By JOHN GORALSKI
Cheshire hearts rose when Chris Walsh’s opponent burst from the start of the two mile race at a dual meet in 1973. The Rams needed a win to capture the track meet, and Walsh was trailing by 10 yards when the frontrunners began their final lap.
“Their coach threw his hat up in the air. Their kids were hooting and hollering,” said former Blue Knight track coach Wayne Nakoneczny. “They thought they won, but nobody from Southington said anything.”
Southington fans knew what to expect. As the runners neared the final turn, Walsh had cut his deficit to five yards. When they circled toward the final straightaway, Walsh was running shoulder-to-shoulder. When they opened their strides for the final kick, Walsh sped past him as if his opponent was standing still.
“I’ll tell you. Cheshire didn’t know what to do,” said Nakoneczny. “At that point, they had lost the meet. The relay didn’t make any difference. I can still see him running now. Man, did he run.”
Cheshire wasn’t the first opponent to take Walsh lightly during distance races in the early 1970s, and they certainly weren’t the last to suffer that mistake. Some guys were fast out of the gate. Others were good in the second mile or on hills. Walsh was in it for the long haul, and few could match his pace from start to finish.
But Walsh didn’t start out as a premier athlete. He didn’t tear up the youth leagues or dominate neighborhood games. He played in neighborhood games. He was active throughout his childhood, but it wasn’t until he was a teenager at St. Thomas Junior High School that he finally worked his way onto a team. Bob Kelly, a social studies teacher at St. Thomas, urged Walsh to try his hand at cross country. It was a turning point in his athletic career.
“I wasn’t very good, but I remember getting my black and orange cross country uniform, and I thought that was the cat’s meow,” said Walsh. “We used to run 1.8 miles. It was a little course, and I was horrible. I had to walk. I used to get cramps, but it was exciting. It was good to be on a team.”
Walsh didn’t let those early setbacks stop him. He continued to try running, and he continued to try his hand at other sports. But Walsh soon realized that baseball wasn’t his game. He learned quickly that basketball wasn’t his sport. He tried his hand at discus, but settled on the distance events in track and field. Still, he was far from a standout.
“I was so bad that I think Coach Nak once told me that, if he had cuts, I would have probably been one of the first to go,” he said with a laugh. “I was that terrible in my sophomore year.”
But he kept trying. That was to become his calling card. Walsh never quit, and at long last he found his way back to the long distance races.
When he was struggling to make the Southington High School football team as a junior, he spied a group of distance runners cooling down after a workout. They were eating oranges and laughing about something or other.
He realized that he enjoyed the off-season training when he was getting in shape for football. He remembered enjoying the team atmosphere with junior high school cross country, so Walsh shrugged off the shoulder pads and joined the cross country runners. It was a decision that he wouldn’t regret.
“He was dedicated to the sport, and I think he enjoyed it,” said Jacques Houle, a Blue Knight captain during Walsh’s junior year. “He never missed a practice. He was there every day. Even when we had a few runners that were better than him on the team, it never seemed to bother him. He knew he had to get his numbers in, and he did.”
Walsh threw himself into his long distance workouts. He didn’t have the natural talent, but he threw himself even harder into his training. In the winter of his junior year, Walsh ran over 500 miles in the cold and the snow.
He remembers it clicking during a pre-season workout in his junior year when Mark Dudzek, a senior co-captain, showed up at his door for an “8-mile” jog. The two climbed the Blue Trail from Mount Vernon Road and danced along the peak of Southington Mountain before emerging in Forestville and looping back along West Street.
“To make a long story short, it turned out to be a 16-mile run,” said Walsh. “Mark lied to me, but I remember being right around where ESPN is now. The sun was setting. My legs were hurting, and I was virtually in tears, but he kept encouraging me. I was mad as hell at him, but I finished that run. That was a turning point for me.”
Walsh wouldn’t give up. He continued to battle. He continued to train, and by the middle of the track season, Walsh finally edged Dudzek during a dual meet.
But he didn’t rest on his laurels. Walsh kept going… and going… and going. Over the summer before his senior season, he collected 1,014 miles of mileage through the heat and the humidity. He’d wake up before dawn to beat the heat. He’d run to work with a local pool company and run back home after a day of back-breaking labor.
When he returned to school as a senior, Walsh had forged himself into a battle-tested star.
“He was one of the hardest workers I had. He was just a diligent worker. He was a great leader and a great example,” Coach Nakoneczny said. “If we could measure someone’s potential and how close they came to it—80 percent, 90 percent, 95 percent—I think there would be quite a few people that never reached their potential. Of all those people,I think he came the closest. He was special.”
Walsh’s hard work paid dividends for the Knights as Southington clawed its way to the top of the heat in the sectional race. The Knights went on to finish third at the Class L championship.
