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Touching greatness on the track

Edmonton's Jerry Bouma an incredible story of success on the running track.

Many years later, it's still impossibly fascinating.

For 16 years--from 1966 to 1981--the Villanova Track Team, a small, private university in a suburb of Philadelphia, won the Championship of America Distance Medley Relay (DMR) at the Penn Relays.

“It is a winning streak unrivalled in the world of amateur and professional sports,” said Edmonton’s Jerry Bouma, a member of that marvellous group of athletes from 1970 to 1974, who recently wrote ‘Touching Greatness, Forever Together: The Villanova Track Story.’

“The Boston Celtics won eight championships in a row,” said Bouma. “Montreal won five Stanley Cups in a row and the Yankees won five consecutive World Series. Villanova did it 16 years in a row and with five complete turnovers of athletes, unlike the Celtics who had Bill Russell, the Canadiens who had Maurice Richard and the Yankees who had Joe DiMaggio."

“The DMR is unlike any other relay--arguably the quintessential middle distance running event,” Bouma writes. "It is comprised of the 400 meters, the 800 meters, the 1,200 meters and the 1,600 meters (formerly the 440 yards, the 880 yards, the 3/4 mile and the 1 mile).

How did it happen? And why?

“That’s why I wrote the book. To address those questions.”

“The streak started with Dave Patrick and Charlie Messenger, who came together as a tandem in 1966. They were the No. 1 and No. 2 high school milers in the United States. The bond they had brought a depth of brotherhood which persisted through the entire time period,” said Bouma, who ran the fastest 1,500 meters for a Canadian 16-year-old and the following year broke the under-18 record for the indoor and outdoor 1,500 meters. He also set the record for the outdoor mile and became the Canadian junior champion for the 800 meters.

“Patrick and Messenger--we lived together, trained together, ate together--that fraternity was incredible. The camaraderie was a real factor,” said Bouma, who grew up on a farm outside Owen Sound, Ontario.

“Then there was the coach, Jumbo Elliott. He set very high standards with little hand holding. He established a strong, take-charge culture," recalled Bouma. "We put in a lot of miles twice a day. We ran 100 miles a week. When push came to shove, we knew we were going to win. Through all obstacles we knew how to win."

High quality athletes attract high quality athletes. And that was certainly the case with Villanova.

After Patrick and Messenger came the likes of Marty Liquori, then the fastest miler in the world; Eamonn Coghlan, a four-time Olympian, a world 5,000-metre champion and a three-time indoor mile world record holder; John Hartnett, a 5,000-meter runner at the 1972 Olympics; Mark Belger; Don Paige and Sydney Maree.

“It was an incredible string of athletes,” said Bouma, who led off the 1971 four-mile relay before being injured in his second year at Villanova with bone spurs in his ankle. It required surgery that derailed his sophomore and junior years. In 1974, healed, Bouma anchored the sprint medley at the Penn Relays.

“The 16-year-in-a-row store at the Penn Relays were just icing on the cake,” said Bouma, who is a management consultant in the agriculture and food industry and also serves as the Edmonton-based Netherlands’ honourary consul.

“Altogether we won 52 Championship of America at Penn Relays during that 1966-1981 period,” said Bouma, 69, who still runs three or four times a week - six to seven kilometres each time.

“Running keeps you moving. But, moreover, it mentally gives you freedom free of distractions," Bouma said. 

“I find I do my best and clearest thinking running because you get more oxygen going through your brain. It’s very important to continue to exercise as we age.”

‘Touching Greatness, Forever Together; The Villanova Track Story’ is available on Amazon and at Audreys Books on 107 street and Jasper Avenue, Edmonton’s oldest independent bookstore.

[email protected]

Follow me on Twitter at CurtisJStock

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