Track star

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By Bob Skolnik

At Forest Park Village Council meetings Mike Durkin is the quiet one. The short, slightly stocky middle-aged village attorney does not speak unless asked to give his legal opinion. He seems an ordinary, careful lawyer. But if one looks closely at his right hand you will he is wearing a ring that not many other people are privileged to wear. It is the 1980 United States Olympic team ring.

Long before Durkin became Forest Park's village attorney the Elmwood Park resident was one of the best middle distance runners in the country and made the United States Olympic teams in the 1,500 meter run (metric mile) in both 1976 and 1980. Durkin only got the opportunity to compete in the 1976 summer Olympics because the United States boycotted the 1980 summer Olympic games held in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.

Durkin's running career began by chance. Entering Holy Cross High School as a puny freshman he wanted to play football, but his father advised him to wait a year until he had a growth spurt and to try another sport for one season.

"I had played football in grade school and had intended to play it in high school, but I was a real runt, less than five feet tall and I know I weighed less than 90 pounds," Durkin recalled recently in an interview in his law firm's Rosemont offices. "The only other fall sport was cross country and I had no idea what it entailed."

But Durkin tried it, had some success, wrestled in the winter, and did even better in track in the spring.

Soon football was forgotten.

Durkin competed during the golden age of high school distance running in Illinois. He finished second in the state meet in the mile run in both his junior and senior years of high school despite running times that would win state championships almost any other year.

He ran a 4:09.5 mile his junior year in 1970 at the state meet, breaking the state record, but narrowly lost to Andy Rupert of Proviso West. As a senior in 1971, Durkin ran 4:08.3, the third fastest time that year in the country by a prep athlete, but narrowly lost to Dave Merrick of Lincoln Way who ran a 4:07.3.

Durkin's high school accomplishments are especially remarkable given that he did much of his training in a parking lot because Holy Cross did not have a track.

After high school Durkin accepted a scholarship to University of Illinois, where he had a stellar career winning nine individual Big 10 track championships. His freshman year at Illinois he was the surprise winner of the Big 10 outdoor mile run where he defeated, among others, NCAA indoor mile champion Ken Popejoy.

"I thought it was somewhat ironic that I couldn't win against high school competition, but a year later I was the Big 10 champ," said Durkin.

Durkin was known as fierce competitor.

"The toughest competitor I ever competed against in 30 years of running," is how Popejoy, now a DuPage County circuit court judge, describes Durkin. Popejoy frequently raced against Durkin while he was at Michigan State and in their post college years when both attended Chicago Kent law school.

"A lot of people didn't like Mike Durkin in college because he wasn't very friendly. He and I had a great rivalry," said Popejoy.

Durkin was the runner up in the mile at the NCAA indoor championships in 1974. After graduating from Illinois in June of 1975 Durkin decided to stop running despite having run a 3:56.7 mile his senior year and focused on law school and working at the Merchandise Mart.

"When I graduated in June I didn't run a step training wise or competitive wise until February of 1976," said Durkin.

That's when he went to watch an indoor track meet at the Armory in Champaign and caught the running bug again. He had recently started a new job working in sales for a banquet hall that hosted wedding receptions. He worked seven days a week, but only two hours on weeknights, so he found the time to begin training after his day of law school classes and before his evening work.

"It freed up my afternoons and I had been used to running in the afternoon and working out, so I said 'I think I can get back into shape, and if I qualify for the Olympic Trials the US Olympic Committee will pay my way to Oregon and I'll get to watch the second best track meet in the world for nothing,'" said Durkin.

After the long layoff it wasn't easy to get back into top shape. Durkin began training with the Maine South high school track team on the school's cinder track and, at first; the high school kids would leave him way behind on long training runs. Sometimes Durkin would jump the fence at Ridgewood high school to work out on the all weather track there.

But after finishing second to the 1500 meter run at the AAU championships, he was invited to the Olympic Trials held in Eugene, Oregon and there he had his big breakthrough, finishing third to make the 1976 U.S. Olympic team running a 3:36.7, then the seventh fastest time ever by an American in the event..

"After training for only 12 or 14 weeks I was stunned," recalled Durkin. "I had all along just expected to go to the Trials. I was somewhat surprised, to put it mildly."

