Lombardo, McKeough carry Darien track to new heights
Travel far and wide across the world of sports, and you never will find a competition more selfish in its nature than track.
For as often as runners, jumpers and throwers do contend in or around a crowd of their peers, track athletes are rarely ever focused on battling with anyone else.
Instead, they are generally striving to beat themselves; to trump a personal record, top their previous mark and push the elastic limits of the human body. Their focus is frequently self-centered because it should be, as no result ever will put one in a better position than a new personal best.
And yet, when you ask Darien High School's all-time greatest shot putter and its finest jumper to tell the story of their favorite memory in a Blue Wave uniform, neither will make a single mention of himself in his tale.
The muscular thrower will tell you about three distances runners who, late during an indoor meet, all but swept the top finishes in a 2-mile race to deliver Darien a state title. The jumper, whose capabilities both high and long have been known across the state for years, will describe teammates that overcame illness to earn All-American status at the 2014 outdoor national meet.
So while bound by a mutual accomplishment of being the very best in their events, these two are no ordinary track athletes.
Thanks to a family tie, poor injury luck and a grand affinity for the weight room, McKeough is a shot putter, who is inclined to remain quieter and generally let his muscles do the talking. Unless, of course, you get to know him. At which point, Lombardo says, he becomes the most talkative person you will ever meet.
And then there is Lombardo, who is quick to acknowledge his fiery head of red hair before you can, nearly as swift as he was when first leaping into the Darien record books. Together, this pair has helped launch Blue Wave boys track to unprecedented heights, where it now rests after winning three state championships over their four-year careers.
However, going forward, there will be little break time for either of the recent graduates.
McKeough is headed off to Northeastern, where he'll also learn to pick up the hammer and weight throw for a rising Huskies program. Meanwhile, Lombardo, who hardly can stand taking a mid-workout breather anyway, will attend Bucknell and join another former Wave jumper, whose high school mark he surpassed more than a year ago.
McKeough, on the other hand, has only been whiting out his own name in the record books as of late, up until a final throw of 54-4.5 in this spring's State Open. And it's been a long journey for them together, one that nearly never got off the ground in the first place.
And they're off...
Had you paid a visit to Darien High sometime over the last couple fall seasons, there's a sizable chance these track standouts would have been introduced by their talents on the football field; Lombardo as a star wide receiver and McKeough a key cog in the defensive line. And upon entering the ninth grade, this was all a part of their respective plans.
For Lombardo in particular, the winter was meant only to be a buffer between intense seasons of football and baseball. Yet, as with the genesis of many great accomplishments, his track career began by complete accident.
"Freshman year after football ended, I was walking into the weight room and our jumping coach was walking the other way and said, `Hey, do you want to try track?'" he recalled. "And I just turned around and walked into the gym. That's how it started."
Of course, lady luck can carry any athlete only so far, when some combination of blood, sweat and tears must take care of the rest. And it took only a few weeks for a freshman Lombardo to demand his coaches' attention through what Darien headman Tyson Kaczmarek remembers as "repeatedly out-working kids better and older than him."
Coincidentally, that freshman indoor season was not the first time Lombardo and McKeough crossed paths. Their initial meeting was reserved for an introductory Spanish class, a course now remembered by both of them only with a knowing smile and a shake of the head. While McKeough soon would jettison out of the foreign language classroom, he was in the study of shot put for the long haul.
For McKeough's older brother, Walker, who still owns the Darien High School record for hammer throw, long had been involved with throwing and tipped off Kaczmarek about his incoming family successor just before graduating. Then, when a painful, doctor-discovered closeness between Spencer's rotator cuff and shoulder blade derailed hopes for a high school pitching career his freshman year, he turned to track full time.
Twelve months later, the records began to fall.
"Walker's assessment couldn't have been more on," Kaczmarek said.
Around the bend and into the history books
Highlighted by an early-season meet at Wilton, where he would throw 10 feet farther than his top freshman-year mark, McKeough's sophomore outdoor campaign served as a springboard for later historic success.
"My original goal was to beat (Walker's) mark of 40 feet and I passed that sophomore year," McKeough said. "I really fell in love with it. I started watching videos online and trying to prove myself and I just really fell in love with it. It really became my main sport."
