By Linda Vance Gordon, Feature Writer, The Johnson City News & Neighbor, March 3, 2012
Let's go back a few years to begin our story. Young Tommy McCormack of Robinstown, Mulllingar, Ireland, has a wee problem and help was headed his way from a most unlikely source.
It was 1973 and he was having an amazing year. As a high school senior, he had won both the county and regional championships. Then, representing Ireland, he had finished 20th in the Junior Cross Country Race at the World Cross Country Championships held in Ghent, Belgium, and was the first Irishman home. As a result, he was offered running scholarships at three schools in the United States -- Washington State, the University of Arkansas and East Tennessee State University.
It was a tough decision for a high school senior. What did he know about schools located so far from his home? Then he got a call from a friend and former member of his running club, the Tullamore Harriers Athletic Club. It was Kevin Breen, a fellow Irishman, who was already attending ETSU, and he convinced McCormack that ETSU was where he should be.
Breen was a member of Coach David Walker's "Irish Brigade" which had already taken second place at the 1972 NCAA Cross Country Championships. That call tipped the choice in ETSU's favor and McCormack's hometown newspaper carried the story that a local boy was headed to the States.
Here's where the second part of the problem lies. "Back in those days, families didn't have a lot of extra income," he remembers. And, scholarships didn't cover all expenses and certainly not travel from Ireland to the United States. "They gave you everything except meals and I'd have to buy those for the school year. I got to thinking about it, and decided there wasn't any way I could afford to go," he continues.
The local newspaper had carried the news when he made the decision to attend ETSU and signed the letter of intent. Hearing about his financial difficulties, they did a second article. A short time later on a Saturday morning in May, there was a knock on the door. Two men stood there with a brown grocery bag and asked if they might come in.
McCormack didn't know the men but they explained they were town commissioners who had heard about his problem and had something for him. Upending the bag on the kitchen table, coins and pound notes came tumbling out. They had made the rounds at a dozen or so of Robinstown's bars the night before saying, "Tommy McCormack wants to go to school in the States and he's been offered a scholarship. We can't let him not have the fare to get there, so give us some money."
The townspeople responded generously. "These people felt like I needed to go and they wanted to give me the opportunity," says McCormack. "What was even better, the club I ran with was based in a town 30 miles away because my hometown didn't have a running club but they decided to help me because I was one of their own."
His running career at ETSU was not as successful as he would have liked. He was injured his first year and it was a "huge change from running in high school to running in college." But, it was and is a blessing for him to be able to come to this country.
"Remember, I was going to church in 1970 in a horse and buggy. That's how far behind the times it was. When I came to the States in '73, we thought the streets would be paved in gold." While that certainly isn't the case, McCormack points out that people, even poor people, in the United States are better off than 90 percent of the people in the rest of the world.
"I was blessed when I came to Johnson City. It's been a great place to live, a great community. I owe Coach Walker and the people of this area my life," says McCormack, who is still running and continues to set records.
He and his wife, the former Teresa Gill whom he met at ETSU, still live in Johnson City. After his graduation in 1977, McCormack worked for ETSU Public Safety and the Johnson City Police Department. In 1986 he joined the Johnson City Fire Department where he still serves as an Engineer/Emergency Medical Technician.
And, he's still running and enjoying it. "This is the first year in many years that I've been able to compete without injury," he says of the 2011 season. "I've broken both the mile and 5K records in Tennessee for my age group," he explains. He competed in more than 20 races last year, including a win in an alumni event sponsored by Western Kentucky University, whose all-English running team were competitors and friends of the all-Irish ETSU team during his college years.
On May 6, 2011, while running the Depot Dash 5K in Johnson City, he was second overall with 18:05. Then on August 9, 2011, he was second overall with a time of 5:11 at the Duck Island Mile Races in Kingsport. Both of these times set new Tennessee records for a 57-year-old.
Following his Sept. 1st birthday, he once again set state records for the mile and 5K, this time for a 58-year-old. On October 23, 2011, while running the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure 5K in Kingsport, he finished fourth overall in 17:37. On Nov. 19, 2011, in the Santa Special Mile in Kingsport, he was sixth overall in 5:00.
"I think I enjoy running more than I ever have. I'm just glad that I have the ability and I'm in good enough physical shape that I can do it," he says. "It makes me feel good, physically and mentally. It keeps my mind clear. Hopefully, I can do this until they put me in a box."
His advice for anyone who might be just a smidge past their youth - "Get out there and do it. Don't limit yourself, regardless of what it is. You don't have to be a winner all the time. Just get out there and feel good about yourself."
Who knows though, you just might surprise yourself or someone else. "I just kept going and getting better as the season went along," he recalls when he decided to go to Waynesville, NC last August and run the Main Street Mile. "Most races start and stop at the same spot," he points out. This one began a mile out of town and runners jogged to the start. "They had the ladies' mile first and then we lined up for the men's mile."
"They called us to the line and I went up front," says McCormack, remarking that's customary for him and something he's always done. Two young men wearing Western Carolina University shirts were nearby and said, not unkindly, "Sir, you might want to move to the back or you're going to get run over when the race starts."
"He wasn't being disrespectful; he was worried about my welfare," says McCormack. However, he did take the opportunity after finishing the race in fifth place in front of both young men, and in his fastest time all year at 4:49, to thank him for "trying to take care of the old man, but you need to worry about yourself. Don't worry about me."