Oct. 1, 1999
by Alan Wasielewski
It was time to make a decision. Notre Dame sophomore runner Luke
Watson entered the last two miles of the 1999 United States
Junior Cross Country Championship in Tacoma, Wash., among
the top six runners. His spot on the national team that would
travel to Belfast, Northern Ireland, for the 1999 world championship
was secure. Now it was time to decide whether or not to win
"I knew I had the spot on the national team," Watson said. "You can look around while you are out on the course and see that it is only you and five others. Then I decided I wanted to take it to another level. I wanted to win the race."
"Everybody was surging, trying to break the other runners," Watson said of the final mile. "No one was really getting broken. Toward the finish of the race there were many turns with a lot of pushing and shoving. Out of the last turn, everyone was still together but Steve Slattery took the lead. I stayed right behind and passed him at the finish line."
Watson ran the 8K course in 23:26 for the championship.
"I wasn't even tired at the end of the race," he said. "The excitement of winning such a big event makes you forget about any pain or exhaustion."
It was the highlight of Watson's young career. He was now the national champion and would be representing the United States at the national championships. Thoughts of his sophomore cross country season at Notre Dame seemed so distant as he was trading in this Irish gold and blue for the red, white and blue of the United States. But Watson knew this experience would only help him when it did come time to don the interlocking N-D on his chest in the fall.
"You have to go into the world meet with a different attitude," Watson said. "There is no denying that you are going to get pounded by the African continent countries like Kenya and Ethiopia.
Running is a much more developed sport in those countries. Our team, however was determined to beat the rest of the world. "
Watson had a month off before going to the world championships in Belfast. Those six runners who battled each other just a month earlier would now be his teammates and represent their country.
"We were not just over there for the experience," Watson pointed out. "We wanted to compete and beat as many other countries as possible."
Watson and the U.S. team would have to deal with some brutal conditions in Belfast. It rained the entire day before the race, meaning the athletes would have to deal with ankle-deep mud on
the already challenging course.
Watson finished 34th (28:18) out of the 155 runners at the World Championship. He was the third American to cross the finish line and helped the team achieve its goal of being the highest non-African nation team with a sixth-place showing.
"It was not a great race for me personally," Watson said. "Combine the mud with the hills and the fact that the course was slightly longer than usual, and it became the hardest course I have ever run. I ended up running almost three minutes slower than usual, but the experience I gained can never be replaced."
Back in the Unites States, Watson changed uniforms and started concentrating on his next goals, continuing what is the beginnings of an outstanding career at Notre Dame.
The native of Stillwater, Minn., had already impressed head coach Joe Piane his freshman year as he placed seventh at the BIG EAST Championships and earned all-BIG EAST honors. He finished the year as Notre Dame's number-two runner, finishing in the top 20 in four of the six meets he ran in during the 1998 season.
In 1999, Watson and the Irish started the season strong as the team won its first two races and Watson placed second, behind teammate Ryan Shay, with a time of 25:04 at the National Catholic hosted by Notre Dame in September.
As the season progressed, Notre Dame continued to impress behind the dynamic duo of Watson and Shay. The Irish took third at the prestigious Notre Dame Invitational and then made the nation take notice as they placed six out of 35 teams at the Pre-National Championships at Bloomington, Ind. The Pre-National meet is run on the same course as the NCAA Championships and features the nation's top teams and runners.
Watson placed seventh at the Notre Dame Invitational with a season-best time of 24:10, and then finished 22nd at the Pre National Championships with a time of 24:40.90.
"The season is like a staircase," Watson explained. "You start out the first few meets training through them - you don't peak for the race, you use it as a training experience."
The Irish and Watson peaked at the right time as Notre Dame traveled to Bronx, N.Y., for the 1999 BIG EAST Championships. The Irish claimed the team title finishing with three runners in the top 10, including Watson who was third with a time of 24:36. Watson also earned his second consecutive all-BIG EAST citation by placing in the top 15.
After moving up to eighth in the national rankings as a team, the Irish continued its stellar season with a trip to Terre Haute, Ind., for the 1999 Great Lakes Regional Championships. Notre Dame placed second with 68 points, automatically qualifying for the NCAA Championships Monday, Nov. 22, in Bloomington, Ind.
Watson also had another great race as the sophomore covered the 8K course in a time of 30:50.50 to finish 12th and earn all-Great Lakes region honors.
"Luke has had a great season," Piane said. "He has done everything we have asked of him and the only reason people have not noticed Luke as much is that he has been overshadowed by Ryan Shay all year."
"My ultimate goal is to be an All-American this season," Watson said. I also wanted to be in the top five of the BIG EAST and top 10 at the district meet. I have come close in accomplishing that. I just want to help the team do well at the national meet. If I can do that, then my season will be a success."