Joe Rosa, one of the top high school distance runners in the country, appeared to be on his way to breaking the New Jersey state record in the 3,200-meter run with a time worthy of being on the all-time national list when he was literally forced off the track by meet officials with one lap to go due to weather concerns.
Officials with the New Jersey Interscholastic State Athletic Association halted the eight-lap race as Rosa was preparing for his final lap, because lightning had been detected in the area. The meet was being held in Old Bridge, N.J.
NJSIAA officials made it clear: Rules dictate all events are halted and the competitors and fans must immediately leave the area if lightning is detected.
"I have four spotters looking in every direction and no one detected lightning or thunder in the area when the race started," meet director Don Danser told the Star-Ledger. "But as soon as the lightning and thunder came, we have to stop the meet under the National Track and Field Rules. It's a safety issue. We have fans in aluminum bleachers with lightning overhead. We had to evacuate right away."
The decision, however, did not sit well with Rosa, his family (including twin brother Jim who was in second at the time), his coaches and others who questioned why they couldn't run one more lap - or why the race was allowed to start in the first place.
"I guess it's a rule, but we had one lap to go," Jim Rosa said. "We should have been able to just finish it."
His father, Larry, was stunned.
"The race should never have been started," he said. "Once it started it should have been completed. This is just atrocious. My boys are running one of the biggest races of their lives and this is how it ends. I just can't believe it."
Neither can his coach.
"This is just bizarre," Brian Gould said. "I don't even know what to say. I just can't believe this actually happened." (See it happen on video below.)
Kristin Kline, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Mt. Holly, N.J., just a few miles from where the meet was taking place, said the NJSIAA did the right thing.
"If lightning was sighted, they definitely made the right call," she said. "As soon as you see it, that's when you need to take shelter. You can't say, 'We'll be OK for another five minutes.' That's not a safe thing to do.
"As soon as you see lightning, it is close enough to you to strike the area where you are," she said. "The storm clouds could be 20 miles away and the storm may not have reached your area but it's still possible for the lightning to strike where you are."
Richard Kithil, the president of the National Lightning Safety Institute in Colorado, agreed.
"Sports officials have to choose between safety and upsetting people," he said. "Many times, competitive outdoor events are on a collision course with safety. There also is a liability issue. If little Tommy or little Susie got hurt because officials had ignored the warnings, their parents would have a different set of feelings."
Rosa, of West Windsor-Plainsboro North High, was ahead of the pace that led him to a state-record time of 8:44.06, set when he won the New Balance national two-mile event last year.
The top 3,200-meter time this spring is 8:46.63, set by Billy Orman of Tuba City, Az.
The national record of 8:34.23, set by German Fernandez of Riverbank, Calif., is considered one of the few untouchable high school marks. Only one other runner has ever broken 8:42.00; few have come in under 8:45.00
Whether Rosa will take a second chance at doing so remains to be seen.
The race was one of the marquee events of the state's Meet of Champions, which pits the top performers from the state's six group championships.
The 3,200, as well as nine other events, have now been rescheduled for Monday.
It's unclear if the Rosa boys will run, as they will participate in the national 'Dream Mile' event Saturday in New York City.
Both Joe and Jim Rosa will run at Stanford next year.