June 17, 2017
By Megan Golden
“Embrace the challenge and embrace the moment because when this is all done, that’s what you’re going to miss. The angst and the nervousness — that’s what you’ll miss. That’s really what makes us feel alive is embracing the challenges we see every day. That’s what makes us human.”
Dr. Chuck Aragon offered advice in a text message to two of his daughters, whom he would watch compete in the 1,500m final at the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships later that afternoon at Oregon’s Hayward Field. Chuck graduated from Notre Dame in 1981 after running the first sub-four-minute mile in Irish men’s track history.
Graduate student Danielle Aragon and Stanford freshman Christina Aragon received the same message, which included eight tips for success.
“‘I know that throughout the years I’ve given you this advice, but I feel inclined to do it again. Don’t let the race dictate where you start off. You decide where you want to be and have people fill in around you. You don’t want the race to dictate where you end up the first two laps. Pay attention to the video boards up there to get information on what’s going on behind you and where you’re at.'”
Currently an anesthesiologist, Chuck resides in Billings, Montana, and travels with his family to follow his daughters’ cross country and track careers as closely as possible. This past weekend, Chuck traveled with his wife Kathy, his mother Luge, and his eldest daughter and Notre Dame’s 3,000m Steeplechase school record-holder Alexa Aragon (’14).
Christina and Danielle raced against one another for the first time in the 2016 NCAA Cross Country Championships. In their second race against one another in the 1,500m semifinal, the duo qualified for the 1,500m final and ultimately earned First and Second Team All-America honors.
While Chuck’s nerves on race day are nothing new after numerous seasons of watching Alexa and Danielle compete with the Irish, his daughters racing against one another is a fairly new experience.
“He is always giving me advice before races,” Danielle said of her father. “I know that I can trust his advice because he’s competed at an elite level and been in my shoes.
“I always hear my dad. In a race, I don’t feel like I hear much of anything, but I hear my dad. It depends how I’m racing. Sometimes he’ll say, ‘You’re fine. You’re fine. Stay calm.’ Or maybe he says, ‘Get around. Go to that side.’ My dad tells me that it’s not always the best runner that’s going to win the race. It’s just the person that gets to 400m to go in the best shape. You don’t have to be the best runner in a race to do well.”
Runs In the Family
Following the NCAA East Regionals in Lexington, Kentucky, in May, Danielle and her teammates were driving back to South Bend, Indiana, in the university’s van. Roughly 15 minutes into the car ride, Danielle, who had been laughing and sharing stories with her teammates, proposed a friendly competition.
“Let’s see who can hold their breath from one mile marker to the next one,” she said.
Before long, she had her teammates creating new rules and howling in laughter over this simple game.
Spend 20 minutes with one of the Aragon sisters, and chances are high the group will engage in some form of competition. All three women were raised in Billings, where they spent the majority of their time outside with their family. If they were not fishing or riding bikes, it was likely Chuck was with them brainstorming a new contest.
The license plate game and kickball, Chuck added, also were family favorites.
“Dani’s humor definitely comes from (my dad),” Alexa said. “That game — we played that all the time as kids. It was probably my dad who said, ‘Let’s see who can hold their breath the longest. Who can run there and back the fastest? It wasn’t a bad competitive; it was fun. That’s where we got our competitiveness — from him.”
Each of the Aragon women will tell you that their earliest memory with their parents was being pushed in the stroller as Kathy or Chuck went for their run each day. From a young age, running was a part of their lives.
And despite all of the outdoor competition as children, it was not until high school that the girls began racing against one another. Alexa and Danielle were separated by two years and ultimately raced together at Notre Dame. Christina — four years younger than Danielle — just recently competed against Danielle for the first time.
When it came time for their daughters’ college searches, Chuck and Kathy gave each of them the freedom to choose their own school; however, Notre Dame stood out as a school they were incredibly familiar with throughout their upbringing.
All three of the Aragon women grew up around former Irish head coach Joe Piane, who also is Alexa’s godfather. Between their father’s Irish candor and Piane’s work with the track team, Notre Dame was constantly a topic of conversation.
“All Notre Dame alumni are obsessed with Notre Dame,” Alexa said. “It was definitely one of my top schools. I went there, and it was (former) Coach Tim Connelly that told me to go to a place where the people are like you. I could tell there was more of a community at Notre Dame. I ended up choosing Notre Dame because the people are more like me. That proved to be true.”
Alexa, who recently instigated a friendly group thread with her sisters a week prior to the big race, now shares her father’s love for Notre Dame and thoroughly enjoys watching her sisters compete.
“I knew (Danielle) was faster than me. She broke all my records in high school,” Alexa said. “I felt happy for her. This is more than about me. When I saw her race in college, I would get more nervous for her races than my own. To this day, I’ll be almost crying when she steps on the line.
“It’s just an older sister thing, probably similar to what parents would say about their kids. As an older sister, you feel very proud of your sisters. I’ve done a lot of great things on that track, but there’s nothing that made me more proud than seeing what they did on the track (during NCAAs). I try to be a role model for them, so it’s great to see them surpass me.”
Chuck added, “As a father, you want your kids to be happier, smarter and faster than you were.”
The Aragon daughters also take the opportunity to brag about their father. After all, he came just one spot short of qualifying at the Olympic Trials.
“In terms of having him as a coach, I think me being the first one, there were times when I got tired of all the talk of running,” Alexa said. “I remember one time, at dinner, I got all mad in my teenage angst, and I was like, ‘Can we talk about something other than running for once?’
“There’s definitely times when I was younger that I didn’t appreciate it. Once I went to college, I truly appreciated it. It’s something I’m definitely proud of and brag about in a sense — how close he was to the Olympics.”
Chuck reflects on his daughters’ athletic careers and oozes with pride for not only their accomplishments but also for their hard work and passion for the sport. At the end of the day, Chuck said, he only expects them to run their very best in each race.
“Notre Dame got me to look at myself as a world class athlete as opposed to the best miler at Notre Dame,” Chuck said. “That’s one of the things that I’ve tried to instill in (my daughters). It’s not enough to be the fastest kid in the school or the fastest kid in the state. Looking worldly and what it means to be the best you can be, just do the very best that you can, and that will be good enough. To me, that was most important. The genesis of that all stems from my experience at Notre Dame.”
Megan Golden, athletics communications assistant director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since August of 2016. In her role, she coordinates all media efforts for the Notre Dame women’s lacrosse and cross country/track and field programs. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Golden is a 2014 graduate of Saint Mary’s College and former Irish women’s basketball manager. Prior to arriving at Notre Dame, she worked in public relations with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox.