Nick Carleo just wanted to play basketball.
The Newburyport High School freshman and two-time state track champion never set out to be a runner. After three years at the Seacoast Academy, Carleo wanted to get into shape before trying out for the freshman basketball team in the winter. It didn't matter to Carleo that he never really had been a runner in the past. The cross-country team seemed to be a good place to tune up for hoops, reconnect and meet new people at his new school.
Then he caught fire.
"It was kind of an immediate thing," Carleo says of his success in cross country. "The first meet, I want to say I came in fourth place, then I kind of built my way up. Then in the last meet, I was somehow the top runner."
In fact, Carleo ended the cross-country season fourth in the Cape Ann League. But it was in indoor track over the winter that he truly turned heads. By running a 4:29 mile at All-States, Carleo was named the third fastest freshman in the United States.
"There was one point in the season, after one race, I was the 13th (in the U.S.) and I was pretty psyched for that," Carleo says. "Then all of a sudden, I was third. It kind of came out of nowhere."
Interestingly enough, Carleo did not take to indoor track as quickly as he did to cross-country.
"I think when I first realized how to run a race was probably at the second to last meet against North Andover, or it was the state championship meet," admits Carleo. "Before, I was running the whole race out in the second lane. I was running 10 meters farther than everyone else was in my races."
Part of his difficulty was simply being a lanky 14-year-old.
"When I walk, my feet go out," Carleo explains. "I guess you call it bow-legged, and when I run it just looks strange."
To be fair, running is in the Carleo blood. Nick's father Tom actually qualified for the 1988 Olympics running the metric mile. But to be equally fair, the two have shared the sport only a handful of times.
"A couple of years ago, we ran the 5K in town," the elder Carleo says of what he believes is only one of two times he and his son have run together. "He showed a little promise of being a runner that day (although) he whined and complained during the last 2 miles. We've played a lot of basketball in the yard over the years, but never running."
When the younger Carleo headed down to New York for Nationals earlier this month, he did so with coach Don Hennigar and seniors Keith Conway, Chris Suprin and Andrew Orlando, all men he credits to getting him where he is now.
But they weren't able to run his race for him, and it was there that perhaps some of his inexperience came into play, adding seven seconds onto his qualifying time and finishing 16th that day.
"I ran really bad," Carleo admits. "I was pretty nervous, but also relaxed. It's hard to explain. Right before my race, I was very nervous. Some of the fastest kids in the whole country are right in front of you. That was interesting and a little bit intimidating."
"We were hoping that he would run really well," Conway says of Carleo's trip to Nationals. "But he's still in the top 15 in the nation. And he was still able to keep his competitive nature. He stayed the course and ran the whole way. It was very impressive and bodes well for the future."
Basketball doesn't seem to be in Carleo's future any more. But more races are. Outdoor track is just around the corner.
"I think it might be little bit easier for me," Carleo says of outdoor track. "What killed me in indoor track was the turns. The way I run, I'm always all over the place."
"Without him, we probably would not have been able to win as much as we won," says Conway. "Sometimes when kids come in that are brand new to running, just doing it for the fun, there isn't any pressure on them. They kind of come in and run hard."
Carleo will continue to run hard, but he'll also be doing what he started running for in the first place, making friends.
"It's really social," Carleo says of running. "Even when you're training, you'll be talking to other people, whereas if you're playing football, you won't be talking to other people as you'll be smashing them. It's really relaxed, but at the same time, it's also really competitive."
"We were obviously pleasantly surprised," Tom Carleo says of his son's freshman success. "(But) we're more happy than anything that he was just enjoying the heck out of his first few months at the high school. Hanging out with a good group of kids. There's worse things you can do after school than running around Maudslay State Park."