Showboating and the Ivy League, courtesy of Jimmy Wyner.
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 008, May 2019
By Liam Boylan-Pett
Photos courtesy of Cornell Athletics
It was May 11, 1935, and Princeton University was hosting the first edition of the Heptagonal Track and Field Championships at Palmer Stadium. Back then, the meet included each of the eight Ivy League schools, save for Brown University—the seven schools gave the meet its name. Gene Venzke of the University of Pennsylvania had already won the 800 meters in 1 minute, 53 seconds to set the I.C.A.A.A.A. collegiate record, pulling away from Columbia University’s Bill Paterson in the final fifteen yards. Now, only hours later, Venzke was in a homestretch battle once again, this time leading Dartmouth College’s Bob Quimbly as they came off the final turn of the 1,500 meters. Venzke—who would go on to make the 1936 Olympic team in the 1,500 meters and set the world record in the mile—was once again up to the task, pulling ahead in the early part of the straightaway before holding off a late charge from Quimbly, who found one last burst of speed.
A picture in the May 12, 1935, edition of The New York Times captured Venzke. In it, he is an instant away from crossing the finishing string that cuts across the photo. His left foot is reaching, taking one final step for the finish. There is a hint of a smile on his face, but also relief that he has pulled off the double. Not only had he won the 800 meters, he was about to become the first Ivy League champion in the metric mile, too.
If Venzke celebrated more than the photo let on, it was not reported in The Times.
The man who would go on to win the seventy-fifth edition of the Heps 1,500 meters, however, was much less subdued. In fact, during the 1,500-meter final on a sunny day at Franklin Field in Philadelphia on May 10, 2009, Cornell University’s Jimmy Wyner started his celebration with more than fifty meters left to race.
Moments after seizing the lead from Dartmouth’s Tom Robbins, Wyner began pumping his fists. He had taken third by razor-thin margins in the 1,500 twice before, and now he was finally getting what he felt he deserved. He pulled away from Robbins and crossed the line in a fury.
Wyner’s momentum carried him well past the finish line, where he heard a cascade of boos coming from the stands. Even if he was known for being brash and outspoken in the Ivy League, Wyner was surprised to hear the ruckus. He had seen runners celebrate a Heps title before, and he would again in the future. In response to those booing in the stands, Wyner turned around and took a bow, as if he was a symphony conductor. Then he walked off the track to change out of his spikes.
Wyner thought that would be the end of it. That he would go to the award ceremony for his medal, move on to the 5,000 meters in a few hours, and then the next meet—the N.C.A.A. regional meet was only three weeks away, after all, and he still needed a regional qualifier.
But that was not the way things would work out. No, moments later Wyner’s coach Robert Johnson was speaking with him.
“I’m hearing rumblings,” Johnson said, “that you’re getting D.Q.’d.”
How do you know if someone ran at Heps?
Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.
Jokes aside, Ivy League track and field athletes love saying how great the Heptagonal Championships, or Heps, are—whether speaking about the cross-country, indoor, or outdoor version.
The meet started back in the 1930s. Because Brown was not involved in the original inception of the meet, it was called Heptagonals for the seven participating schools. Like the Big Ten and its fourteen teams, the name stuck. In 1946, Army and Navy joined the meet—and finished first and second, respectively—and Brown finally joined the fray in 1949. Those ten teams competed in the meet yearly until 1994, when Army left. Navy followed suit ten years later, leaving the Ivy League Schools to their own devices, an eight-team conference named after a seven-sided shape.
Those eight schools pour their hearts and souls into the meet, and the athletes who compete speak of it in high regard. Word has gotten out. From Running Times to FloTrack to Meter Magazine to Citius Mag, running publications have attempted to capture the “Hype of Heps” for years now. Having run at Heps, I can confirm its greatness.
