Fallen soldier ever present at track and field meet
10th anniversary of Mark Graham Memorial Track and Field Meet
If pictures are worth a thousand words, Dan Clark doesn’t have to say much to describe Mark Graham to the athletes who did not know him.
Clark, who is the president of the 91st Highlanders Athletic Association and coached Graham at Sir Allan MacNab when the teen was tearing up Ontario tracks, is the meet director of the Mark Graham Memorial Track and Field Meet that turns 10 this week.
The 2017 edition, at which the $1,000 Mark Graham Memorial Scholarship will be presented to an athlete headed to university next year, runs at Mohawk Sports Complex from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursday.
“I always take two pictures of Mark to the meet to show the kids,” Clark says. “One in his service dress uniform, and one of him in grade 11 or 12 walking down the track after a race. It’s an amazing shot. He always pulled the straps down from his bodysuit after he ran. You can see every muscle.
“The kids all go, ‘Oh, my God!’ They might not remember him, but word of mouth spreads it. Mark was a specimen, no doubt about it. He was so developed. A picture-perfect body for running. He was perfect for the 400.”
The 400 metres was Graham’s race. While at MacNab he won five OFSAA gold medals, four of them over 400 metres. He ran a terrific leg for Canada’s 4 x 400 metre relay team at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. And the boys’ and girls’ invitational 400 metres are the signature events of every Mark Graham Memorial meet.
Graham, who went to university at Nebraska and Kent State on track scholarships and later entered the military, was killed at the age of 33 on Sept. 4, 2006, in Afghanistan, when two American aircraft, mistaking his platoon for Taliban insurgents, fired on them.
The students and staff of MacNab organized a track meet in his honour, and the first year there were “300 to 400” participants. The 91st Highlanders came on board to help and on Thursday there will be as many as 1,400 participants. Maybe more.
“We knew we had to find a way to keep his name alive and part of the track scene,” Clark says.
“To be honest, when it got as far as the second and third year, I was pleasantly surprised,” says Albert Graham, Mark’s father. “But 10 years? That’s great.
“It’s an excellent meet. Over the years I’ve seen so many great young athletes. So many of the young people don’t remember Mark, and when they ask the question, ‘What was he like?’ It makes me feel good.”
Clark, who kept in touch with his former star long after he left MacNab, says Graham was always smiling “and he had a great attitude.”
Part of Graham’s personality is built right into the meet. There are no official entries, and athletes are encouraged to take part in any event that attracts them. Even, and especially, one they haven’t tried before.
In last year’s meet 105 racers ran the midget girls’ 100 metres.
“We open it right up,” Clark explains. “Mark would have said, ‘Let everyone do what they want.’”
The only limited races are the Mark Graham 400 metre invitational races, one for boys, one for girls.
Last year, the eventual Nos. 1, 2 and 4 finishers in the OFSAA senior girls’ 400 competed at the Mark Graham meet.
And this year, Clark has asked another rising Hamilton sprint star, Westdale’s Miles Misener Daly, to run his first competitive 400.
In full 400-metre flight, Graham “was a treat to watch,” said Clark.
“It was a relaxed style with power. He had a very easy way of running. I don’t want to make a comparison at all, but think of (Alberto) Juantorena, the great Cuban 800-metre runner. Well, there’s Mark, but in the 400.”
Graham’s parents, Linda Learn and Albert Graham, have over the years spent time with many young track and field athletes at the meet named in honour of their son.
“A fewer older ones say: ‘Your son motivated me when I was in Grade 3,’” Albert Graham says. “It makes us feel good.
“When we watch the races, there might be one or two who remind us of the way Mark used to run. It brings back good memories, and then it brings back, ‘Oh he’s not here.’
“I think he should be here at this meet, just to see what people think of him.”
Graham, showing the power and form that made him an Olympian, in a May 1991 file photo competing for MacNab.
Mark Graham was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2006.