As the world’s foremost authority on the decathlon, Dr. Frank Zarnowski’s opinion matters to people in the track and field world.
That’s why the longtime Emmitsburg resident and former Mount St. Mary’s cross-country and track and field coach was given a USATF National Track & Field Hall of Fame ballot.
It had plenty of worthy candidates. Zarnowski knew the names well. In fact, he knew one of them real well.
Zarnowski was one of the nominees.
Surprised as he was, he did what anyone in his position would do. He voted for himself.
Then, Zarnowski stepped out of his office at Dartmouth College, where the longtime economics professor serves as a senior lecturer each fall.
“I ran down the hall to the secretary,” he said. “And I said, ‘You can’t believe what happened. I can brag for the rest of my life that I got one vote for the hall of fame.’”
Turns out, he can brag about more than that.
Zarnowski was one of the inductees in the USATF National Track & Field Hall of Fame’s Class of 2016, getting elected as a contributor, and he was enshrined on Nov. 3.
The USATF recognized him for his contributions to the decathlon as a public address announcer, author, Olympic television commentator, historian, coach and meet director.
Zarnowski, 73, thought his role as a PA announcer bolstered his candidacy. He figured he’s called 700 to 800 meets, and he usually does so from the field instead of staying in the press box like many of his brethren.
“The only thing that is recognizable is their voice,” he said. “But I think people might recognize me because I like to be on the field.”
He was one of two PA announcers for all track and field events at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. He also worked at the 1988, 1992, 1996 and 2004 Olympics as either an analyst, commentator or in-stadium radio announcer.
Over the years, household names like decathlon great Bruce Jenner and women’s heptathlon great Jackie Joyner Kersee got to know Zarnowski’s name.
Joyner Kersee gave the presentation speech for Zarnowski at the USATF National Track & Field Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Armory Track and Field Center/USATF Hall of Fame in New York.
“I had called most of her meets in her career,” Zarnowski said. “So she said something like, ‘He introduced me in my career, and now I get to introduce him.’”
Decked out in a tux and sneakers (this was a track and field ceremony, after all), Zarnowski sat next to 1968 Olympic gold medal high jumper Dick Fosbury, who perfected a jumping technique known as the Fosbury Flop.
“That was kind of neat,” Zarnowski said. “This guy reinvented his event.”
Zarnowski didn’t reinvent the decathlon, but he did carve out a unique niche in the physically demanding, 10-event contest. Not as a competitor, though.
Zarnowski says he was “an athlete of almost no note.” Nonetheless, he gave it a shot as an undergrad at the Mount.
The York County, Pennsylvania, native got cut from the Mount men’s basketball team. Granted, that team was pretty good. The Mountaineers won the Division II national title that season — 1961-62 — under coach Jim Phelan.
Zarnowski got cut from the school’s baseball team, too, but he didn’t give up. He competed for the Mount’s cross-country and track teams.
He became Lehigh’s cross-country coach while he earned his Masters of Arts degree in economics at the school (he later earned his doctorate there).
When Zarnowski returned to the Mount as an economics professor in the fall of 1967, he served as the school’s cross-country coach and track and field assistant for eight years.
At the Mount, there was an athlete, Bill Walsh, whose versatility as an athlete seemed ideally suited for the decathlon.
“I said, ‘I’m going to run a couple meets for this guy so he can qualify for the Olympic trials,’” Zarnowski said. “So we were hosting, at the time, decathlons when it was not an event at the NCAA championships, it wasn’t a scoring event.”
Zarnowski liked the numerical aspect of the decathlon, where numbers are crunched as athletes accumulate points. He also liked promoting a competition that tends to get overshadowed by higher-profile events at meets.
Aside from coaching at the Mount, he also coached for the U.S national team. He was a delegate leader who took teams overseas.
His role as an announcer came about by happenstance.
At the 1970 NCAA College Division Track and Field Meet at Macalaster College in St. Paul, Minnesota, the decathlon didn’t have an announcer. Zarnowski, who was serving as the Mount’s assistant coach, grabbed a mic and gave it a shot.
