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Dashed into history
By Sally Pollak
Jeff Guilmette, a champion shot putter, is a captain of the University of Vermont men's track team. George Deane, the school record-holder in the indoor mile, is his co-captain.
The athletes will be competing in green and gold when track seasons open for the winter and spring seasons. But they won't be throwing and running for UVM.
"It's for the coaches," Guilmette said. "It's for ourselves and the people who support us. It's for our teammates past and present. But it's not for the university."
The athletes are embittered by the university's decision to eliminate their team. UVM announced 10 days ago that men's track and field is among the five varsity teams that will be cut at the end of the academic year. The captains' final season will be the team's last.
The team's legacy spans a century, from the record-breaking performance of track star Al Gutterson, class of 1912, to Guilmette's current success.
Guilmette, undefeated in America East competition, is the two-time New England shot-put champion. He is the only male track athlete in the 100-year history of the program to receive an athletic scholarship. His decision to attend UVM over the half dozen other schools that recruited him out of U-32 High School in East Montpelier was a coup for the university.
"Part of the reason I came here was to help build a team, to build a strong program," Guilmette said. "The decision to kill track has put a damper on everything we've done. It's over. It's sad."
The Greek ideal
Track and field is one of the world's most popular sports. It is linked in classical thought to character development, to the shaping of well-rounded individuals of sound mind and sound body.
The Olympic games, originally just foot races, started in 700 B.C. as religious festivals. The competition honored the gods and gratified the dead, the Greeks believed. Olympic victory was of greater significance than was winning a battle.
The sport remains one of great power and purity. Athletes compete on a team but perform as individuals, drawing on their physical and mental powers to best not simply their competitors but themselves. Their quest is for a personal best.
The interwoven disciplines of intellect and action made athletics an essential part of higher education.
Men's track and field developed a culture of its own at UVM 100 years of competition. It is not a powerhouse squad, but a supportive, family-like community within the larger university.
Athletes joke that family and friends must travel to Hanover, N.H., or beyond if they want to see a competition: The team has no home meets because its facilities don't reach NCAA standards.
The most illustrious member of the track team was Gutterson, for whom the fieldhouse is named.
In 1912, the track star set a broad jump record at the Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, where he won the gold medal. UVM also produced Archie Post, class of 1927, who excelled in basketball, cross country and track and field. The late Post coached the Catamounts for 40 years before his retirement in 1969. The athletic fields are named for him.
Ray W. Allen, a 1959 graduate of UVM, said he learned more about his abilities -- physical and mental -- as a runner under Post than he did through any other experience at college.
"I got more valuable life preparation from my participation in athletics than I did from my classroom experience," said Allen, 64, owner of Allenholm Farm in South Hero. "Winning was nice, but Archie was dedicated to developing young men. It saddens me that some Vermont students are not going to get to participate in track and field, and learn to push themselves and pace themselves and get along with other people.
"As I did."
For more than three decades under coach Ed Kusiak, the track team has relied on in-state athletes, young men who compete for Vermont high schools and opt to pursue sports and academics at their state university. Deane, this year's co-captain and an education major, is a 1997 graduate of Springfield High School.
"I just wanted a place where I could fit in," Deane said. "A place with a good school and a good program where I could keep running. I wouldn't have come here if we didn't have the track team."
For these students, the combination of athletics and academics is invaluable. The track competition enhances their educational experience. They are part of a small and supportive community within the larger university. The benefits of being on the team, they say, stay with them a lifetime.
It is this potential loss to other colleges of high school track athletes that area runners, coaches and educators say will be a significant effect of the cut.
David Shenk, 17, is a junior at Essex High School and a state champion in cross-country and 3,000 meters. He has lost interest in attending UVM.
"I definitely want to run track in college," he said. "I love the atmosphere of running, and this will definitely affect my decision." Shenk called the elimination of the track program "unfortunate," noting its benefits are made plain on his high school team.
"It's a really healthy way to bring people together," Shenk said. "It helps build friends and academic stuff. It helps people get through life."
Mark Chaplain, a chemistry teacher at U-32, has coached track and field and cross country there for more than 25 years.
"Track kids are some of the best kids around," he said. "If those kids are going to go somewhere else to college they're not only lost to UVM, they're likely lost to the state as adults. It will have that kind of impact."
The variety of events in track and field -- from distance running and pole vaulting to throwing the discus and running the hurdling -- mean people with a range of body types, athletic skills and competitive experience can find a place for themselves.
High school coaches don't cut people from the team. They welcome their participation and encourage them to train and compete. The focus is on developing well-rounded students whose experience on the track supplements classroom learning.
"The key thing about cross country and track is the playing time is guaranteed for everyone," said Kevin Martell, a distance runner at UVM in the early 1980s. "You don't sit on the bench."
Martell has coached track and field and cross country at Essex High School for 15 years, where this fall he has 53 girls on his cross-country team. He maintains that all the students who run for him are winners -- not just the one who crosses the finish-line first.
"The saddest thing is that the university is abandoning the idea of the student-athlete -- in which sports is an extension of the educational arm -- in favor of that narrow focus that we need to provide for this community a winning team," Martell said. "I competed at UVM. I had a blast. And I never would have gone there if I didn't have the chance to run.
"Did we win championships? Never. But I learned a tremendous amount and I had advantages I never would have had. And every year I'm sharing my experiences from the university with these kids."
Now he won't recommend his alma mater.
"Those kids are saying 'should I go to UVM?' and I say, 'Why?' " Martell said. "'You don't know they're going to have the sport you want. They're leaderless.' "
Strong support, interest
Athletes, alumnae and parents are sending letters of outrage and dismay to the athletic department. Former captains testify that competing in track and field was pivotal to their UVM education.
Kusiak, the coach, is questioning the decision-making process, wondering why his program was cut while others were spared. Kusiak says that with the women's team intact, it would cost only $10,000 to maintain the men's team. The two squads share a bus, traveling together to meets.
"A state university is responsible to the people who live in the state," Kusiak said. "One of the sports we have that relates to the people of Vermont is track and field."
Andrea Sisino, executive director of the Vermont City Marathon, agrees that running is a strong sport in Vermont. The elimination of UVM men's track and field team will not change that, she said.
"Runners will find another avenue to compete," she said. "There are road races and running clubs here. What we're seeing is not a reflection of what's going on with running, it's a reflection of what's going on with college and university survival."
The ultimate loser is UVM, Deane said.
"Kids who want to continue in track and field aren't going to look at UVM," he said. "That's too bad, 'cause it's kids who work and want to improve. It's awful that they're not going to go to their state university to do that."
Contact Sally Pollak at 660-1859 or email@example.com