Durkin loved his experience at the 1976 Olympic Games held in Montreal. He marched in the opening ceremonies, spent the entire Games living in the Olympic village, with 12 athletes crammed into two bedroom apartments in the Olympic village. He went to a variety of Olympic events including woman's gymnastics, swimming and boxing.

"It was one of the best experiences of my life," Durkin said. "I mean I compare it to getting married or having my kids be born. It's almost indescribable. (I was) never the type of person who imagined myself ever having that level of success."

But Durkin's Olympic experience was also bittersweet. He ran an excellent time of 3:38.7 in his first round heat of the 1500, but missed qualifying for the semifinals by one tenth of a second because of an unusually fast first round heat after his.

"I had the dubious distinction of running the fastest non-qualifying time in Olympic history," said Durkin.

The gold medal race was won with a time slower than Durkin had run in his heat.

Durkin spent the rest of that summer racing in major international track meets in Europe against the best runners in the world before huge crowds. In Europe, promoters and running shoe companies made under the table payments to runners who were then, officially, amateur athletes.

But when that magical summer was over it was back to grind of law school and work. He ran a few indoor meets in 1977, but soon quit running.

"I came back (from Europe) with the intention that, you know what, I'm sort of world class right now, maybe I should continue to do this. So I ran like three indoor meets in 1977 and quite frankly going from running in Europe and in the Olympics and going to a little town in Sweden, population of 4,000, and you have 10,000 people at a track meet and then coming back and running in front of 15 people it was sort of a big let down. And I was going to get married, I was trying to be a law clerk in addition to going to law school, I still had to work the job at the banquet hall. Something had to give and I stopped running," he recalled.

So for the next two years Durkin stayed busy, graduated from law school and passed the bar in 1978 and began his legal career at the firm that he is now a name partner of, now called Storino, Ramello & Durkin.

But in 1979 his thoughts turned to the upcoming 1980 Olympics. He decided to give track another shot and try to make the Olympic team again. He wanted to prove that his making the Olympic team in 1976 was no fluke.

This time he had to work his training around his schedule as a young lawyer. Always one to run no faster than necessary, Durkin again finished third at the Olympic Trials to claim the final spot in the 1500 on the U.S. Olympic team.

But by then President Jimmy Carter had persuaded the US Olympic committee to boycott the Moscow Summer games. Durkin did not agree and was upset and disappointed with the decision.

"I was very angry in February when Carter announced his threat and I didn't think he would carry it out," Durkin recalled. "It annoyed me as a political science major as an undergrad and as an attorney. There had to be something of substance. That was just a symbol."

So in the summer of 1980 Durkin took his wife to Europe where he raced in big international meets and made some money from appearance fees.

"For a struggling young attorney it was good money to make," said Durkin.

He then retired from track and focused on his law career, building up a thriving practice focusing on municipal law and litigation.

But he stayed connected with track, teaming with old rival Popejoy to coach three-time Olympian Jim Spivey for 10 years. Popejoy discovered that, off the track, Durkin was a very nice guy.

"Mike Durkin is a great guy," Popejoy says. "I had no idea. He's one of my best friends."

At the other extreme of the sport Durkin also coached the track team at St. Vincent Ferrer elementary school in River Forest.

Durkin feels his track career has helped him as a lawyer.

"I find myself drawing on my running career many times in preparing for case," Durkin says. "I try to outwork the other person. I know I have the stamina to be at my best at the end of a long day. When I was running competitively I'd be at the starting line telling myself, this is nothing, it's not like having to stand up in front of a judge. And nowadays I tell myself standing up in front of a judge this is nothing, it's not like having to go the starting line."

And as anyone who has ever faced him in court will tell you, Mike Durkin is still one tough competitor.

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Marty Brown from Malverne  

Posted: January 15th, 2015 8:02 PM

Mike Durkin's story is an awesome one for not only track folks but for all who continue to work to balance work, family, and the pursuit of excellence.

shooky56  

Posted: April 15th, 2013 11:34 PM

I remember Mike well from HS track and watching him at the IL Championships while at UofI. Have so many "miracle come from behind" stories about Mike you'd think I made them up. They are all true. He was responsible for more goosebumps than any athlete I've ever watched. When Mike lit the afterburners, it was like watching a controlled explosion, just breathtaking!

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