To runners nervously lining up in their starting positions, hearts thumping expectantly, Tom McTaggart is a reassuring voice of calm. With right arm raised and starter’s pistol held aloft, Tom’s measured tones of “on your mark” and “set,” followed by the crack of the gun, have sent off thousands of runners without a hitch and on an equal footing. His professional approach and attention to the subtleties of the craft have earned him the reputation as the gold standard in race starting.
Tom has many planks in his Hall of Fame platform – cross country and track coach par excellence, wrestling and swimming/diving official, scholastic trackman and wrestler, college wrestler, social studies teacher – but his greatest legacy resides in the track arena as “Mr. Starter.” The chair of the USA Track & Field officials committee once called Tom “the cream of the crop when it comes to officiating.”
You earn those encomiums when you’ve officiated at two Olympic Games, as Tom did at Los Angeles in 1984 and Atlanta in 1996. And when you served as chief starter for the U.S. Olympic Trials, as Tom did in 2004 at Sacramento. And when you’ve been elected to the inaugural IAAF Starter’s Panel, the only American among the global panel’s seven charter members. And when you’ve fired the starting gun for 15 world- record races. And…well, you get the picture.
The list of athletes who have lined up for a McTaggart start reads like a Who’s Who of track royalty. Those 15 world records he triggered? An early one was Irish hero Eamonn Coghlan’s indoor mile mark of 3:49.78 set at the 1983 U.S. Olympic Invitational. When Coghlan crossed the finish line, Tom gave him the spent shells from his starter’s pistol as a souvenir. How about the most recent of Tom’s world-record starts? That would be Jamaican star Usain Bolt’s 100-meter mark set at the 2008 New York Grand Prix meet. And let’s not forget the time Tom disqualified – correctly, of course – Olympic legend Carl Lewis for false-starting twice in a 55-meter sprint indoors.
Of course, if you ask Tom, officiating a high school meet can be just as rewarding as working with the elites, if not more so. He has been a familiar sight at local meets since 1970, when he launched his track officiating career as a member of the Rockland County Track & Field Officials Association. He was a charter member, co-founder and first president of the Southern Catskill officials group, served six terms as its president, and is currently serving his ninth term as the body’s rules interpreter. During his 41 years as a New York State official, he has officiated at more than 55 state championship events in indoor and outdoor track and cross country. Tom served two terms as vice president of the state track & field officials association and was honored by that group with its Outstanding Official Award in 1991 and 2003.
Tom is also a regular at national caliber competitions, having officiated at USA Track & Field events since 1973 and at 48 national championship events since 1975. That includes all the marquee meets, such as the Millrose Games; Penn Relays, where he’s been chief starter since 2003 and a starter since 1989; and a bevy of collegiate title meets including the IC4A (Easterns), Heptagonal Games, Patriot League, Big East and the NCAA Div. I championships. He was also the chief starter at the 1998 Goodwill Games in New York, the international starter for the IAAF 2010 World Junior Championships in Canada, and a starter at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon.
Wrestling was another of Tom’s many bailiwicks. A wrestler at Suffern and Colgate (he also threw the discus for the Mounties’ track team), Tom began officiating wrestling in 1968 while still a college student and in 1969 joined the Rockland County wrestling officials association after graduating from Colgate. He refereed at all levels over a 33-year period (1969-2001) – high school (five state championships), college (Big Ten and ACC Conference matches) and elite (U.S.-U.S.S.R. dual meets in the 1980s).
Tom was the chief official and clinician for the USA Wrestling Eastern Regional Freestyle Championships in 1983 and the National Club Championships in 1982, and was named Wrestling Official of the Year for New York State in 2001 by the national federation officials association. He also served eight years as a swimming and diving official, and in 2004 was inducted into the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame in the Officials category.
His impact in the officiating sphere was large indeed, but shouldn’t we also give a shout-out to Tom’s coaching career? After all, he spent 29 years (1980-2008) as head girls’ cross country coach at Suffern and 23 years as the Mounties’ head girls’ track coach. After returning to his alma mater in 1973 to teach social studies, Tom spent three years (1974-76) as assistant boys’ track coach and one year as assistant with the girls before embarking on his successful reign as girls’ head coach in 1978.
n spring track, Tom rang up a dual-meet record of 121 wins, 20 losses and 3 ties. His teams won seven County champi- onships, 11 League banners, 18 invitational meet titles, two Section 9 crowns and had six Sectional runner-up showings, and he was named Rockland County of the Year five times. Tom coached four individual state champions and two state championship relays teams, 57 individual County titleholders, and 28 girls who broke the one-minute barrier for 400 meters (quarter-mile), more than any other Rockland girls’ team. At one time athletes he coached held County records in the 100, 400, 800, 1,500, shot put, sprint medley relay, 4×200 relay and 4×400 relay.
In cross country, Tom led the Mounties to 10 League, 4 County and 3 Sectional championships, had six undefeated dual-meet campaigns, won almost 90 percent of his duals (.896) and was named Rockland Coach of the Year four times.
Tom retired in 2009 after a 36-year teaching career at Suffern. He turned 65 on April 19 and hopes to continue his track officiating career and pursuing various avocations for many years to come.