FARMINGTON — Thomas Eastler, who helped make racewalking a high school sport in Maine and contributed to its popularity throughout the state and nation, died Thursday at age 73.
The Farmington resident, a professor of natural sciences at the University of Maine at Farmington for 41 years, was a USA Track & Field official for 30 years and coached racewalkers from around Maine, including two of his children who went to the Olympic trials and two Olympic games in racewalking.
Now, Maine is one of only two states where racewalking is a high school sport — the other is New York, though only girls can participate there.
“He was the father of the racewalk,” Michael Burnham, assistant executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association, said Friday. “He was certainly an ambassador for the sport, and the entire MPA community is saddened by his passing. He was a wonderful gentleman who impacted the sport of track and field.”
The sport is defined by two main criteria that distinguish it from running slowly: first, that the athlete maintain constant contact with the ground with at least one foot; and second, that the leg remain straightened from the moment of first contact with the ground to the point it passes under the body.
Eastler died at his home from complications of cardiac and kidney disease, his family said. His love of racewalking dates to his days as a graduate student at Columbia University in New York City in the late 1960s.
“My dad was always interested in athletics, and he was in the gym and saw a man doing a really funny walk,” said Eastler’s daughter, Gretchen Fishman, of Boxford, Massachusetts. “He was always a curious, intellectual man, so he went up to the guy and said, ‘What are you doing?’”
That guy, it turned out, was Shaul Ladany, an Israeli Holocaust survivor, world record holder and two-time Olympian who in 1972 survived the Munich Massacre, an attack on Israeli Olympic athletes during the Munich Olympics.
It was Ladany who taught Eastler to racewalk in New York City, and he competed there recreationally before moving to Maine in 1974 to teach at the university and live on a farm.
He passed his love of the sport on to his children and became an advocate for racewalking as a high school sport across the state, working in the early 1990s to get the MPA to recognize it as an official track and field event.
He also published a children’s book, “Racewalking? Fun!,” that has been distributed by USA Track & Field and in schools across Maine.
“Getting that advancement to take place with the MPA and getting racewalking to be a competitive piece of Maine’s high school track and field, that was a major goal of Tom’s and it was accomplished,” said Don Berry, a longtime friend and the official liaison for both indoor and outdoor track and field with the MPA. “It was one of those really amazing things that happened in our lives as far as the sport is concerned.”
Jeff Salvage, who recently succeeded Eastler as president of the USA Race Walking Foundation, said his ability to get it recognized in Maine has dumbfounded advocates for the sport across the country.
“He did a lot of things nationally, but no one has cracked the school system and he did,” Salvage said. He said some of the reasons racewalking hasn’t been adopted in more places has to do with its obscurity, technical difficulty and the budgetary constraints of high school sports departments, many of which are cutting rather than adding programs.
“He did that and that’s his personality, perseverance and intelligence,” Salvage said.
In Maine, Eastler didn’t coach at any specific school, but racewalkers from across the state would often call him or come to Farmington to seek his guidance.
When Fishman was in high school, she said, her father would often wake her at 4:30 a.m. and in the winter and they would go to the basketball court at UMF to train for racewalking before she went to school.
She went on to the 2000 Olympic trials in the racewalk while her brother, Kevin Eastler, who was also coached by their father for a time, competed in the 2004 Athens Olympics and 2008 Beijing Olympics in racewalking.
“It’s almost foreign to me now that there are high-schoolers who would want to racewalk,” Fishman said. “I think it’s amazing it’s become ingrained in the state the way it has. It’s really a testament to his hard work and advocacy because, you know, racewalking looks funny and it’s not the most popular track and field event. So few people give it a try or appreciate the sport for what it is. He worked tirelessly to change that view of it.”
Eastler’s willingness to work for hours with a single athlete to help him perfect his technique also carried over to the classroom at the University of Maine at Farmington, where his passing drew a comparison from university officials to the late U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
“As was written last week in the aftermath of Sen. John McCain’s death, ‘Some voices are so vibrant, it is hard to think of them stilled,’” wrote Eric Brown, UMF interim president, and F. Celeste Branham, UMF vice president for student and community services, in an email to the campus community. “So too, for this university, it is difficult to think of the highly energized voice of Emeritus Professor Thomas Edward Eastler stilled.”
In addition to his daughter and son, Eastler leaves behind daughter Lauren Farkash of Plainville, Massachusetts, and his wife of 52 years, Susan Eastler.