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3:59.79! : For Paul Greer, Who Once Couldn’t Do Jumping Jacks, Breaking Four-Minute Mile Fulfills King-Sized Dream

As soon as the number 3 reached Paul Greer’s ears, he began screaming and jumping up and down with his arms raised above his head. Soon he was sprawled on the ground near the track at UCLA’s Drake Stadium.

Bellowed from the public address system, the number 3 at the start of his final time meant that Paul Greer, a San Diego State and St. Augustine High graduate, had realized his dream.

He had broken the four-minute mark in the mile for the first time.

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Never mind that he finished sixth in the race. He did not care. On that day--two weeks ago in the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Invitational--he was concerned only with the first number in his time. He did not even know what his official time was until hours later. He did not care.

Greer, 24, had become only the fourth San Diego County high school product to run a mile in less than four minutes.

Officially, his time was 3 minutes, 59.79 seconds.

“I couldn’t help getting excited,” he said. “As soon as I heard the 3 , I went crazy. I was rolling all over the ground like a worm. People must have thought I was nuts.

“Breaking the four-minute mile has been a goal of mine for so long that if I stopped running tomorrow, I would be completely satisfied. It’s not just thinking that I’m at a realm where so few people have been, but that I’ve wanted this for so long. And I did it. Thirty years from now I can sit in my rocking chair and tell my kids I ran a four-minute mile.”

Judging from his progress over this past decade, Greer might have even better stories to tell his kids.

His next goal is to run in the U.S. national meet. He missed the cutoff for the 1,500 meters by four-tenths of a second this year. His eventual goal is to run the 1,500 in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

And anyone who knows Paul Greer would not consider those goals unreachable.

Nine years ago, as a scrawny freshman at St. Augustine, Greer decided to go out for the track team. He did so because he felt that being an athlete was a way to gain the respect of his classmates.

Respect did not come easily.

During warm-ups on the first day of practice, Greer was singled out because he could not do jumping jacks.

There he was, this 5-foot-2, 100-pound freshman in the middle of a large circle of athletes being laughed at, ridiculed, because he could not coordinate his skinny limbs enough to even do a bad jumping jack.

“Guys were doubled over laughing,” Greer remembers. “It was the most embarrassing moment, and I still couldn’t do it right. I was so naive. I didn’t know anything.

Recalled Dan Schaitel, St. Augustine’s coach at the time, “He was a highly spirited individual, so he took it in a good way. But he couldn’t do it. I think it took him until his junior year before he could finally do them right.”

Shortly after that came the Saints’ first track meet at Ramona. Greer was entered in the junior varsity 400-meter run. The gun sounded and Greer was off, sprinting to the lead. Around the first turn, down the backstretch and around the final turn, he kept sprinting--albeit slowing considerably--giving it his all.

Teammates were shaking their heads in disbelief, laughing, making jokes about calling for paramedics. With veins and tendons bulging from his tiny frame, Greer somehow managed to finish in first place.

“It’s got to be something inside,” says Schaitel. “He isn’t blessed with super speed. Driving confidence, he’s always had that. But he knows how to handle it.”

The rest of that year, Schaitel and Eric Querin, an assistant coach, had an ongoing bet for a can of sarsaparilla on Greer and senior Dan Gruta. “I finally got him at the end of the season,” said Greer. “Coach Schaitel had me and one sarsaparilla, and Coach Querin had Dan Gruta and eight or nine sarsaparillas.”

It took thousands of miles of road work, two track seasons and two cross-country seasons, but finally, in his junior year, Greer established himself as one of the best middle-distance runners in the county.

In a dual-meet victory over Morse High, a feat described by Schaitel to be the biggest in St. Augustine’s history, Greer was the first runner in the county that year to run a sub-two-minute 800 meters.

By the end of his high school career, he had personal records of 1 minute, 54.4 seconds in the 800 and 3:54.2 in the 1,500, which was third best in the nation at the time he did it. His senior year, he finished second in the section 1,500, .01 second behind gold medalist Joe Manuel of Bonita Vista.

“High school is where I got my start,” Greer said. “I wouldn’t be running today if it wasn’t for Dan Schaitel. I’ll always be so grateful to him. He is the one that whetted my appetite.”

