Breaking 4-minute barrier in the mile puts Ross in special company

Initially published in June 6, 2016 edition of Providence Journal

By Bill Koch

The four-minute mile remains one of those magical numbers in sports, a figure that sits alongside 50 home runs in a baseball season, 100 points in a hockey season or 1,000 yards rushing in a football season.

It’s a dividing line between runners who are simply very good and the truly elite, a time chased by millions and cracked by a select few. Nick Ross knows this all too well, and it’s a figure the former East Greenwich star can now happily discuss from both sides.

Ross dipped below the standard for the first time in his career on Thursday night, clocking a 3:59.73 at the Adrian Martinez Classic in Peabody, Mass. His sixth-place finish against a fast field at Emerson Park mattered less than the progress he’s made after wrapping up his college career at Philadelphia’s La Salle University just over a year ago.

“It worked out perfectly,” Ross said on Saturday at the R.I. Interscholastic League Outdoor Track & Field Championships. “I could have done a lot of things better, but I’ve got a weight off my shoulders now breaking that.”

The 23-year-old’s previous best of 4:00.18 put him agonizingly close to a mark he’s pursued since wrapping up his college career, one that included an IC4A championship in the 1,500 meters as a senior in 2015. Ross skipped his La Salle graduation to attend the meet, a performance that capped a comeback from a broken foot that spoiled his final college indoor season.

“I had a decent senior year, but I wanted to do more,” Ross said. “I felt like there was still a lot to give.”

Ross becomes just the fifth former RIIL athlete to break the four-minute mark, joining East Providence’s Bruce Fischer (1974), Rogers’ Phil Kane (1978), North Kingstown’s Dan Huling (2012) and Chariho’s Mike Marsella (2015). Per state track and field guru Richard Marshall, Kane’s time of 3:55.77 at a 1982 race in Germany remains the best produced by a local product. Ross finds himself emboldened by the accomplishment, eyeing race winner Sam Penzenstadler and his 3:57.80 as his next achievable goal.

“That 3:57 the winner had looks even better,” Ross said. “That’s also going to keep me going to try to get a little bit lower.”

Ross found an outlet to continue his career back in his home state, hooking up with the nonprofit NE Distance program as both coach and athlete. He helped serve as a mentor for a Providence middle school cross country team last fall and returned to his alma mater as an assistant to his high school coach, Avengers’ leader Peter Dion.

“They motivate me just as much as I motivate them,” Ross said. “I really enjoy working with them and working with my coach. I can’t thank them enough.”

Ross counts longtime state track and field fixtures Bob Rothenberg and his wife, Ann, among his chief influences at NE Distance. He’s also enjoying his work with Brown assistant Kurt Benninger and feels like he’s poised for more gains in the immediate future. Perhaps Ross will even stumble upon something to replicate the feeling of just a few short days ago, as a brief wait at the finish line and a last look at the scoreboard showed something he’d never seen before.

“Each race has been a little different,” Ross said. “I was surprised how well I felt last Thursday. It just all clicked mentally and I did not want to see 4:00 up there again.”