Simultaneously, Lombardo began to gather significant steam with his sprint and jumping training, which translated into a rather clutch performance toward the end of the 2012 school year.
After posting regular high jump marks of 5-8 and 5-10, Lombardo entered into a relatively weak field at a state competition. Knowing Darien had a legitimate chance to claim another team title, he not only cleared each lower height upon his first try, but he went on to record a clean jump over six feet.
"It was the first time he had to handle the business for us and he did. Afterward, he even remained very calm and under control because he had other races. Nick's kind of a busy guy at meet," Kaczmarek said, laughing.
Ultimately, the Blue Wave fell two points shy of another championship, but it was apparent then that the program would have a real shot at many more titles going forward. Over his sophomore year, Lombardo finally could focus on all three jump competitions, since a troublesome knee injury at last had been put behind him.
"Freshman year I wanted the long jump record really badly," Lombardo said. "I thought I had a shot at that and I didn't think the high jump record was very reachable with my knee. Then, sophomore year happened and they were more reasonable so I was going to go for both. And I ended up getting the high jump record first."
In addition, he continued to excel in short-distance races, and two years later, he would own the school's fastest time in the 100-meters with a time of 10.9 seconds. As he continued to ascend, Lombardo pushed his high jump mark to its tallest at 6-8 in the 2014 indoor season. In the spring, he became a two-time FCIAC outdoor champion in all three jumps, despite a hampered knee.
Over his last two years, McKeough broke the indoor shot put mark a handful of times, though the outdoor record managed to elude him until early in his senior year. Then, he notched his farthest competitive throw ever on the biggest stage in the state less than one month ago.
"I'm very grateful I got to break the shot put record," McKeough said. "There were a few records I wish I could've gotten, but ... we won State Opens and that was really was my main goal going into this year. It wasn't an individual thing, I wanted to win the State Open. And we did that and I am probably most happy with that."
Darien's outdoor State Open victory was the program's first since 1982, and it resonated with both McKeough and Lombardo as their grandest high school accomplishments. Without question, the Blue Wave would not have been able to win the title without top performances from its senior captains, though there was never any doubt the pair wouldn't come through.
"We just tried to fill in the other components around them, knowing they had (throwing and jumping) taken care of," Kaczmarek said. "Going into the State Open, Spencer wins shot put, Nick wins the jumps, the distance guys win and then wow, we won."
A view from the podium
As you might expect, McKeough and Lombardo have set their sights even higher than the places they have reached atop Connecticut high school track. At Bucknell, Lombardo wants to leap over seven feet in the high jump, exceed 24 and a half in the long jump and almost that distance in the triple. The drive that initially got him noticed as a freshman never has left and now may be even greater.
"There's always someone else that's going to be working," Lombardo said. "So if you're trying to stay neck and neck with the competition, you can never slack."
Ultimately, he also wants to win more championships, another common ground he shares with McKeough. Despite the fact the shot putter will be dealing with heavier weights at the next level, he's kept his goals at distances close to those he recently achieved at the open. In fact, his college coach was in attendance for his new personal-best throw and came away extremely impressed.
That enthusiasm is sure to carry over to McKeough's future teammates, given the passion and consideration for the ones he had at Darien.
"I feel a responsibility to my teammates, just because they've worked so hard, that I need to do my best and I need to score as many points as I can," McKeough said. "That's what really drives me."
Lastly, the Blue Wave program must move on to next season without its top field performers. While there's little question that Darien can and will remain competitive in the seasons to come, filling the shoes of their most recent captains may just be impossible.
"They're irreplaceable," Kaczmarek said. "Three state championships between them. This is what they work for every day. And they have so much fun doing it. Track is never something they don't want to do."
Why is that?
"No one really knows the track team. No one really knows track. We're kind of separate from most of the mainstream sports," Lombardo said. "There's a whole world that no one really knows and I'm just happy to be a part of that, especially with the coaching staff and the team we have. I liked being a part of that. I'm really happy I chose track."
And after the last four years of unparalleled success and cherished team memories, there's no doubting the entire Darien program is happy these seniors made that decision, too.