In advance of National Track & Field Hall of Fame induction ceremony on November 3 in New York City, USATF interviewed Class of 2016 inductees on their athletic careers and legacies.
Today's feature: Frank Zarnowski
Contributor Inductee Dr. Frank Zarnowski (York, Pennsylvania) has maintained a dual identity of college professor and decathlon connoisseur for fifty years. He is recognized for his contributions to the decathlon event as a public address announcer, author, Olympic television commentator, historian, coach and meet director.
Zarnowski divides his life between Emmitsburg, Maryland and Hanover, New Hampshire and has been at Dartmouth as a Visiting Scholar, Visiting Professor and Senior Lecturer in Economics since 2001. Click here for a full bio.
How did you first get involved in public address announcing? “In 1970, I went to the NCAA college division championships in St. Paul, Minnesota at Macalester College. That was the first year the NCAA had adopted a decathlon as a scoring event in their meet. Before 1970, you could hardly find a meet in this country that featured the decathlon.
I remember going to the track early on the first morning just to watch the decathlon. There was a live microphone on the infield but no announcer. The organizer had not anticipated that there would be any interest, so the decathlon was scheduled as the only thing going on that first day. But they didn't tell maintenance that they didn't have an announcer so, a microphone was brought out anyway.
So we're all standing around, waiting for the first event to get started. I just went over to the microphone and said, 'Give me that heat sheet. I'll tell you what's going on.' People said, 'Oh, we have an announcer.' So for two days at this little meet, I announced. It wasn't something I'd anticipated but, you know, you're right in the middle of the action and I liked that.”
On becoming a historian and renowned public address announcer: “Once I got through the Olympic Trials [in 1972], people realized that I was this freak who was keeping track of all the records. After a couple of years, I realized that if you're going to be a combined-event announcer, you have to have tons of information in front of you because the rules require that all the athletes rest for thirty minutes between events. So in a sense, the spectators watch people rest. I had to fill in that time... You fill in with records, but there were no records. So I started to do little record books and write the history of the event so I would have enough information.
I thought this is something I'll be able to do as an advocation but if you want to do it, you have to make it interesting for people. So after the 1972 Olympic Trials, it kind of snowballed for me... the next thing you know, I'm doing four, five meets a year. You get the best seat in the house. I got the times before anyone else got them.”
On what the decathlon represents to him: "It represents the same thing that the Greeks said - there is an ideal athlete and it's not too big, not too small - it's kind of a goldilocks athlete. He's maybe not a specialist in any one thing but he's good in everything. In fact, the Greeks used the pentathletes as models for their sculptures and paintings because they were considered to be the ideal...
When American Jim Thorpe became the first athlete to win the Olympic decathlon in 1912, the King of Sweden reportedly said, ‘You are the world's greatest athlete.’ Thorpe reportedly answered, ‘Thanks, King.’ The idea that the decathlon champion becomes the world's greatest athlete continues today...
I believe that the decathlon champion has more general athletic skills than anybody else. While the decathlon may not be the ideal combination of events, it's pretty good and it measures a lot of the basic skills that an athlete needs to do well in other events.”
On his favorite meet: “Amazingly, my two or three best meets that I announced or officiated were in Eugene. 1975 was probably my biggest year until 2012, when Ashton [Eaton] broke the world record at trials...
Maybe 15 minutes before the final event, I had figured out what Ashton needed to run to break the world record and what pace he needed for each lap. I run out of the booth at Eugene to find Harry [Marra, Ashton's coach] and make sure he understands what the pace should be. We bump into each other on the steps and we each have a piece of paper in our hands. He looked at me and I looked at him, and we understood exactly what we had in our hands. We sat down on the steps and compared our notes. We had identical split times for that 1500m.
Harry's such a good coach that they had trained for pace. Ashton hit that pace right on and my role was to tell the crowd, 'Hey, watch this. This is a world record attempt and he's right on pace.' The crowd kept him on it.... people were leaning out of their seats, pounding on the bleachers going crazy trying to make sure he's on pace.
Before the event I said, 'He's running for himself and to get the world record for the U.S. but he's also running for the community of Eugene, the University of Oregon, and so on.' It was chilling. I won't be able to top that moment because all of us, the crowd, became part of that world record in a way. Not spectators but kind of participants.”
On being inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame: “I'm in this kind of denial phase about what it means. To be in the same house as Jim Thorpe or Jesse Owens or people like that, who are household names, I'm having a hard time getting my hands around that. But my goal always was, I want to contribute something to the sport and I thought that I could do it if I focused in on a specific event. The decathlon kind of fell into my lap.”
The Class of 2016 will be inducted at USATF’s second annual Black Tie & Sneakers Gala on November 3 in New York City. The red carpet event will also feature stars from the Olympic Games in Rio, as well as Legacy Award and Groundbreaker Award presentations. Proceeds benefit USATF’s Elite Mentorship Program. Visit usatfgala.com for more information.
For more on all 2016 National Track and Field Hall of Fame inductees, click here.