The stereotype of the Ivy League is athletes wearing collared shirts and sweaters wrapped around their waists, but Heps is different. The competition is fierce. The stakes seem sky high. And rivalries flare up in an instant. As Kyle Merber, a 2012 Columbia grad and the Ivy League record holder in the 1,500 meters, told me, “In most conferences, there are a couple of schools with rivalries. In the Ivy League, each school has seven.”
No, Heps is not that clean cut.
If there was a movie about Heps, Jimmy Wyner’s introduction would be accompanied by a Led Zeppelin or Metallica song. Back in 2004, he entered the Ivy League by storm.
A Mainland Regional High School graduate from South Jersey, Wyner matriculated to Cornell as one of the league’s top recruits. He had been the second runner on back-to-back New Jersey Meet of Champions cross-country winners—M.O.C.s, as it is referred to, might be as highly regarded as Heps amongst New Jersey runners—and he was the New Jersey state champion in the 1,600 meters. With bests of 4 minutes, 11.49 seconds in the 1,600 and 1 minute, 53.09 seconds in the 800, Wyner entered the Ivy League with times that could contend. And they did.
At Indoor Heps in 2005, on the banked track at Harvard, Wyner finished second in the mile behind teammate Oliver Tassinari as a first-year. The Cornell crowd, known for their guttural Bruno chants that sounded a lot like boos, went wild. Tassinari and Wyner goaded them on. Wyner, his mop of curly, black hair bouncing with each step he took, ran up to the Cornell section of the stands and pulled at his jersey to emphasize the red C on his singlet. At Cornell, it is tradition that your singlet comes with a plain, block C. Once you score at Heps, however, you get a sash through it. Wyner had just earned his. The Cornell faithful loved it.
Wyner was just getting started.
In the 800 meters at outdoor Heps that spring at Columbia University on the northern tip of Manhattan, Wyner beat a who’s who of soon-to-be Heps 800-meter stars to take second place once again. Penn’s Courtney Jaworski was the class of the field, winning in 1 minute, 49.75 seconds. But behind him, Wyner withstood the gusts of wind coming off the Hudson River and outfought fellow first-years, Penn’s Tim Kaijala and Dartmouth’s Mike Carmody, to nab the race for second best in 1 minute, 52.11 seconds. Two second-places at Heps were a dream for his first year in the Ivy League. Wyner wanted more, though.
Jaworski was in his way again in the mile at indoor Heps in 2006. Leading on the long, unbanked turns of the Dartmouth indoor track, Jaworski, then a senior, pushed the pace early and never let up. As the field peeled off one by one, Wyner was the only one who could hold on. With a lap to go, it almost looked like Wyner was going to summon up his kick for one last push to pass Jaworski, but it was not to be. Jaworski’s blistering pace took the sting out of Wyner. The Penn star pulled away over the final circuit to prevail once again, running 4 minutes, 4.34 seconds to win by ten yards.
Even though he did not win, the race proved Wyner was for real. It was one thing to lose by three seconds to Jaworski in the 800 the year before, it was another to give one of the league’s best runners of all time a scare. At least, that was how I felt.
I came into the Ivy League at the same time as Wyner. My bests were slightly better, but we were similar runners—even with mops of curly hair that were in constant need of a trim. Unlike Wyner, however, I struggled to race well my first three Heps as a Columbia runner, failing to make the final at any Heps in 2005 and missing out on the final of the mile the day Wyner hung tight with Jaworski. Watching from the sidelines as Wyner made a name for himself, I thought he was brash and intense, but that did not bother me. Wearing emotions on your sleeve was just how some athletes were. That did not mean I wasn’t jealous of how good he was. I desperately wanted to not only race at his level, but to beat him.
