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The untold story of Bernie Sanders, high school track star

(Madison High School newspaper/Courtesy of Lou Howort)
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Judges at the high school cross-country competition in the Bronx's Van Cortlandt Park had a problem.

Joe and Clarence Scott, the 16-year-old twin seniors from Brooklyn Automotive High School, crossed the finish line of the two-and-a-half mile race that drizzly, cold November day in first place -- simultaneously. Holding hands. The pair were among the top runners in their age group in the city in 1958, often winning or finishing near the top of the standings in distance events.

But the Scotts' unusual finish was a violation of the rules, since it implied that they'd colluded on the ending.

Distance running, even at that level, was a big deal. This was only a few years after Roger Bannister became the first to beat the four-minute mile, and running had captured the nation's attention. The New York Times ran front-page articles about professional runners shaving a few seconds off one another's time. In this case, the judges -- not wanting to reject the results (the pair had won by a wide margin) -- declared Joe the winner and Clarence second, with identical times. The whole situation was interesting enough to itself warrant an item in the Times, titled, "Identical Twins Finish Together But School Judges Pick Winner."

But to an observer 58 years later, in 2016, that's not what's interesting about that race. What's interesting is the guy who came in 18th place, about a minute behind -- the guy who a week-and-a-half earlier had placed third behind the Scott brothers in the borough championship.

A guy from Brooklyn named Bernard Sanders.

Bernie Sanders's athletic prowess has become a topic of conversation on the campaign trail of late, spurred in part by his release of his medical records, but more so thanks to the topic having come up during the recent CNN Democratic town hall event.

"I was a very good athlete," Sanders told CNN's Chris Cuomo. "I was pretty good basketball player. My elementary school in Brooklyn won the borough championship -- hardly worth mentioning, but we did. And, yes, I did take third place in the New York City indoor one-mile race. I was a very good long-distance runner -- not a great runner, but I was captain of my cross-country team, won a lot of cross-country meets and certainly won a lot of races."

The basketball thing actually gets brought up with some regularity. It's mentioned on his Wikipedia page, there elevated to a "state championship." But it's also Sanders's less-interesting athletic accomplishment.

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New York City school competitions are run by an organization called the Public Schools Athletic League, which has been managing how schools compete for borough and city titles since 1903. When I spoke with the organization's Daniel Harris, he told me all about the PSAL's basketball tournament for high schools, for which records go back more than a century. But for primary schools?

"His elementary school won a borough championship?" Harris asked, bewildered. "I don't know what that means." Harris suggested I call the school -- P.S. 197 in Brooklyn. (In New York City, schools are usually identified by number, with P.S. indicating a primary school, I.S. intermediate and H.S. high.) At P.S. 197, the curt woman who answered the phone said she'd been there 30 years and she'd never heard of it either.

Eventually, I found a mention of a Brooklyn basketball championship for elementary schoolers tucked away on page 19 of the Jan. 21, 1948, Brooklyn Daily Eagle. "P.S. 152 Takes Title," it said, revealing that Sanders's P.S. 197 had fallen to 152 that year for the championship. This probably wasn't Sanders's team; he would have been in first grade. But the point is that the score of that game was 19-15. An impressive hard-court struggle this was not.

The PSAL does deal with the city's cross-country and track-and-field competitions, the former taking place during the fall and the latter the spring. The organization's records for how those turned out only go back to about 2001, so Harris recommended reaching out to Sanders's high school, James Madison in Midwood, for more information.

"You're not going to believe this," the athletic director at the school said when I called, "but I'm not allowed to talk about Bernie Sanders." He'd been told by lawyers from the Department of Education, he said, that Sanders was off-limits. "I can't say his name," I was told, "but you can call the principal."

As it turns out, there was no need.

The track and field team during Bernie Sanders's senior year at Madison, in 1959, was so successful that the graduating class of 1960 bragged about it, making repeated mention of Sanders in its yearbook despite his having already graduated.

