The Post-Journal

West Ellicott Man Gets Up-Close Look

U.S. Olympic Track & Field TrialsHead Line

Priester Raves About Experience As Umpire In Sacramento


Tom Priester sat near the track at the Alex G. Spanos Sports Complex in Sacramento, Calif., and all he could do was sweat.

"And you know what?" Priester said, "I didn't care."

Call it an occupational hazard, one that the West Ellicott resident was willing to endure for the opportunity to umpire the United States Olympic track and field trials earlier this month.

"It was just fantastic," Priester said "On the track, they say it was between 110 and 120 degrees. I was two feet from it and you just sat there and sweat. That's all you could do."

Priester, 64, wouldn't have had it any other way.

As one of the umpires assigned to the track events, Priester had a front-row seat to watch/officiate some of the United States' top athletes. And when he wasn't working, he met the likes of former Olympian Ralph Boston, former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield as well as the trials' decathlon champion, Bryan Clay, whose grandmother, Shirley Vandenburg, just happens to live in Falconer.

For someone who has devoted 30 years to officiating track and field, Priester was experiencing the opportunity of a lifetime. Of course, that's what happens when you're literally a master at what you do.

"You have to be a ranked master official with U.S. Track and Field," he said. "Every four years you can improve a level."

Starting at the association level, Priester ultimately passed the test at the national and master levels, making him eligible to apply for a position at the Olympic trials in one of four categories.

Priester, the longtime local track and field official and Southwestern Central School cross country coach, has parlayed his interest and expertise in track and field officiating into some other prime opportunities through the years.

Along the way, Priester has worked a number of national meets, including three NCAA championships, the Jesse Owens Games at Ohio State University, the World University Games in Buffalo and the National Scholastic Championships in Raleigh, N.C. And eights days before heading to Sacramento, Priester worked the Junior Olympic Nationals in San Antonio.

"I was doing some traveling in the month of July," he said.

But it has become a labor of love for the retired teacher from SWCS, culminating with his work at the trials.

"The reason I took umpiring was, one, you get to see every running event," he said. "And, two, there are usually more umpires selected because you have so much to look for, so your chances of being selected are better."

Although his trip to Sacramento was full of highlights, the ones Priester considers the most memorable were:

  • Alan Webb's runaway victory in the 1,500 meters.
    "After two laps he just took off and he was 30-40 yards ahead of the field," Priester said.
  • The men's 400-meter final.
    "We had seven athletes under 45 seconds and the eighth athlete was only three-100ths of a second from being under 45 seconds," Priester said. "We could take those eight guys, make two relays teams and get the gold and the bronze (in Athens)"
  • Amy Rudolph, a Kane, Pa. native qualifying for the Olympics in the 1,500.
    Priester has known her for some time, having seen her run during cross country meets when she was in high school. Rudolph is also a relative of a woman who attends Immanuel Lutheran Church in Jamestown where Priester is a member.
    "I was thrilled," Priester said. "She was in sixth place, but she passed two runners in the last 100 meters."
  • Clay winning the decathlon.
    "He's got a very good chance to medal (in Athens)," Priester said. "Tom Pappas, I thought, had a bad day as one of his main competitors, but if (Bryan) can come close in the first nine events of the ten, he should medal easily. The 1,500 is what hurt him."

That would make Falconer resident Shirley Vandenburg, Clay's grandmother, quite happy.

"I got to talk to Bryan," Priester said. "He was walking right by me and I said, 'By the way, your grandmother says, 'Hi'".

Clay looked quizzically at Priester, who quickly added that his wife, Sue, is a dental hygienist and Vandenburg is one of her patients.

"I watched his javelin throw and, man, oh, man, I was impressed," Prester said. "He can't weigh 180 pounds."

"You know you have to be fairly fast, but then you get to the discus, which is a very heavy discus, and then there's the 16-pound shot and the javelin is not so easy. That's why they call these guys the world's greatest athletes."

Priester said he and his good friend, the late Joe Paterniti, became involved in umpiring years ago when they worked the National Scholastic meet in Raleigh. And as Priester was umpiring the trials in Sacramento, he couldn't help but think of Paterniti, who died last year.

"I know my buddy Joe would have been there," Priester said.

"I'm excited and I think he's watching me. He's happy for me and I miss him."

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