Two-Time Olympian McKenzie Passes
Photo caption: Van Cortlandt Park in 1957, Gordon McKenzie is trailing legendary Ted Corbitt and just ahead of John Sterner.
They called Gordon McKenzie "the civil engineer with a fighting heart" when he ran off with his first American title nearly 59 years ago.
As Track & Field News wrote it in November 1954, "McKenzie won the AAU cross country crown in 29:27.5 at hilly Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, taking the lead a mile and a half from home."
Left in their tracks behind him were 1948-52 Olympic steeplechaser Browning Ross (later the founder of the Road Runners Club of America) and 1952 Olympic steeplechase champion Horace Ashenfelter, still the lone American to win the steeple at the Games in its current format.
Gordon McKenzie would fight on and fight on with the best of the best — nationally and internationally — in a brilliant distance running career that spanned the decades.
That "fighting heart" would carry on — in sport and in life — through July 19, 2013.
Great Neck, N.Y. resident McKenzie, age 86, at last reached his life's finish line after a bout of gall bladder troubles led to a series of further medical complications.
All those laps McKenzie ran in his lifetime of achievement were surely for the best of purposes.
As an undergraduate, he'd circle the cinders of New York University's Ohio Field in the University Heights section of the Bronx in what seemed like an endless journey.
As a post-collegian, one of his tracks of choice was Macombs Dam Park — later to become the Joe Yancey Memorial Track — again in the Bronx, 161 Street at River Avenue, across the street from Yankee Stadium. And again the lap count seemed endless.
But they were to pay the greatest of dividends. Gordon McKenzie would run his way onto two USA Olympic Teams and much more.
Too few around the sport these days will remember his achievements, which is unfortunate, but some might say that's the way he liked it. The last thing you'd ever expect Gordon McKenzie to do was blow his cover in an outburst of immodesty. Never a full-time runner — as most world-class runners now are — McKenzie instead fit his running life around his job as a City of New York civil engineer, and as a family man.
"He was a very sturdy competitor, an honest competitor, a top-level guy and, most importantly, a very nice person," said Glen Ridge, N.J. resident Ashenfelter. "I'm very saddened to hear this news."
Yet that was the essence of this greatly unsung star of American distance running.
He made his first USA Olympic Team in 1956, running the 10,000 meters at the Melbourne Games, the first Olympics to be held in the Southern Hemisphere.
In those grueling Olympic Trials of 1956, staged in steamy Bakersfield, Calif., New Yorker and NYU alumnus McKenzie — a proud representative of the New York Pioneer Club — ran third in 31:06.8 back of Max Truex, the Indianan at the University of Southern California (30:52.0) and University of Pennsylvania grad Dick Hart (31:06.3).
As a warmup for those Trials, McKenzie lowered the American six-mile record to 29:18.6.
At the Games Down Under, the 10,000 meters was scripted to be a classic duel matching Russia's Vladimir Kuts and Great Britain's Gordon Pirie, but it didn't turn out that way.
Kuts — putting in a series of midrace bursts — would eventually prevail in the Olympic record time of 28:45.6, but Pirie faded to sixth.
Meanwhile, further back, the American trio was duking it out with some of the best of the rest of the world. McKenzie would claim 18th place as top American — his 30:34.3 was close to the USA record — with Hart 21st and Truex a DNF.
By 1960, McKenzie had switched focus from the longest Olympic race on the track to the lone Olympic run on the road.
Up front, this became the classic world-record marathon win by Abebe Bikila, amazingly running the streets of Rome barefoot in 2:15.16. Boston U. grad Johnny Kelley ran 19th, Villanova alumnus Alex Breckenridge 30th and McKenzie 48th.
Later, McKenzie would call this "one of the worst races of my life." Never a major-mileage man, he'd seriously overtrained.
McKenzie had earned his trip to the 1960 Games by leading all American finishers at that spring's Boston Marathon in 2:22:18 (his career-PR, just 1:24 back of winner Paavo Kotila of Finland) and then running second to Johnny "The Younger" Kelley in the Yonkers Marathon five weeks later, 2:20:13 to 2:23:46.
With his consecutive Olympic appearances, McKenzie became one of the few Americans to represent the nation on the track and in the marathon in the Games.
