Oct. 21, 2011
By Craig Chval Sr.
As a high school state champion runner in New Mexico, Chuck Aragon didn’t give the University of Notre Dame much thought.
Despite attending a high school with a vocational emphasis, Aragon was determined to attend college, but he always figured that meant someplace fairly close to home.
An unexpected challenge, though, changed Aragon’s life.
Ambrose Sanchez was a local man who had taken an interest in Aragon and his running career. One day, Sanchez asked Aragon where he wanted to attend college. Aragon responded that he hoped to attend the University of New Mexico.
That’s not the answer Sanchez wanted.
“‘No, no – where do you really want to go,’ he said,” Aragon recalls. “Notre Dame was one of those places in my mind, that if somebody’s asking me questions like that …”
So Sanchez, who had no formal connection to Notre Dame, called Irish track and field and cross-country head coach Joe Piane and encouraged him to recruit Aragon. Piane arranged for a recruiting visit.
“I just loved it,” Aragon remembers. “It was a sense of belonging. I was in awe of the place and I decided right then that’s where I wanted to go.”
Aragon showed up as a freshman in the fall of 1977 and did what he always did – he competed. In the classroom, he was determined to gain admission to medical school, even though he felt that his high school didn’t prepare him as well as many of his Notre Dame classmates.
He competed on the track, as well, earning a monogram as a freshman and gaining All-American honors as a sophomore member of Notre Dame’s two-mile relay team in 1979. But Piane believed that Aragon’s calling was not in the 800 meters, but in the mile.
“From day one, I told Chuck that he could become the first New Mexico native to run a four-minute mile, and his response was, `Oh that’s nice.’ And this went on and on,” Piane relates.
“I put him in the 1,000 and then maybe I’d run him in the 1,200 meters, thinking maybe the light would go on, but he was making sure that the light was permanently turned off.”
That light remained off until Aragon’s senior year, when Notre Dame’s miler went down with an injury before a meet with Iowa.
“There was no debate that day,” Piane says. “I said to Chuck, `You’re going to run the mile today.'”
Aragon had just one question for Piane: “How am I going to do this?”
Piane, now in his 37th year as Notre Dame head coach, kept it very simple for his brand-new miler.
“I said, `Just follow their guy for almost the first seven laps, and when you hear the bell and see a one up there (signifying the final lap), you start sprinting and I’ll be at the top of the backstretch to tell you what to do next,'” recounts Piane. “It was really quite that simple.
“And the next thing I told him when he got to me was, `Slow down, because you’ve got it won.'”
Aragon sought out Piane on the bus trip home.
“He came up and said, `Hey, were you serious about me being able to break the four-minute mile?'” Piane says. “And I said, `Absolutely. You could be the first New Mexican to break four minutes,” and he said, `Let’s do it.'”
Easier said than done might be an overstatement – but not by much. Within six weeks, Aragon became the first New Mexico native and the first Notre Dame runner ever to break the four-minute mile. He still recalls the reception upon his return to campus from his dorm mates from Morrisey Hall, who hung a huge banner off the front of the dorm, proclaiming Aragon’s remarkable feat.
“It was something magical and probably my proudest accomplishment during my Notre Dame career,” Aragon reflects. “And when I think of moments, the reception from the guys in Morrisey will always be etched in my mind.”
Aragon (’81) earned All-American honors as a senior and still holds Notre Dame’s all-time record in the 1,500 meters as well as the fourth-best time in the mile. He also attained his goal of earning admission to medical school, and was awarded his degree from the University of New Mexico School of Medicine in 1987. Aragon was able to adjust his trajectory through medical school to allow him to continue to run competitively, missing a berth in the 1984 Olympics in the 1,500 meters by just five-hundredths of a second at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Following the completion of his residency and internship, Aragon and his wife, Kathy, moved to Billings, Mont., where he took a position on staff at St. Vincent Healthcare, where he continues to practice as a board certified anesthesiologist.
“It’s the only job I’ve ever had,” chuckles Aragon, who explains that the region’s abundant opportunities to enjoy the outdoors were initially a huge draw for him and Kathy, who he met while both were competing at a United States Olympic Sports Festival in Syracuse.
The young couple initially figured they’d give the area a few years before likely heading back toward Aragon’s native New Mexico. Instead, Billings has been the only place the couple’s three daughters – Alexa (19), Danielle (17) and Christina (14) have called home.
“It’s a very nice medical community that’s allowed me to practice big city medicine in a small town, says Aragon, who has served the hospital as chief of staff and board president.
Meanwhile, Alexa has followed her father’s footsteps as a competitive runner at Notre Dame, running for her dad’s old coach Piane – who also happens to be her godfather.
“I sure enjoyed my career as an Irish runner,” Aragon says, “but I have to admit that I’m even more thrilled to watch Alexa compete for Notre Dame.”
There may be even more thrills in store for the proud father – and mother – as both Danielle and Christina are also elite runners, with Danielle considering Notre Dame among her possible college destinations for next fall.
Although she didn’t require the intervention of a “guardian angel” as her father calls Ambrose Sanchez, Alexa – like her father – fell in love with the Notre Dame campus. Even though she had spent time on the campus over the years, seeing the campus through the eyes of a prospective student during her recruiting visit had a profound effect.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to Notre Dame because I wasn’t sure I wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps,” she admits. “But when I came on my visit, I just loved it.”
Alexa also is grateful that her parents – Kathy twice qualified to compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials – allowed her to find her own passion for running.
“We kind of grew up with it,” Alexa says. “But they didn’t force it on us. We grew to love it.
“Kathy used to push them around in a baby jogger,” Chuck says. “At one time, we had a single, double and triple baby jogger at the same time.
“There were plenty of times that Alexa wouldn’t go to sleep as a baby and we’d just put her in a baby jogger and go for a run and she’d calm down and fall asleep.”
Alexa and Danielle have also caught their father’s love for medicine, each of them accompanying him on mission trips with Operation Smile, an organization that provides free surgeries to repair cleft lip, cleft palate and other facial deformities around the globe (www.operationsmile.org).
“It’s really amazing how much of a difference these procedures can make in these children’s lives,” Aragon remarks. “And it’s incredible to have my daughters with me on these trips.”
A pre-professional major, Alexa is considering a career as a pediatrician.
“Dad encourages me to make sure I’m working really hard,” Alexa says. “He experienced all that and knows how hard it is.”
The source of Alexa’s competitive drive is no mystery to Piane – he views it as the key to Chuck’s great success.
“He learned to compete at a very early age. And Kathy is an even bigger competitor than Chuck,” Piane says in admiration.
“He’s a great ambassador for the University,” says Piane of Aragon, who recently completed a three-year term on the Monogram Club board of directors.
“He always represents Notre Dame exactly the way you’d want it represented.”