I think that is how the rest of the league felt, too: Wyner was a great runner, but beating him would feel good. He had told the Cornell Sun, the student paper, that one of his nicknames on the Cornell track team was T.O., after Terrell Owens, the outspoken Philadelphia Eagles star in the N.F.L. Like the inspiration for his nickname, Wyner enjoyed celebrating. “I think it is all about having fun in whatever you’re doing,” he said in the interview. “People don’t really embrace the celebration aspect of sports, going back to the roots of why you first started playing football or baseball, a little backyard fun I guess.” Even his coach knew it. “I printed him a t-shirt once that said ‘Prima Donna,’” Johnson, one of the co-founders of LetsRun.com, says.
What happened only hours after that mile against Jaworski did not help his reputation.
Racing Penn’s Tim Kaijala, Wyner was boxed in in the late stages of the race. The only way out was by force. So, he shoved past his teammate Michael Smayda and bolted to the front of the race. Even doubling back from the mile, Wyner found his kick and beat Kaijala to the finish line.
The shove, however, was obvious and seen by all. So, Wyner, after pushing his own teammate, was disqualified—even if he was the class of the field. Kaijala was declared winner in 2 minutes, 24.97 seconds.
He had taken second or better in each of his Heps finals, although one was wiped from the records.
He dropped one place but still took third in the outdoor 1,500 in 2006, behind Dartmouth’s Ben True and me at Penn’s Franklin Field, but ran 3 minutes, 46.55 seconds, which was one of the top-ten times in the history of the meet at the time. His junior year, he took the 800 indoors for his first official Heps win and again took third to True and me in a blanket finish, this time running 3 minutes, 44.84 seconds to True’s winning time of 3 minutes, 44.55 seconds.
Wyner had added in a second-place finish in cross-country in the fall of his junior year, but, as he told the Cornell Sun, he wanted to win the 1,500 outdoors. Of his 800 win indoors, he said, “Well, you could say that it doesn’t really count because it is indoors. I mean, half the teams don’t even run indoors.” He called it a watered-down field. Outdoors, all of the league’s best middle-distance runners had to pick between two events: the 800 and the 1,500. Indoors, that same group of athletes had a choice between the 500, 800, 1,000, and mile. Wyner wanted an outdoor title badly.
It would have to wait. Wyner took the spring of the 2007-08 academic year off to train for the 2008 Olympic Trials (he just missed out on qualifying for the meet). His return to the league and to Indoor Heps in 2009, where he won the 800 meters again, added to the lore of Wyner. The outdoor 1,500 that year shot it into the stratosphere.
When the gun went off on May 10, 2009 at Franklin Field for the start of the 1,500 meters, Wyner went straight to the back of the field. He was the favorite to win the race, but Princeton had Mark Amirault and Michael Maag, who was one of the league’s best 5,000-meter and cross-country runners. Plus, there was a star freshman from Columbia, Kyle Merber, Dartmouth’s Tom Robbins, and Wyner’s teammate Andrew Miller. Princeton’s Amirault took the lead at the crack of the gun, pushing an honest, if not blazing, pace, coming through 400 meters in right around 60 seconds. Wyner remained in the back of the pack through the next lap, sitting in about eighth place—but within striking distance—as they came through the 800-meter mark in 2 minutes, 1 second.
Merber was a freshman in his first outdoor Heps final. He remembers being in perfect position after two laps, and happy about the honest pace. “I think the idea there was that Maag was stronger than the rest of us, so they wanted to keep it honest and fast,” Merber says. “But I had no idea that Amirault was essentially a rabbit.”
Around the turn with 550 meters to go in the race, Amirault decided his pacing duties were over. He started to move the outside, but in an instant was tripping, falling, and on the ground and out of the race. The pace slowed once Amirault fell. No one would make a move.
The pack hit the bell lap, then the backstretch, and entered the final 200 meters a jumbled mass. There were small moves and minor jostles for position, but no one would make a break for it. From 300 to go to 200 to go, Wyner methodically moved from fifth to first—essentially sharing lead with his teammate Miller, with Maag and the rest of the field just behind them. Then, with 150 meters remaining, the racing began.
