparation ahead, Watson can still look back on a great career at Notre Dame. With seven All-American titles so far, numerous school records, and a sub four-minute mile to his name, Watson has already carved his name in an already-rich tradition of Irish running.
"Things like school records here mean so much because we've had a lot of great runners come through here," Watson said. "If you can even make the top 10 list, you know you're among some great company, and I'm very proud to be a part of that."
All Sports Stories for Friday, July 11, 2003