The final Winter 2013 honoree in my Dual Meet Hall of Fame is the rivalry. Last year’s rivalry selection was USC versus UCLA. The winter honorees come from the Midwest and Northeast, and this year’s rivalry is the most intense not only in the northeast but in the entire nation.
It can only be Army versus Navy.
This is not the oldest rivalry around–with the first meet held in 1923, many others have been going longer–but it is simply the most meaningful dual meet rivalry in college track. From Paul Coover, writing for Running Times last May:
In his interview for the Navy job, head coach Stephen Cooksey was asked what he would think of a season in which his teams lost every meet but beat Army. He replied that he wouldn’t consider that year much of a success. He was quickly corrected, and told that he would, in fact, have accomplished his assignment. “If you’ve never been a part of it,” says Troy Engle, Army’s head track coach, “you can’t understand the importance of it.”
Now that’s a rivalry, on par with football’s Ohio State-Michigan hatefest. But this is track and field (and cross country), so hate isn’t the right word. More on that later.
This meet is known as the “Star Meet” because of the tradition of awarding stars to members of teams who win this rivalry (in track, the famed football game, or any other sport). They are worn on varsity letters, and are the most important athletic award an athlete can win.
Jon Clemens was a two-time All-American in his time at the Naval Academy, once in cross country and once in track. Despite some sensational individual performances in races against Army, he was never part of a winning team at a Star Meet. “I’d trade one of my All-Americans,” he says now, “for a f—— star.”
Other traditions including the singing of each school’s Alma Mater at the conclusion of the meet, with the loser going first and the winner second. “Singing second” is a phrase heard often.
Coover’s article allowed the larger running world to peer into this rivalry, one not well known even within the small community of track fans, telling the story in the context of last May’s men’s Star Meet. (It was a tremendously close meet and one of the best ever, a contest not decided until the last meters of the 4×400 relay.) That article was actually excerpted from a much longer and much more detailed article, all thirty pages of which are available at the Army athletics website. It is a must-read.
There have been a few top-notch performances at this meet; future Olympian Dan Browne (Army) broke 4:00 at the indoor Star Meet, and high jumper Leo Williams (Navy) scaled 2.28 meters at the indoor meet as well. But individuals aren’t really the point at this meet, it’s all about the team. Yet some truly great Americans have competed in this series, including several astronauts (Buzz Aldrin being the most famous) and a President of the United States (Jimmy Carter, in cross country). No other dual meet series can claim anything like this, not even Harvard-Yale.
Coover explains why this rivalry is so different from other college sports rivalries:
the basis for their animosity stems not from how the schools are different but from how they are the same. Neither school offers athletic scholarships; life at both Academies is regimented, competitive, intellectually and physically grueling; free time is a luxury when it exists at all; the quality of academics rivals the Ivy League; and graduates from both schools owe a minimum five years to the Army, Navy, or Marine Corps. Students who attend either school understand that their rivals are their only true peers, that winning Army-Navy is the single best measure of their own success.