The turns at Franklin Field are long. Midway through the final curve, Robbins of Dartmouth threw in a surge to pass the Cornell duo and seized the lead. Wyner, however, had an answer.
Merber was in the thick of it around the turn, but could not match Wyner. “I came off the straightaway,” he says, “and it was a race for a second, Jimmy was gone.” As the turn straightened out, Wyner inched by Robbins to retake the lead. Which was when the celebrating started.
And the booing. And the bow. And the disqualification.
All that might not have happened if it was not a Dartmouth runner that Wyner passed. Earlier that year at Indoor Heps in Boston, Wyner had nearly gotten into trouble again. Racing in the prelim of the 800, Wyner got tripped up by a Dartmouth runner early in the race. When Wyner passed him back—in the race’s final straightaway—he stared him down. The Dartmouth crowd remembered.
What happened in the final straight was chaotic. Merber remembers Wyner pulling away and then seeing him bow as the boos rained down. He did not know exactly why there was booing, though.
“Most of our team happened to be sitting across the finishing line,” Barry Harwick, the Dartmouth coach, says. “And our guys started booing. Before you know it, everyone else was booing, too.” He says he saw some officials chatting after Wyner bowed, and he thought Wyner’s win could be in jeopardy.
Everything happened quickly, including the spread of rumors. Merber heard that Wyner had flipped off the Dartmouth runner. So did Cornell head coach, and Robert Johnson’s boss, Nathan Taylor. “The fact that Coach Taylor thought Jimmy was capable of flicking the crowd off,” Johnson says and trails off. “I guess he had a reputation.”
Fred Samara, the Princeton head coach who was in a tight team battle with Cornell, was one of three coaches who submitted an official protest. He did not tell me who the other two coaches were, but wrote in an email, “I did want to make sure it just wasn’t me [signing the protest]. As you know the Princeton–Cornell rivalry was intense at that time, and I didn’t want to stir up the Cornell folks any more than necessary!”
All the while, Wyner was about to cool down but had been interrupted by someone from FloTrack with a camera.
“Not right now, since I’m hated by everyone,” Wyner said as his FloTrack interview began. It was about ten minutes after the race. Wyner was standing just outside of Penn’s Franklin Field in his red Cornell Track & Field T-shirt, speaking to this member of the press even though he did not want to. “I don’t know if I’m D.Q.’d or not,” he said. He spoke quickly and in bursts. “I’ve been waiting five years to win a 1,500. Everyone gets pumped up about it. It’s a small conference meet, but everyone gets into it.” He rushed through a few more sentences, trying to find the words. “I finally get to win,” he continued, “and then the whole Dartmouth team boos me. So I kind of bowed to them—which, probably wasn’t the smartest idea. It’s just ’cause I get a bad rap for it. Because everyone hates me.”
He spoke about Usain Bolt and having fun, then he went back to the question of whether he was going to be disqualified. “Officials said to watch yourself,” he said. “Maybe Princeton or another team will put in something to the officials to try to get me D.Q.’d.” In total, the interview was just over two minutes long. It concluded with Wyner saying his coach was coming his way and then he walked out of frame. That was when Robert Johnson told him he heard he might get disqualified.
The announcement came over the loudspeaker: Wyner had been disqualified for unsportsmanlike conduct. His name went from the top of the results sheet to the bottom. Instead of a time, the dreaded letters “D” and “Q” were listed next to his name.
“It seemed at the time that everyone in the stadium cheered,” Harwick says. “Usually, you’re not going to see that kind of reaction.” Johnson remembers the cheering, too. He could not believe it.
In a short period, Jimmy Wyner had won the 1500, celebrated like he was Usain Bolt, been booed, bowed, given a FloTrack interview, and been disqualified. Maag, who took second, became the Heps champ. Robbins was second and Merber moved up to third. Merber heard about it while cooling down. “That’s not how you want to score your first points at Heps,” he says. “I didn’t necessarily felt like I deserved to be third.”