It's a small group that has bridged the gap and includes the likes of Joie Ray, Billy Mills, George Young, Frank Shorter and, in recent years, Meb Keflezighi, Abdi Abdirahman, Dathan Ritzenhein and Dan Browne.
At the 1961 Boston Marathon, McKenzie ran fourth, as second American behind over-all winner Eino Oksanen of Finland.
Named to the 1963 USA Pan American Games team, McKenzie flew off to Sao Paulo,. Brazil where he ran a gallant second in difficult conditions, 2:27:55 to 2:31:17, back of winner Fidel Negrete of Mexico.
The McKenzie family and the running sport - they've always been perfect together.
In an AAU-sponsored track and field tour to England in the early 1950's, McKenzie met Christine Slemon, then an up-and-coming English runner considered one of her nation's most promising.
One thing led to another. Their romance bloomed. They'd marry, come to America and settle in Great Neck.
"We had 59 wonderful years together," said tearful Chris McKenzie. "The time's just flown. I don't know where it's gone."
In her English days, Chris McKenzie had been one of her nation's outstanding women runners and her Selsonia Ladies 3x880 relay team had set a world record.
As a new American, she continued excelling at races of all distances for the New York PAL team and for years the McKenzies were recognized as one of the sport's most renowned running couples.
Chris made some headlines of her own at the 1960 Boston Marathon.
As Boston historian Tom Derderian would write it, "Gordon McKenzie was surprised by his pretty English wife, Christine, who popped out of the crowd to yell encouragement at every point on the course she could get to. In her excitement, she kicked off her shoes and ran alongside her husband in her nylon-stockinged feet for distances as long as a quarter-mile.
"Her uninhibited zeal and ability delighted and impressed reporters in the press bus. The next day's papers carried detailed accounts of her running and grabbing motorcycle, police car, and subway rides to keep uip with her husband."
In Britain, she'd set records from the quarter-mile to the three-mile.
But her own bid to make the USA team at the newly-reinstated 800-meter distance in 1960 fell short, after she'd bowed out in the semifinals of the women's Trials.
The McKenzies would maintain their running lifestyle for years and years. Gordon McKenzie was in apparent excellent shape to the end. He'd maintained his running regime until knee problems set in some five years ago — but then switched to walking and he continued walking up to eight miles daily.
McKenzie was forever proud of his Pioneer Club affiliation. While well known for their exploits over shorter distances, and other branches of the sport, the Pioneers also fielded some of the best distance running teams of their day.
Olympic runners McKenzie, Ted Corbitt and Oscar Moore were Pioneer longer-distance greats and they had such illustrious teammates as Lou White, Rudy Mendez, John Sterner, John Conway, Tom O'Brien, John Connolly, Abe Fornes, Rod McNicholl, Charley Robbins, Al Williams and many more.
But the death of Pioneer teammate and training partner Austin Scott — who collapsed and succumbed to heat stroke while competing in the National AAU six-mile in St. Louis in 1954, a race staged in torrid conditions — was one of the saddest moments of his life in the sport.
Gary Corbitt, son of Ted, is one of the sport's most noted historians, and points out that "Gordon was an outstanding miler, too, before stepping up in distance. He'd run fourth in (a PR) 4:12.9 at the Wanamaker Mile at the 1953 Millrose Games and had always hoped to break four minutes.
"Gordon always had an interest in boxing, too; I guess the roadwork translated into his interest in track.
"He was a real student of the sport and a real stickler for time; sure, he always wanted to win and was often a great front-runner, but he always wanted to do the very best he could do timewise.
"He always wanted to push the pace. That was Gordon."
An active member of the Tri-States Olympians association, McKenzie maintained an active interest in the sport over the years.
Gordon and Chris McKenzie are parents of three — eldest son Adam is the long-time track & cross country coach at Great Neck North High School — and grandparents of seven.
Arrangements are by Fairchild Sons, Inc. Funeral Chapel, 1570 Northern Boulevard, Manhasset, N.Y. (Phone 516-627-2000).
Visitation is from 2-5 and 7-9 p.m. Friday, August 2. Burial will be Monday, Aug. 5 at All Saints Cemetery, 855 Middle Neck Road, Great Neck.