He still calls meets.
An announcing highlight came at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, where Zarnowski enlisted the crowd to help Oregon native Ashton Eaton set a world record in the decathlon with 9,039 points. Zarnowski told spectators they would rarely have a chance to witness such a feat, let alone play a role in it.
“And 22,000 of his closest friends are in the stands going berserk. And he literally rides the wave of noise,” Zarnowski said. “And so he has to run a personal record of about six seconds in the 1,500, which is pretty significant, to do it. And he does it. He runs 4:14, and the place goes berserk.”
As an announcer, Zarnowski has called attention to what was happening in the moment. But as a historian for the decathlon, he’s helped preserve those moments, as well as countless others that happened before his time.
He publishes a newsletter on the competition. And Zarnowski has amassed a repository of records and data on the decathlon. He will give some of it to the LA84 Library in Los Angeles.
The decathlon is split between two days. The first one includes the 100-meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump and 400-meter run. The second day includes the 110-meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1,500-meter run.
It demands versatility, making it a fitting favorite for Zarnowski. He’s led a double life of sorts. He’s an economist by trade, but he’s also a decathlon guru.
Somehow, he always found time to serve both masters. Take 1984, when Zarnowski was the dean of the Mount’s graduate program and a PA announcer at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
“I was flying back and forth between L.A. and Baltimore, trying to run the program and announce the Olympic games,” he said.
Rather than advertise his busy schedule at the Mount, Zarnowski downplayed it. He didn’t want anyone to think he might be tempted to shirk his professorial duties.
“It wasn’t that it was a secret, it was kind of an open secret,” he said. “You don’t want people to say, ‘Zarnowski is away again at a track meet.’”
He doesn’t have such worries at Dartmouth. He just teaches in the fall term, and most of his track and field duties are in the spring and summer. Still, he prefers to be known as an economist at the Hanover, New Hampshire, school and figured most of his colleagues were unaware of his career in sports.
“I was pretty successful in keeping it secret until this fall, until these guys let the cat out of the bag,” said Zarnowski, referring to his election to the USATF National Track & Field Hall of Fame.
He’s in the hall with greats like Jenner, who is now Caitlyn Jenner. Zarnowski saw the 1976 decathlon gold medalist emerge as a star, and he later worked with him as an announcer.
“He got me on that Kardashian show once. I had to sign a waiver, and they filmed it at the Olympic Trials in 2012,” Zarnowski said. “He came with a whole crew. It was our 40th anniversary of meeting, because I had met him in 1972.”
Zarnowski brought talented decathletes to the Mount. One of them, Norwegian Trond Skramstad, won the NCAA Division I and Division II titles in 1983, becoming the only athlete to ever win back-to-back NCAA titles a week apart. Thanks to that feat, the NCAA no longer allows Division II or Division III athletes to advance to the Division I meet.
Another Mount standout Zarnowski recruited was two-time NCAA Division II champ Gudmund Olsen, another Norwegian.
Zarnowski thought the Mount was ideally suited to nurture decathletes.
“If you go to a small school, because you’re the best athlete in every event, you get a lot of attention,” he said. “We had some athletes who were better than schools. They would outscore schools at track meets.”
At 73, Zarnowski is still active. He golfs regularly and works out in the gym daily.
He keeps active as a writer, too, logging countless hours in libraries doing research. He’s written eight books about track and field and is working on another, this one about the history of track and field’s early days in America.
In other words, he’s still performing the contributing role that landed him a spot in the USATF National Track & Field Hall of Fame. As an inductee, Zarnowski was given a ring.
He thought it was a nice gesture, but it will probably be kept in the big black box it came in.
“I don’t wear rings, said Zarnowski, who had no rings on his fingers at the time. “I had a college ring about two weeks before I lost it.”
One thing he didn’t lose from his college days, though, was a deep interest in track and field.