Nathan Taylor, still believing Wyner had flipped off the Dartmouth cheering section, chewed out Wyner. The ten points Wyner had just given away were vital to the Cornell team score. It was a worst-case scenario for a Cornell team gunning for its seventh-straight Outdoor Heps team title. Wyner still put on his spikes for the 5,000 meters, but dropped out with less than one mile to go when he realized he was not goign to score. (Maag won the race.) Even without Wyner’s ten points from the 1,500 meters, Cornell still won the meet.
That was not the end of it, however. This was going to be the most talked about Heps 1,500 meters in history. The LetsRun.com message board fluttered with activity on a thread titled “Wyner” after footage of the race was posted on FloTrack, along with the accompanying interview. Over five days and fifteen pages of posts, opinions ranged from Wyner is an idiot— “This dickhead had barely passed everyone and immediately started throwing up the one stick and celebrating,” “No need to gloat like that – get over yourself bro” —to Wyner should not have been disqualified—“I mean seriously, what is more unusual here: A runner celebrating a win or a crowd f***ing booing him for it?” “DQ’s like this are a perfect example of why our sport is not popular.” Plus, there were those who believed both: “This DQ is absurd. He’s only guilty of making an ass out of himself.” “He should have at least flipped them off and Gotten his money worth.”
Looking back on the race now, Johnson, who no longer coaches at Cornell, still cannot quite believe that Wyner was disqualified. “Jimmy had dreamed of that moment for five years,” Johnson says. “He was really excited. The bow to me is nothing. How do you expect someone to react when you just won a race and they’re booing you?”
Merber feels the same way. He would go on to win nine Heps titles and, as mentioned earlier, set the Ivy League record in the 1,500 with a 3 minute, 35.59 second clocking in 2012. “It was always a goal to not just win at Heps,” Merber says, “but to win decisively and to make it hurt. So, especially now looking back on my four years at Columbia. It makes even less sense to me that Wyner got disqualified. If I got D.Q.’d every time I celebrated a Heps win, I would have significantly less impressive of a resume.”
Harwick is still fine with the fact that Wyner was taken out of the results. He is also glad that Cornell won the meet as a team—he would not have wanted them to lose based on that unsportsmanlike conduct call. He thinks the disqualification was about more than that. “If that [celebration in 2009] had been the only thing that he had done,” Harwick says, “I’m guessing one of the officials might have said, ‘We’re giving you a warning,’ or something like that. He did have a reputation, though, and the fact that he won by so much. If he had gotten past Michael Maag and Robbins with 10 meters to go, if he did throw up his hands at that point, they wouldn’t have gone so far to have him D.Q.’d.”
“In Jimmy’s case,” Harwick says, “it was a lifetime achievement award.”
Nearly a lifetime (in running years) later, Jimmy Wyner does still think about the race. “It was definitely a trip,” he wrote to me when I first contacted him about the 2009 Heps 1,500 final.
Today, Wyner lives in Washington, D.C., and works at Deloitte, where he has been for six years. He spent two years before that at Teach for America in Baltimore. It has been ten years since he last raced in his Cornell singlet, but when we speak in April 2019, he remembers his races well, save the names of a few competitors. He does not shy away from his racing tactics or reputation, but he is much more reflective than the senior in college who had made rivals in the Ivy League. “It’s just unfortunate,” he says of the race today. “Part of me doesn’t really blame [the officials], and part of me is just sad that it came to that.” That does not mean he shies away from his past.
“My sophomore year, I got disqualified in the 1,000 for pushing my own teammate,” Wyner says matter-of-factly. He is giving me background on why he believes he was disqualified that May day in 2009. He also brings up the indoor 800 from 2009, when he started the feud with Dartmouth. “From what I remember,” he says, “I’m kind of staring him down as I’m passing him. And the crowd sees it, and does not really like that at all—I can understand why. That kind of sparked the Dartmouth hatred.”
He also remembers the race in question—the one he was disqualified from.
