Eighteen years after they set a school record for the 4 x 800 meter indoor relay, four WPI alumni decided that it was time to pass the baton.
On January 21, Steve LaBranche ‘96, Rich Person ‘96, Tim Caldwell ’97, and Rick Crispo ‘98 surprised WPI’s current distance runners after a Tuesday afternoon practice. They showed up with the very baton they had used in 1996 when they ran the race in 7:52:47.
And they issued a challenge to the nine young men.
Passing the baton
The baton is now theirs — to use every time they have a good chance of breaking the 4 x 800 record. Once they do, it will return to the WPI Athletic Department, where it will await the next team likely to break the new record.
LaBranche was cleaning out his basement several months ago when he discovered the baton, still hanging above his workbench.
“I thought, ‘I’m not throwing it away,’” he says. “But wouldn’t it be neat to give it back to the school?”
He knew WPI’s indoor distance team had been quite good last year as freshmen and sophomores. In all likelihood, they were set to break the 1996 record either this year or next.
He and his three teammates have remained close, he says. “I sent an email to the other three guys to see what they thought. They were very excited.”
Head coach Brian Chabot also loved the idea.
Connection to Past
“One of my goals has been to re-establish contact with alumni,” Chabot says. In addition, he welcomed the idea of “establishing traditions to reconnect different groups of runners over time.”
Thomas Kostelak ’15 describes meeting the alumni as “the coolest thing.”
Chabot had told him and his teammates only that he had a surprise, and they were excited to discover that the four strangers waiting for them were the record holders.
“And then they took out a baton …,” he says.
Chabot had a surprise for the alumni as well: their coach and mentor, Merl Norcross, who was WPI head track and field coach for over 40 years, was also on hand.
The runners, past and present, shared common stories across the years.
The students call their favorite practice run, in the “Funny Houses” neighborhoods near Assumption College. It’s the very name the record holders gave it in the 1990s.
And each student who held the baton immediately identified the dent in it, the perfect place for a thumb grip.
Thomas Kostelak picked up on “how little had really changed in more than 15 years. They still joked around the same way together.” He predicts the same for his own teammates.
“We’re a really close-knit group,” he says.
As for the demolition of the hard-won record?
This year’s Engineers are getting close. After some debate about carrying the famed baton for races other than the 4 x 800 relay, the guys used it recently to break the school’s distance medley record.
And Brian Chabot fully expects them to shatter the record at the All New England Championships on Saturday, March 1.
They will be running a lot of individual races this coming weekend at the Division 3 New England Championships, but “we will load up on relays and really see what we can do” for the All New Englands,” says Chabot.
“Their record is really very good,” says Kostelak. “We just all have to run our best.”
LaBranche acknowledges that he and his friends may share a little sadness on that inevitable day.
But it will be a special moment for the relay team.
“When they break it,” he says, “they’re going to form a strong relationship for the rest of their lives.”