For many, the thought of becoming a professional in the Track and Field sphere starts and ends with "Professional Athlete." In a new monthly series, MileSplit NY will be shining light on the broad spectrum of possibilities our sport provides, outside of competing as an athlete. We'll be meeting New Yorkers who have made their way in the sport, utilizing their own unique strengths, to bring the sport to the high level it sits at in the Empire State. Check out prior entries here.
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It all seems so simple to the casual observer. Raise your arm, shout "Get Set" and fire the pistol so the race can begin.
Nothing to it, right?
Well, if you've been firing that pistol to start races for as long as Tom McTaggart has then you understand how wrong that sentiment is. McTaggart, 72, has been starting races, not only in New York but around the globe, for 49 years and he's perfected a craft that many don't even realize needs perfecting.
He's been on the gun for 15 world records, two Olympic games and countless other international events but is best known locally as the long-time Suffern High School track/cross country coach in addition to being the area's premier starters. What makes him so good is his attention to detail when starting a race, a trait that has contributed to his longevity.
"It's really just about trying to get everyone ready," said McTaggart, who is a member of the USA Track & Field Officials Hall of Fame. "You want everyone doing everything at the same time so it's fair. You give the set command and you have to have it demonstrated that there is a palpable moment of stillness and then let them go. It all depends on how quickly they respond.
"You want to get a little bit of tempo there so they have a chance to react and get ready for the sound of the pistol. There is a lot going on in their minds [while on the line] and it can take between 1.6 and two seconds for everyone to be absolutely ready. The starter's goal is to be fair. You want to make sure that everyone has at least the same opportunity. It's on them to prepare and it's on me to make sure that no one gets an advantage and they all are in an optimum environment."
McTaggart graduated from Suffern High School and despite his world travels, which have included stops in Poland, China, Spain, Canada and England to name a few, he has never ventured to far from his roots. He's lived in Sloatsburg, N.Y. since 1958, just a few miles down the road from where he began his track and field career as a discus thrower for Suffern.
He ran in college but only because the coach at Colgate pestered him to do so. McTaggart admits that he was 'a lousy discus thrower' and told the coach at Colgate as much. The coach, however, told him that he sent him so many recruiting letters because he looked at the time McTaggart posted in the 600-yard dash during his school's physical fitness test and was impressed
"He told me you ran 1:17, that's a great time," said McTaggart, who wrestled instead of running during his senior year of college. "So that's what I ended up doing. I ran the 440 and the 600 indoors."
The 60s were drawing to a close when McTaggart finished college career and his old high school coach, Joseph St. Lawrence, reached out to him and insisted that he begin officiating. McTaggart accepted the advice and took to the role quickly. It wasn't long before he had graduated from modified meets.
"We really needed people and they put me right to work," said McTaggart, who taught history at Suffern from 1973-2009 while coaching boys and girls track and cross country at different times over that stretch. "I started on the modified meets but a guy wouldn't show up for a varsity meet so I was asked to do that. We were short on people at the high school meets when boys and girls went together. There were a lot of coaches involved because we had to cover meets. So I started before I started teaching.
"I wanted to do the long jump but somehow I ended up doing a lot of starting. Then they tell you you're doing the county meet and you say okay what the heck, I'll do it. That started the ball rolling."
High school officiating became college officiating which eventually led to bigger events in and around New York City. Ultimately, McTaggart became one of the best-known starters in the sport, working the Olympics [1984 in Los Angeles and 1996 in Atlanta] and other World Championship events.
McTaggart has seen plenty of changes in the sport over the last five decades - from both a coaching and officiating standpoint - whether it was changes to the rules regarding false starts or the fact that meets had become co-ed. The length of the meets increased from "three hours max" to six or seven hours, changing the dynamic of the sport.
"Sometimes I think they just try to do too much in terms of events," said McTaggart, who won the Rockland County Track and Field Coach of the year nine times and is a member of the County's Sports Hall of Fame. "In Rockland County it used to be one week we would do the mile, the next week we would do the two-mile.
"Another thing that has changed is that the kids do four events. When I started, they only did two or three. I think they should spread the wealth around with the kids and try to develop the team. By limiting the amount of events you develop a team and put pressure on the other kids to grow. Now, you have four events and it's a different environment."
The environment may have changed but McTaggart hasn't. His love of the sport is as strong as it has ever been and serious thoughts of retirement haven't creeped in just yet. He has the energy and enthusiasm of someone half his age and still enjoys the work too much to quit.
"I'll keep going till I get tired of it, when I'm at the point where I refuse to walk over the hill," he said. "In 2021 we are going to host the [IAAF] World Championships [for the first time in the United States] and I'll evaluate things after that. We've trained a new generation of people and I didn't want to give it up until we had a new, solid group of people who could step in where I had been at any given time."