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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

O'Reilly: The NYRR Millrose Games

Samantha Nadel, of North Shore High School in

Samantha Nadel, of North Shore High School in Glen Head, leads Mary Cain and others as they a turn during the high school girls' mile at the Millrose Games in New York. Credit: AP, 2012

All eyes are on Sochi these days. At least a lot of them are.

TV viewership for the Russian Olympic Games is down about 12 points from the Winter Games four years ago, according to NBC Sports, but gross viewership is up, thanks to streaming media platforms.

For a lot of track-and-field fans, though, the real February excitement comes not from the shores of the Black Sea, but from The Fort Washington Avenue Armory in New York City's Washington Heights, also home to the National Track and Field Hall of Fame. The 107th annual New York Road Runners Millrose Games will be run Saturday, featuring some of the finest athletes in the world who will compete on the same track and in the same meet with area high school and college stars. There's no track and field meet quite like it.

I didn't always love the Millrose. My siblings and I started going to it as soon as we were old enough to sit up without spitting up. And I recall asking hopefully a few times whether, this year, just maybe, we might be packing up to go to the circus instead of "the" track meet, both of which were then held at Madison Square Garden. But over time, The Millrose hooked me, just as it hooked my dad, who first began going with his father, a former University of Minnesota miler. For me, it started with the pole vaulters -- what kid isn't amazed by the pole vault? -- and then I began recognizing high school names on the runners' jerseys. That gave me buy in. But nothing set the hook in me deeper than Millrose's premier event, the Wanamaker Mile.

I didn't know the Wanamaker Mile was named after the fabled department store that once stood "uptown" at Ninth Street and Broadway. And I didn't know that the Millrose Games were started in 1908 by Wanamaker employees ("Millrose" was the name of department store magnate Rodman Wanamaker's country house.) What caught my attention was the way my father's eyes shined when the race was announced. The Wanamaker Mile was important to him, so the Wanamaker Mile became important to me.

I recall being swept to my feet, involuntarily, by the crowd during the Wanamaker, watching track legends such as Marty Liquori, Eamonn Coghlan, and, in later years, Marcus O'Sullivan and Bernard Lagat sprint to the finish. "Hey, daddy," I would find myself shouting over the crowd, "is he going to break the world record?" And sometimes "he" did.

The "he" I will be rooting for to break a world record this year is a "she" -- Bronxville's 16-year-old phenom Mary Cain, who will competing in the NYRR Wanamaker Women's Mile against another high school sensation, Alexa Efraimson, and collegiate stars Emily Lipari and Cory McGee. When Cain ran second last year, in her first Millrose, the roof almost came off The Armory from the crowd noise. Legendary Marathoner Alberto Salazar, who is now training Cain, is calling the NYRR Wanamaker Women's Mile "the pre-eminent indoor mile race in the world this year."

The Wanamaker is being supplanted by another race this year, though, for my brother's and sisters and I. We're packing up our children and bringing them to the games to watch the 300-eter dash that will be held at 3:42 p.m. (The NYRR Millrose Games run like clockwork.) That race, for the first time, will be graciously named "The O'Reilly Brothers 300 Meter Dash" in honor of my 90-year-old father, and his two older brothers, Jack and Moe, who have both now passed. Jack O'Reilly was a well-known track announcer - the "voice of the Penn Relays" -- and Moe was the first New York City high school student to break the two-minute half mile while at Brooklyn Prep, which, like Wanamaker's, is now gone. My father was the anchor of the 1940 championship Brooklyn Prep two-mile relay team and hoped to run at the University of Notre Dame, where he went to college on a scholarship. But after being twice wounded by German artillery in Italy, he never ran competitively again. The three brothers attended more than 50 Millrose Games together. It was their annual event.

Many will be watching this year's NYRR Millrose Games on TV and online. But none more intently or nostalgically than my father, Gerry O'Reilly, in his living room in Litchfield, Conn. I wish you all could see the games through his eyes.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.


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