Walsh went on to shine during the distance events in the spring where he battled a teammate for the two-mile school record. They leapfrogged each other all season with both of them holding the school record at various times.
That’s why it was so surprising when no colleges came calling. Was it over? Once again, Walsh wasn’t ready to quit.
“I thought I would be a decent cross country runner in college, but I never received a single recruitment letter or a single call from a college,” he said. “I picked Southern because they had a better track program historically and a better PE department, which I wanted to study.”
Southern Connecticut State University was an up-and-coming program at the time. The school had just built a state-of-the-art indoor facility with a brand new indoor track with a proven veteran coach. Walsh walked onto the team, and in no time he had earned a place on the squad.
“I’ll tell you. It was tough. I think I ran 4:34 as a senior, but my first year at Southern I may not have broken 4:50,” he said. “It was really humbling because I hadn’t prepared like I had in high school, but I stuck with it.”
Soon, he battled his way into the front group. He worked his way up the ladder into a two-year cross country captain and led the program to their first undefeated dual meet season (13-0 in 1977), their first trips to the NCAA Division II championship in 1976 and 1977, and finished as the top runner in 1974, 1975, and 1976.
“We ran against some great teams,” he said. “Providence College had all those great Irishmen. We used to run against Villanova and the Coast Guard Academy. Central Connecticut always had a great team, and so did UMass, Wesleyan, and Quinnipiac. Coach Wright did a good job of running us all around New England and some of those New York schools, so by the time we got to those bigger meets at the end of the season we were ready to compete.”
For his part, Walsh had hardened himself into a true year-round athlete. Over the winter, he worked his way up to captain on the indoor track and field team and set a new program record for the two-mile race in 1976.
In the spring, Walsh earned program records for the two mile and three mile races as he paced his team to a pair of undefeated records in 1976 and 1977. Over his four year college career, Walsh earned 11 varsity letters at the school.
“It was a real blessing that my parents were able to pay for my college,” he said. “I mean, I did have jobs. I collected towels in the field house and that kind of stuff. I was able to get a [resident assistant] job, and that helped pay room and board my senior year, but it gave me the freedom to run. That was phenomenal.”
Graduation didn’t slow him, either. Walsh went on to earn a masters degree at the University of Oregon where he joined the Oregon Track Club. It was there that he peaked in the one mile (4:11) and two mile (8:55) races under the tutelage of 1972 U.S. Olympic Coach Bill Bowerman.
“My dad always said to do all I can for as long as I can. That’s one reason why I continued to run at the University of Oregon during graduate school,” he said. “That was the pinnacle and a real eye-opener. I was in races where four guys would run a 4-minute mile.”
Walsh didn’t shrink from the challenge. At the end of his studies, his senior thesis on his coach’s methods was published in 1983 as “The Bowerman System.”
This time, graduation did mark the end of Walsh’s competitive running career, but he was far from finished in the sport. Walsh landed a job as a physical education teacher at Campolindo High School in Moraga, Calif., and it didn’t take long for him to build a cross-country group of hopefuls into a state powerhouse team.
“He does an amazing job of working with kids of all different levels,” said Campolindo athletic director Tom Renno. “Sure, he had that state level kid that was working at a really high level, but he had other kids that were there for the social experience or to get in shape. He was able to work with all those kids and build a program where everybody had a place. That was really wonderful. So many kids were impacted by him.”
Over 10 years, his boys and girls teams captured a combined 11 sectional championships. His girls team lost only one dual meet from 1995 to 2001 with conference titles in every year but 1999. In 2001, his girls team captured the California state title—no easy feat.
Walsh was named as Girls Cross Country Coach of the Year by the California Coaching Association in 2003, and he was a finalist for the national award the same year before hanging up his whistle in 2005.
“The program has continued to be an amazing program, and he still gets the credit for getting us to the state level,” said Renno. “Over the last 15 years Campolindo High School has been named as the Division III school of the year for sports. That level of success is due in large part to Coach Walsh’s impact across all of our programs. He gets kids involved. He’s been supportive of all of our programs, and he really does a great job of trying to make our kids better. That helps all of our kids across all the given sports.”
So it’s no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee have named Walsh as a member of the Class of 2015. On Wednesday, Nov. 11, he will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville.
“Chris deserves this. He worked hard, and he strove for everything he got,” said Houle. “He didn’t just come on the team and run fast. It took a lot of time and effort. Cross country is one of those things where you have to be able to do it. Some of those courses we ran were really tough, and he took it all in stride.”
“I’m totally honored to be able to share this with my family and reconnect with the Southington community. I was like…are you guys sure?” he said. “It’s terribly gratifying, but when I think about the quality of those individuals that have already been selected? Jeepers creepers.”
To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335 or Val DePaolo at (860) 620-9460.
To comment on this story or to contact Observer editor John Goralski, email him at email@example.com