A sporting scholar

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 17, 2003

Nick Costes, who passed away Saturday in Lexington, Ky., was much more than an Olympian and Troy State University's first track and field coach. Costes was a Pike County fixture, running for decades alongside Troy roads in the brutal heat of summer, and his existence was a scathing rebuttal to the stereotype of ignorant athletes.

A lifetime student of a wide variety of disciplines, Costes cultivated his body and his mind in conjunction and often made powerful impressions on those who encountered him.

&uot;If I had to think of three people that students have talked about since I've been here, I would definitely put him in the top three,&uot; said Doc Anderson, who replaced Costes as TSU's track coach in 1969. &uot;If I had to sum him up, I would say that he was the ideal Renaissance man.&uot;

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&uot;There are many things that stood out,&uot; said TSU basketball coach Don Maestri, who was a longtime friend of Costes. &uot;Just watching him, if you worked on campus, you at least once at day got to see him running. When you see a man in his 70s out there hopping, it's inspirational to see his commitment. There's no doubt that the reason he was in the Olympics was his commitment.&uot;

Sherrill Crowe knew Costes for 23 years. The duo would dress out together every day before going on runs.

&uot;He was always a pusher,&uot; Crowe said. &uot;He was obsessed with nutrition and health and you could tell. You could see every muscle on him.&uot;

Costes was running long before jogging became trendy and workout clothing became stylish. He published a book titled &uot;Interval Training&uot; in 1972 and published several articles in running magazines.

Several running aficionados who knew Costes described him as ahead of his time in integrating &uot;interval&uot; sprints into long-distance training. Maestri said Costes' revolutionary training techniques and theories influenced the practice methods of the NCAA tournament-bound TSU basketball team.

&uot;He used to laugh at those who would just jog around the track. He was ahead of his time in interval training, mixing long runs with short sprints. Even at 70 he would do short sprints and he did this years ago. That was total conditioning.&uot;

A TSU press release called Costes &uot;the father of distance running in the southeastern United States.&uot; As a member of the 1956 United States Olympic team, Costes competed in the Sydney games and at one point held the U.S. record of two hours and 18 minutes in the marathon.

One of Costes' running companions told this anecdote about the '56 games:

&uot;The day of the Olympic marathon, it was 85 degrees and Emil Zatopek, the legendary Czech world record holder in the event, lined up and looked at him as they lined up for the race and said 'Today we die.' The heat did get to a lot of the runners, but Costes hung in there and finished - the first American to finish the race. When he staggered across the finish line, the U.S. 1600 meter relay team, which had won a gold medal earlier, picked him up, placed him on their shoulders and carried him around the track.&uot;

However, only when talking to the inner circle of Costes' friends is one able to get a feel for the mental elements to his personality that so many found compelling.

Crowe said Costes' range of knowledge was vast and he maintained an interest in all things lexical, even up until his death.

&uot;He was a person of words. He had no mediocrity in his vocabulary,&uot; Crowe said. &uot;He would read calculus books for pleasure. He knew something about everything.&uot;

Costes wrote poetry throughout his life and once told Crowe, when asked if he wished that he'd won the gold at the Olympic games, that he'd actually rather be awarded a Nobel Prize for his writing.

Crowe said Costes became fluent in German over the course of a single trans-Pacific boat trip to Europe.

&uot;He was a brilliant man,&uot; Maestri said. &uot;He had a very high IQ and he never stopped striving to learn more. Even in his latter years, he read and wrote. He was a great example. You never retire. You keep exercising, you keep reading, you keep doing things.&uot;

Costes grew up in Farrell, Penn., a small steel town about 80 miles north of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Slippery Rock College and received his masters from Boston University. He came to Troy and 1957 and quickly established a reputation as one of the most-feared kinesiology teachers on campus.

&uot;There once was a girl who took his class three times,&uot; Crowe said. &uot;She had failed his class the first two times and she came back a third time and ended up with a 59.5 for a final grade. He failed her again. I said 'Nick, I wouldn't have the heart,' but he said that life was like the Olympics. If she didn't meet the standards, she wouldn't have made the team and she wouldn't pass his class.&uot;

But Costes was also warm and kind, Crowe said. He was a loving father and grandfather and constantly teasing friends with a wry sense of barbed humor. He would poke at the numerous runners who fell behind his loping stride, accusing them of &uot;impersonating a jogger.&uot;

He earned the respect of fellow coaches, including a certain football coach in Tuscaloosa. While coaching the TSU track team to a demolition of the Crimson Tide runners, Bear Bryant, who was overseeing football practice nearby, instructed his team to observe the Trojan runners and congratulated Costes on his coaching.

In the end, for a man so contemptuous of material possessions, such memories are among the most treasured ways in which Costes will be remembered. Though his name may yet be applied to the TSU track, among the few tangible items he left behind: a bicycle, upon which he prowled the streets of Troy.

Maestri requested that Costes leave the bike in the basketball office before he departed one last time for his daughter's home in Lexington. From there, Costes touched base with his inner circle in Troy from time to time and expressed his pride at the basketball team's recent NCAA berth.

Maestri, who had no idea his old friend even followed basketball, was amazed that their relationship continued to develop and evolve - right up to the very end.

&uot;He was so unique,&uot; Maestri said. &uot;He never lost his commitment. He made this commitment to physical training and competition back when he was a little kid. He would inspire everybody around him.&uot;

Plans for final services have not yet been finalized, but friends say Costes, who died on the morning that TSU's Health Physical and Recreation Club was holding the ninth annual Nick Costes 5K/10K road race, wanted to be cremated. He wanted to be sprinkled into the wind, perhaps over the Troy State golf course trails he so often traversed, so that, even though his life has stopped he could keep on moving.

Stephen Stetson can be reached at stephen.stetson@troymessenger.com.