He started running his freshman year, under team captain Richard Creditor. In 10th grade, Sanders was a "standout," per the yearbook, finishing first in the Flatbush championships (the local area competition within Brooklyn). The next year, when he was named co-captain, he finished first in Flatbush and took third in the city in the indoor one-mile, as he mentioned on CNN.

The team was successful, too, coming in sixth place in the city during his senior year and second in the borough and earning the yearbook praise of being "one of the best teams in Madison's history." (The year after Sanders left, the sole accolade listed in the yearbook is a team second in Flatbush.)

"I remember Bernie being tall. Good athlete. Fairly big guy. Good runner," Creditor told me when we spoke by phone this week. The two both ran distance, with Creditor graduating when Sanders was a sophomore. "I'll say he never beat me, but that's another story. But he was a good athlete."

Since Creditor and Sanders ran the same events, they trained together. "We didn't have a lot of good training facilities," Creditor said, though he noted it was a good school. They ran around the school's indoor gym and around Madison's 220-yard coal-cinder track outdoors.

Creditor, who ended up getting a running scholarship at the University of Maryland, remembered Sanders and the team without hesitation. He even remembered one of his competitors when I mentioned the athlete's name. "Sam Gordon!" he said. "My wife tells me that I don't remember what I did yesterday, but I remember Sam Gordon and the Brooklyn championships at Van Cortlandt Park."

After Creditor went to college, Sanders became co-captain of the team. He began training with new partners who also ran distance, Lou Howort and Danny Jalinsky. With another runner, they ran the distance medley, a relay in which a team of four runners cover a quarter-mile, a half-mile, three-quarters of a mile and a full mile, in series.

"Bernie was a very well-known runner from his freshman year," Howort said about Sanders when we spoke this week. Sanders was "probably the top runner in the city for ninth graders," he said. "He was an elite runner at that point."

Howort came to Madison as a sophomore and was a foot shorter than Sanders. By the time both were juniors in the 1957-1958 school year, Howort was a strong runner, too. "I think he underestimates himself when he says he was just a good runner," he said of Sanders. "Was he a great runner? Maybe not. But he was a very good runner. He was better than just 'good'."

Howort remembered the race in which the Scott twins edged out Sanders; as you may have noticed above, he had come in fourth.

As a team, Automotive regularly beat Madison, as it did that day in Van Cortlandt Park. While springtime track and field events could attract tens of thousands of spectators, long cross-country competitions up in the Bronx were more sparsely attended. The athletes would cluster at the beginning of a wide field, near Broadway, and then run a few football-field-lengths into a hilly woods. Once they came out of the woods, they ran across a bridge and back into the flat field for the finish.

That day, Clarence Scott ran the two-and-a-half miles in 14 minutes, nine seconds, followed by his brother (two seconds behind), Sanders (seven seconds behind) and Howort (eight seconds behind). The Scotts usually won, Howort noted -- until the last race of his senior year.

But people knew Madison for the distance medley. Howort, Sanders and Jalinsky would train for that four days a week by running "quarter-mile repeats," running a quarter mile, jogging for 220 yards and then running another quarter-mile, over and over. They'd switch off who ran the lead and who got to run behind, drafting off of the leader, and they got to know each other well.

Howort somewhat jokingly suggests that this may be why he, like Sanders, identifies as a socialist. "I don't know what was going on in that school, but both of us came to similar conclusions," he said. He said he hasn't voted for a Democrat or Republican in decades.

He's planning to vote for Sanders because the senator is a "straight-up, honest guy" and "what he says he's going to do, he will." "I know for sure he honestly believes what he's running on," Howort said, "because he's been running on it for 30 years."

"I'll tell you," he said, "if Bernie Sanders's name was 'Trump' and I went to school with Trump, I'd have nothing to do with the guy. Even if I ran with him on the track team, it wouldn't matter."

Some might see a metaphor buried in here -- a tale about a guy who is a surprisingly strong runner, who comes in 18th in the race that makes the papers but wins races that no one expects, about a guy who comes from out of nowhere, trains hard and makes the competition nervous.

But this is just an article about sports.