In 1958, the search began for a site on which to build an indoor track-and-field facility for Massachusetts high school athletes. On November 5, 1995, the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center, on the campus of Roxbury Community College, was finally dedicated.
It was a long struggle, led by the Massachusetts State Track Coaches Association (MSTCA), and one that has paid off in ways far beyond anyone’s hopes. In addition to the 96 track meets on this season’s schedule, “the Reggie” has turned into a magnet for community life, hosting everything from political rallies to benefit concerts to day-care tots looking for a place to romp indoors in the New England winters.
Just months after it was dedicated, the facility threw open its doors to the first Boston Indoor Games—now the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix—which will mark its 19th year on February 8. Keith McDermott, director of the center and intercollegiate athletics at Roxbury Community College, has been instrumental in the growth of the meet, which exploded from a smattering of mostly local athletes and a few hundred spectators into one of the top indoor track-and-field events in the world, the site of six World Records and 10 consecutive sell-outs.
McDermott, 52, was himself a top sprinter for Springfield College, for which he was a two-time New England long jump champion; his personal best of 9.6 seconds for the 100-yard dash stands as the school record. He sat down during the recent holiday break to look back at the evolution of both the meet and the vital facility that he has led since 1998.
New Balance Indoor Grand Prix: It’s school vacation right now, and this place is hopping. Is it ever quiet around here?
Keith McDermott: Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, that’s about it. This time of year we’re open seven days a week, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., sometimes with two track meets a day from December 1 through March.
NBIGP: What meets come in here?
KM: We host all the major high school state and MIAA (Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association) division meets, the All-State meet, MSTCA meets, the New England Championships. The ECAC Division III meet is here, and Roxbury Community College competes here. Greater Boston Track Club, BAA, all the major running clubs have memberships and train here. We’ve had the USA indoor championships here seven times, from 2003 to 2009; the USA master’s championships, and of course the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix.
NBIGP: How does hosting a world-class meet fit in with your mission, which is largely aimed at serving scholastic athletes?
KM: People come into Roxbury, to the facility, and it’s what I call a transformational experience for them. No matter where they come from, they enjoy the facility and see how clean it is, see the customer service, the professionalism. It’s an Olympic experience right here in Boston. A few weeks after the New Balance meet, Steve Vaitones from USATF-NE has a youth meet here, so they get a chance to run on the same track as the pros, and you should see the excitement: Wow, so-and-so ran here! Jenn Suhr jumped here! We tell them stories, like the time Maurice Greene ran the fastest 60-meter time on US soil on this track, or when Tirunesh Dibaba set the 5000-meter World Record on this track. They’ll run around the track and ask how they compare to those Olympic gold medalists.
NBIGP: How great is that?
KM: It’s fantastic. We have a facility dedicated to us because of the hard work of the Mass State Track Coaches Association, who wanted a place for high school kids to run, and it’s going to be here after my lifetime and your lifetime. Having the kids see the pro athletes keeps the sport growing. So does having a place for the kids to run, and the history of the Reggie Lewis Center shows that if you organize, you can get something that benefits so many people. It also leads to opportunities. Even if a kid isn’t a scholarship athlete, the experience they gain from competing in track and field is invaluable. The rules in this sport are very clear: If you work hard, you see progress.
NBIGP: But even with all the track meets, a lot else goes on here, too, doesn’t it?
KM: For sure. President Obama has been here twice, including this June at a rally for Ed Markey
when he was running for the US Senate. There were more than 5000 people here for that. Elizabeth Warren kicked off her Senate campaign here. Venus and Serena Williams did a clinic for USA Tennis. Seiji Ozawa conducted a benefit concert for his 25th anniversary as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. On January 5, the new Boston mayor, Marty Walsh, hosted his Youth Inaugural Summit here, and during the campaign we hosted a mayoral debate. And that’s not counting the everyday non-track stuff.
NBIGP: Such as?
KM: We host AAU basketball tournaments in our gym from April to August. Day-care centers come in here a couple of times a week, to give their kids a chance to run around. Adults can get fitness-club memberships for our cardio and weight equipment and aerobics classes. Our “Sensational Seniors”—and they actually are sensational—started out as a senior-citizen walking program with 11 people and now it’s 137, all the way up to 94 years old. They come and work out, they lift weights, they have aerobics, and walk. They’ve branched off into a book club, restaurant program, they go to the casino, they do Thanksgiving dinner together. That program has extended the life of some of those seniors. We’ve had people come into the program who could not walk 100 yards who tell me now, “Oh, I walked three miles today.”
NBIGP: Would you have ever envisioned the Reggie being used in so many ways?
KM: Definitely not. I didn’t think that it would be so open to the public. Anyone who tells you they thought it was going to be what it is today would be fibbing a little bit.
NBIGP: Is the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix more than you expected, as well?
KM: To the level that it has taken off? Yes. The first few years, Mark Wetmore [the meet director] was paying for school buses to get people to the meet. Now it sells out every year. To his credit, he’s still maintained that commitment, to get people in the local community into the meet. It’s not “OK, we’re at this level now, forget about them.” They still make sure that x amount of tickets get given out to the local high school kids and local community. They don’t have to bus people in anymore, though.
NBIGP: What’s been your favorite moment at the meet?
KM: The 4x800 World Record in 2000. Seeing those guys run that was fun. Usually, you try to break a World Record and you don’t break it. They tried to break a World Record, and they broke it. The other moment was having Haile Gebrselassie here in 2004. That was just unreal. I’ve never seen anyone generate such excitement … he’s like a god. There were literally people crying because they actually saw him.
NBIGP: Talk about some of the challenges of putting on a world-class meet in what was meant to be a high-school facility.
KM: Not having enough seats in the facility, because demand is so high, is certainly one. Getting used to the demands of TV was another. The lighting used to be a big issue; we spent $48,000 to get our foot candles up seven or eight years ago. We used to have to rent temporary lights and put them up. To this day we have to build a temporary booth for announcers above the finish line. But over the years we and the organizers have put systems in place so that every year we’re pretty much ready to go. There is still a sound issue; I’d like to see us get to the point where we can have a gigantic video board that TV can just plug into, some kind of Jumbotron, in place. Right now, the meet organizers have to rent one, so that’s one of the things high on our priority list.
NBIGP: Is that your No.1 priority?
KM: No, the first priority is to get our track replaced in 2014. We’re working very closely with the Mass State Track Coaches, the governor’s office, and the president of Roxbury Community College to secure the funding to do that. So, by the 2015 New Balance Indoor Grand Prix, we hope to have a new track.