Four Midshipmen Gone
After tragedy, all the 1989 Naval Academy cross-country team could do was run.
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 013, October 2019
By Liam Boylan-Pett
Photos Courtesy of U.S. Naval Academy Athletics
Sitting in Coach Al Cantello’s office that morning, Robert Packowski and Chris Tipton were excited.
There are few things more hopeful than a group of young men or women on the precipice of a cross-country season. In that moment—after a summer of sun-drenched runs and the clean slate of a season over hill and dale in front of them—they feel almost invincible. For the teams fortunate enough to embark on a preseason camp that aura only amplifies. Together with ten to fifteen of their teammates, the runners buoy one another’s goals and marvel at what they will soon accomplish.
This idea is not new. Nostalgia for future legends of the fall has passed through generations of high school and college cross-country teams.
Packowski, Tipton, and the 1989 United States Naval Academy cross-country team were no different. Starting in the early 1970s, Midshipmen runners would meet up for a few days in the mountains before reporting to Annapolis at the end of the summer. The 1989 team was keeping with tradition by heading to a cabin in Gifford Pinchot State Park in York County, Pennsylvania. And like those before them, they had high expectations.
The year before, Navy had finished 21st at the N.C.A.A. Championships with no seniors, and the talent coming back was enough to make a 21st place finish at N.C.A.A.s sound like a failure. Packowski was the captain on the ’88 team, and after setting the Navy record in the steeplechase in 8 minutes, 40.04 seconds that spring, was eager to lead the squad in the fall.
That the Naval Academy was hosting the meet on their home cross-country course only added to the excitement. Not only should this be one of the best teams Navy had ever had, they were going to be able to show the country on their home course, one that Coach Cantello would tell press “tests the mettle of the runner, not the talent.”
While Packowski and Tipton had thought that far ahead, on the morning of August 14, 1989, they were mostly thinking about how much fun cross-country camp was going to be. They had gone up to Gifford Pinchot Park the last few years to get out of the humidity of Annapolis, and to bond as a team before getting back to school and class and lights out and rules. Packowski and Tipton had spent much of the summer together, traveling around Switzerland, West Germany, and the south of France. Now, they were eager for the trails of the state park and late nights chatting over beers. They were taking separate cars up to Pennsylvania, though. Packowski was picking up some guys at the airport, and Tipton was jumping into Mark Zauel’s car along with junior Don Brown.
After going over a few last-minute details with Cantello about runs and workouts for the week, as Packowksi was leaving the office, Cantello gave him one last direction. “When you get there,” he said, “make sure you tell me.”
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