That appetite flourished at SDSU, where Greer was a four-time letter winner in cross-country and track. He was a captain of the cross-country team all four years and his senior year in track.

But again, respect and lower times did not come easily. His coach, Rahn Sheffield said, “There were those who thought Paul didn’t have the speed for the mile. There were a lot of negative forces saying he should switch events.

“But if you know anything about the athlete Paul Greer, you’re asking him to give up, to quit. You will never get Paul to give up. It can’t be done.”

Sheffield said Greer just needed to be trained differently. So he went to work in doing so.

“I had to break him down and rebuild him,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘He works so hard, but he’s not getting anywhere.’ He was a person with a dream, a person with a goal. He was someone who never gave up. But he wasn’t getting anywhere. I had to destroy his past and rebuild him.

“I put Paul through hell. I ran him up steep hills for 400 meters. I ran him up stairs to improve his stride. Paul’s race is not going to be won under fresh conditions. He doesn’t have that kind of speed. He’s going to win under fatigue. We had to train him that way.”

Greer said, “It takes more than hard work. It takes believing in yourself and believing in your coach. Coach Sheffield was one of the few people who believed in me.”

Sheffield taught Greer the meaning of the phrases, “What they call hell, we call home” and “Vile is vanity on the track.”

There were peaks and valleys according to Greer, like a strained calf muscle that caused him to red-shirt a year, and a glorious 1,500 race his senior year in a meet at Santa Monica.

Stopping the clock at 3:42.44, Greer had shattered Bob Messina’s 18-year-old school record of 3:44.9.

Since his Aztec days, Greer has been running for the San Diego Track Club, where he also donates his time coaching runners at Balboa Stadium every Tuesday and Thursday. He has a teaching credential from SDSU and has been working as a substitute teacher.

He has grown some since his freshman year at Saints-to 5-8, 128 pounds- but not much. “He might be small in stature,” Schaitel said. “But he’s got something very few will ever have--unbridled determination.”

Said Sheffield, “He’s an inspiration, not only to other runners, but to me. I’ll never turn down someone like Paul, someone who wants to work hard.”

Greer shrugs at these praises, because he knows all too well what real courage and determination is.

His mother, Maureen, was diagnosed in 1974 with multiple sclerosis. She used to get around with a walker but is now confined to a wheelchair.

“It’s easy to keep things in perspective,” Greer said. “If I start to take things for granted, all I have to do is see my mom. I realize how fortunate and lucky I am just to be able to walk. She has more courage in her thumb than I’ll ever have.”

Whereas it is easy to see where Greer gets his inspiration and will, his home is also the source for his wonderfully friendly disposition.

His father, Gerry, is a delightful man who retains his thick Scottish accent despite having lived in the U.S. for the better part of three decades. “I don’t even notice his accent unless I talk to him on the phone,” said Paul.

Gerry grew up in Scotland, where he played soccer; later he was a miler in the British Army. “The things I dreamed about, Paul is now accomplishing,” he said.

Gerry, a banker, and Maureen moved from Scotland to Brooklyn in 1962 and back to Scotland in 1967, three years after Paul was born. In 1972, the family moved and settled in San Diego. Paul’s younger sister, Michelle, ran track at Torrey Pines High and is now a student at SDSU.

“We’ve been very blessed,” said Gerry. “With all the problems out there, they’ve managed to keep themselves on the straight and narrow.

“We give (Paul) the support he needs. And he manages to keep his nose clean. I don’t know how he picked that up, probably from his mother. It surely wasn’t from me. He has really high principles. Of course, St. Augustine didn’t do him any harm. He stays really in touch with the principal there, Fr. John Sanders.”

While Greer’s image is genuinely squeaky clean, the same cannot be said for his track spikes.

In his “dream mile” two weeks ago, Greer was wearing the same size 8, Nike Zoom D’s he first bought as a freshman at St. Augustine.

“They were my good luck charm. I wanted to keep them until I broke four minutes,” he said.

And now that he has, now that he’s joined Tim Danielson (Chula Vista High), Thom Hunt (Patrick Henry High) and Jay Woods (Vista High) as the only San Diegans to run the mile in the “3s”, Greer can finally retire those spikes.

It is time for a new pair. Time for a new challenge. Time for a better time.


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