MIDDLETOWN – The roar of the crowd is a big part of the experience for most athletes, but not for Middletown High School North distance running star Tom O’Neill.
O’Neill, one of the state’s premier runners, was born deaf, but it never affected his running career.
“I had a cochlear implant put in my left ear when I was 2 years old, and another one in my right ear when I was 7,” said O’Neill, who graduated in June and will run for Providence College this fall. “I can hear with the implants, but I never wear them in a race.”
Not a problem, thanks to suggestions from North coaches John Piro and Brock Silvestri. “They used whiteboards with instructions written on them,” O’Neill said. “That helped me a lot.”
“We held the whiteboard and spelled out the split times at different stages of the race,” Piro said. “We also used symbols and words.
“Besides his natural ability, [O’Neill] has an outstanding work ethic and a true passion for running,” Piro said. “He’s always loyal to his teammates.”
The highlight of O’Neill’s senior year was North winning the state Group III cross-country championship.
“It was the first time in school history that we won a state championship,” O’Neill said. “We beat Moorestown by about 25 points, I won the individual race, and we were confident as a team that we could do it.”
O’Neill’s teammates were Justin Lippert, Mike Marano, Matt Todaro, Michael Subyka, George Roditis and Conor Finn.
O’Neill also won the Meet of Champions title in Holmdel Park with a personal best time of 15:04. He finished first in the Monmouth County meet, fourth in the Shore Conference race, second in Northeast Regionals and sixth at Nationals, which were held in Oregon.
O’Neill followed a good indoor season, during which he won the 1,600 and 3,200 in the Group III meet, with a good outdoor season, highlighted by winning the 3,200 at the Holmdel Twilight series with a personal best time of 9:02.
‘I was very excited about that, but I didn’t improve individually after that,” he said. “I pulled a hamstring in the state meet and didn’t run in the Meet of Champions.”
O’Neill recovered in time for the distance medley at the Nationals in North Carolina where the team of O’Neill, John Betkowski, Lippert and Keshawn Williams finished sixth with a time of 10:04.
“I ran 4:10 in the 1,600 but everyone ran well and it was a great achievement,” he said.
O’Neill wasn’t thinking seriously about running when he went out for track and cross-country in middle school.
“It was just to stay in shape for basketball,” he said. “I finished 16th in my first cross-country race, but I enjoyed it so much that I decided to skip basketball and concentrate on running.”
He plans to compete in both 5K and 10K races at Providence College.
“They have a great track and cross-country program,” O’Neill said. “It was a good choice for me. The education and small classes are excellent and the coaches treated me very well. They also have a beautiful campus.
“I’m not sure of my major, but I would like to teach and coach when I graduate,” he said.
“The four years of high went by fast. The experience was great, the coaches and teachers were great.”