“I start my kick past my teammate and the Dartmouth runner,” Wyner says, remembering entering the straightaway and taking the lead. “Then I kind of stick out my hands in celebration. Only then I realize there’s still thirty or forty meters to go. After that, my arms go out and I kind of raise them when I cross the line. That was that elusive title that had escaped me going back to sophomore year.
“And as I cross the line, the Dartmouth crowd started chanting, ‘Wyner sucks! Wyner sucks!’ because of that incident in the indoor meet earlier that year. So I turned around and bowed down to them. Then I jogged off and thought nothing of it.”
He went to cool down, but then the D.Q. was announced. “I then,” he says, “proceeded to get reamed out by Nathan Taylor.”
For Wyner, the worst part of it all was that he still did not have a qualifier for the N.C.A.A. regional meet. He felt like he was in the best shape of his life, and qualifying for the N.C.A.A. meet seemed within grasp—but not if he was not going to even make it to regionals. So, he did his best in the 5,000 and then went home, avoiding Coach Taylor as much as possible.
Taylor saw video of the race the next day on FloTrack and could not believe Wyner had been disqualified. He sought out Wyner and apologized for the yelling that occurred. “He apologized,” Wyner says. “He said that it wasn’t okay what happened and that he was sorry—that I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Wyner did not let his track career end on the D.Q. He qualified for regionals the following weekend at the I.C.A.A.A.A. Championships, then snuck into the final at regionals before taking fifth place by 0.02 seconds in the Northeast Region to automatically qualify for the N.C.A.A. Championships, running a best of 3 minutes, 41.99 seconds to get some closure on his track career. (Wyner would go straight into Teach for America and did not have time to pursue a professional racing schedule.)
However one felt about the D.Q., they had to at least agree to this: Wyner left the Ivy League the same way he came into it, with gusto. Each Heps race he entered was going to be hard fought—he was going to make things interesting.
Looking back on it now, he simply may have been ahead of his time.
With 100 meters left at the 2019 Indoor Heps Track and Field Championships, Columbia’s Sam Ritz was in third place. He had led nearly the entire race, but two runners had passed him in the final lap. Watching from the stands, it seemed like he would finish in that third spot. Ritz, however, was calm and collected. He stayed with the pack around the turn and flew off the banked turn of the Harvard track, blowing past his competitors. As he neared the finish line, he took a glance to his left and saw that he had the race won. He shrugged as if to say, I’ve got this, and then crossed the line to the delight of the Columbia fans lining the straight near the finish.
Robert Johnson was announcing the meet for the stream on ESPN+. He loved it. But he also noted that no one seemed to care—no boos came raining down, no calls for a disqualification, no harm, apparently, and no foul.
Wyner was not the first athlete to celebrate a Heps win, and he was certainly not the last. Like Merber joked, he would not have as many titles if he was disqualified for celebrating. I, too, celebrated my three Heps wins on the track. In fact, in the FloTrack interview following the race, Wyner mentioned me by name. He had a point. Emotions run high at Heps.
Yes, Wyner was emotional, but it’s clear the officials and coaches were, too. Johnson thinks the 2009 Outdoor Heps 1,500 shows what makes Heps so special. “That episode shows how great that meet is and how important it is to everybody,” he says. “Princeton, they want to win that meet, so they try to get him D.Q.’d. Everybody was reacting emotionally to what was in their interest.” Wyner included.
“Yeah I might not have adhered to the traditional upstanding way of racing or handling myself,” he says. “But you know, it was unfortunate. I have never theoretically won a Heps 1,500. I would have never imagined that running 1:48 and 3:41 and also being second in cross, that I would have never won a 1,500 or the mile.”
Then again, he liked to celebrate back then. “Maybe I took it over the top, right?” Wyner laughs. “But being disqualified indoors for pushing my own teammate and then getting D.Q.’d outdoors for celebrating is now, looking back on it, a little comical.”