Alexa and Danielle Aragon heard the kind of stories that many fathers like to tell their children as they head off to college. They heard about chickens showing up in the hallway and desks mysteriously falling out of bedroom windows. But their favorite story — the one about the giant banner stretched across the entrance of Morrissey Manor — is one that very few fathers get to tell.
Junior Alexa Aragon was one of ten Irish runners to become an All-American last week at the NCAA Indoor Championships.
The banner read: “Chuck Aragon, 3:59.9.” It was 1981 and Aragon was a senior at Notre Dame. He had just returned to campus from a track meet at the University of Illinois where he set a school record as the first Irish athlete to ever run the mile under the coveted four-minute mark. The race, in which he outkicked future Olympian John Gregorek down the stretch, plays second fiddle in Aragon’s memory to the reception he received back at his dorm.
“He always tell us the coolest experience he had was when he broke four minutes and they put up a sheet with ‘sub-four minute mile’ to celebrate with him,” said Danielle, a freshman at Notre Dame.
Danielle joined her sister, Alexa, a junior, on the Irish cross country and track teams this year to carry on the family tradition of distance running in South Bend. Last weekend they caught up with their father as first-team All-Americans when their distance medley relay team finished seventh overall at the NCAA Indoor Championships. They ran the final two legs, 800 meters and 1,600 meters, for the Irish team that finished in 11:01.49. Overall, ten different Notre Dame runners earned All-America status at the meet.
As much as they might have tried to fight it at times, the fact that both Aragon girls landed at Notre Dame seems like it was a foregone conclusion. Tim Connelly, the women’s cross country coach, raced with their father in the early 1980s. The girls were raised on regular trips to the South Bend campus to see Chuck’s old stomping grounds and to visit Alexa’s godfather, who also happens to be longtime track coach Joe Piane. The 37-year coaching veteran was the first to convince the oldest Aragon that he should try running the mile. They stayed close long after graduation, and Piane made the trip to Billings, Mont., to be there when Danielle was born.
“We kind of grew up and this was the only college we really knew about,” Alexa said. “It kind of influenced us. There was a point where I didn’t want to go here because my dad went here. I kind of wanted to do my own thing. But I came on a visit and it wasn’t about him being here or anything, it was just that I liked it.”
If Notre Dame wasn’t built directly into their DNA, at least running was. The Aragons spent much of their youth in baby jogging strollers. Their mother, the former Kathy Pfeifer, was an Olympic distance runner. She met Chuck at an Olympic sports festival in Syracuse, N.Y.
Aragon came agonizingly close to his own Olympic shot in 1984, but finished just five-hundredths of a second away from qualifying in the 1,500-meter race. He continued to run competitively for several years after he graduated from Notre Dame. He eventually trimmed his time in the mile down to 3:51.2 and said he marvels that he once went so fast when he watches today’s Notre Dame track team on campus visits. His original record with the Irish stood until 2003.
“I always say that I really enjoyed my career as a runner, but I am just loving my kids’ careers,” he said. “We can’t really help them with organic chemistry anymore, but we can help them with some of those things, and it feels good to have that in common.”
Chuck Aragon was the first Notre Dame runner to finish the mile in less than four minutes.
The Aragons have two very capable coaches at home to help them with the finer technical points of race running and to motivate them to keep pushing harder. Alexa said she calls her dad after most races to break down what she could have done better. He’d probably like to get even more involved if he could. Of course, it’s a little easier to let that go since he’s known their coaches for more than three decades now.
Aragon has been pushing his daughters to “stop running and start racing” since they began their competitive careers in junior high. But, he says, he has rarely tried to challenge them.
“By the time that they were running real well Kathy and I had gotten so old and decrepit that we couldn’t keep up with them,” he said.
Decrepit, for a pair of former world class runners, means pounding away on the Montana roads on a bike for two or three hours a day instead of just using their feet. Aragon still enters and even occasionally wins a road race, like last Father’s Day when he claimed his first victory over his oldest daughter in a long time.
“It was Father’s Day. I had to let him win,” Alexa said.
The father-daughter racing duo stayed neck-and-neck throughout most of race as Alexa reveled in the chance to push her father after he had done the same to her for many years. When they neared the finish line Chuck’s old instincts kicked in and he might have thrown an alleged elbow or two to get the separation he needed to beat his daughter.
“Those four-minute mile days are definitely a thing of the past,” Danielle said.
The All-American days, though, are still coming for the Aragon family.