The day track stood still: How SB Saint Joseph honored its fallen teammate Saleem Qasem

·7 min read

MISHAWAKA — In those first two hours, Mike McCarthy couldn't stand still.

As Saint Joe's track coach, there was too much to see at Thursday's Indiana High School Athletic Association sectional meet at Penn to be complacent.

In one moment, McCarthy knelt on the turf behind the long jump sand pit and recorded Bill Imanene's second jump on his phone, then showed him the replay to dissect what went right and what to fix for his next run.

He then walked a couple paces over to hold blocks for hurdlers Luke Kaufhold and Liam Kemp as they practiced their starts. A moment later, McCarthy grabbed his bag and sprinted up the Freed Field bleachers to watch Ollie Kaufhold, amongst others, compete in the 100-meter dash trials.

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► More: Penn races to girls track sectional title as grieving Saint Joseph gives inspired effort

For McCarthy, its his usual track meet routine. And for South Bend Saint Joseph's boys track and field athletes, those two hours were nice distractions.

A group of athletes sat at the far end zone watching the high jump competition. Others rested under the team tent, guarding against the evening heat.

But in the back of their minds, they knew the moment to honor Saleem Qasem, their former teammate who, along with his older brother, Ahmad, tragically drowned Sunday, May 15, in Lake Michigan at Warren Dunes State Park, was coming.

Saleem Qasem (left) poses with one of his teammates following one of South Bend Saint Joseph's boys track meets [PHOTO PROVIDED BY SAINT JOSEPH ATHLETICS]
Saleem Qasem (left) poses with one of his teammates following one of South Bend Saint Joseph's boys track meets [PHOTO PROVIDED BY SAINT JOSEPH ATHLETICS]

"You couldn't help but think about that there was going to be that moment where any sort of normalcy was going to be lost," McCarthy told The South Bend Tribune.

That moment would be the 300-meter hurdles. Heat No. 2.

It would have been Saleem Qasem's event. His name was still listed on the heat sheet and announced to the crowd.

The entire Saint Joseph team, including the coaching staff and members from the girls team, which competed in sectionals Tuesday night, gathered in a large circle near the starting line. Members from other schools, including Mishawaka, South Bend Washington and Penn joined them.

A group of students, which McCarthy said had known Saleem since they were kids, placed a pair of blocks and a Saint Joe track uniform in his lane. It was dead silent other than the tears coming from the majority of those who watched the group hold a Jordan National Flag, a tribute to his family heritage, over his blocks.

Members of Saint Joe's boys track team hold a Jordan Flag near a pair of blocks in memory of Saleem Qasem [JUSTIN FROMMER/THE SOUTH BEND TRIBUNE]
Members of Saint Joe's boys track team hold a Jordan Flag near a pair of blocks in memory of Saleem Qasem [JUSTIN FROMMER/THE SOUTH BEND TRIBUNE]

That touching moment was enough to cause goosebumps. For a couple of minutes, the athletes stayed where they were, honoring their lost teammate. McCarthy walked around the circle, patting some backs and rubbing some shoulders — anything, he said, to make his athletes comfortable.

After making it around to everyone, McCarthy went to the turf on one knee, staring blankly into the ground, completely still.

"I was pretty overcome (with emotion)," McCarthy said. "When his name was announced, it was a moment, amongst several other moments this week, that really got to me."

Remembrance

In the midst of unspeakable tragedy, McCarthy tried to keep things as normal as possible.

The Indians arrived to Thursday's meet at their normal time to do their normal warmup schedule. But when they got off the bus, Saint Joe's athletes displayed special shirts to honor Saleem.

It was the senior athletes' idea, according to McCarthy. On the front, the phrase "Finish For Saleem" was printed inside of a Jordan flag, while "Qasem '24" (for his graduating year) was on the back. The same was written on Saint Joe's team baton.

Members of the Saint Joe boys track team console each other during ceremony for Saleem Qasem. [JUSTIN FROMMER/THE SOUTH BEND TRIBUNE]
Members of the Saint Joe boys track team console each other during ceremony for Saleem Qasem. [JUSTIN FROMMER/THE SOUTH BEND TRIBUNE]

Last year, McCarthy taught Saleem in his world history honors class. Saleem had asked to take his finals early, so he could visit family in Jordan. McCarthy said he asked him to bring a flag back, so he could hang it up in his classroom, which Saleem did this past August.

"He was really happy, McCarthy said, "to have his (country's) flag permanently hanging up here with the other ones."

It was that same flag his teammates used to honor him Thursday as Saleem's family heritage played a big role in who he was.

Monday afternoon, the Tribune had an interview scheduled with Saleem. The past month he had been competing while fasting for Ramadan. It had taken a lot of energy out of him. But when Saleem got back to full strength, he was back to making major strides.

McCarthy was excited as anyone, not just for his story to be told, but for his potential in upcoming meets.

In Saleem's final meet — the Northern Indiana Conference boys championships at Elkhart on May 12 — he finished eighth in the 300 hurdles (44.42), just shy of his personal record.

Staying Together

McCarthy said he got the news last Sunday night of Saleem's death. He had also coached Ahmad one season, but didn't know him as well as Saleem.

It was a fast turnaround from Sunday as news began to circulate throughout the Saint Joe community into Monday's morning hours.

That school day mood was quiet, somber. As if everyone forgot what normalcy was.

After school Brendan Pruitt, a senior at the school, planned to have the team meet at the University of Notre Dame grotto for prayer. More than just Saint Joseph track athletes attended. They were joined by the girl's tennis team, who had their own sectional match to prepare for, as well as other members of the student body and parents.

Members of the Saint Joe boys track team hug following a moment of silence for Saleem Qasem [JUSTIN FROMMER/THE SOUTH BEND TRIBUNE]
Members of the Saint Joe boys track team hug following a moment of silence for Saleem Qasem [JUSTIN FROMMER/THE SOUTH BEND TRIBUNE]

When they arrived it just so happened that Pete McCormick, the Notre Dame basketball team chaplain was already there and led the crowd in prayer.

"We were meant to be there," McCarthy said, "when he was there."

That night, McCarthy invited both the girls and boys team to his home for dinner.

"I felt it was necessary to provide everyone an opportunity to be with their teammates for a few more hours," he said, "so nobody would have to go through this alone."

There, they shared personal stories to keep things light and on a positive note leading into the two toughest meets they would ever have to run in.

"Since Monday people have chosen how to express the way they were connected with Saleem," McCarthy said. "I believe it is symbolic of a natural desire of want to share connections and express those connections in a very tragic moment."

Connection

During Wednesday's practice, McCarthy said one of his runners had a message for the team: "When we are at this meet tomorrow it is not about being on our phones, talking to girls or just hanging out. It is about our team."

Saint Joe, which received moments of silence for Saleem from both Mishawaka and Penn (sectional host sites), were competing for more than just personal records and regional slots.

It showed from one moment to the next. Shortly after the 4x100-meter relay race, one of Saint Joe's runners collapsed in tears on the infield before being consulted by McCarthy and a group of teammates.

There were more instances just like that, or a group hug for Luke Kaufhold, who ran in the following heat after Saleem's ceremony, finishing third (42.20) and qualifying for regionals.

Members of Saint Joe's 4x100 team sit together with coach Mike McCarthy after completing an emotional race. [JUSTIN FROMMER/THE SOUTH BEND TRIBUNE]
Members of Saint Joe's 4x100 team sit together with coach Mike McCarthy after completing an emotional race. [JUSTIN FROMMER/THE SOUTH BEND TRIBUNE]

During the team's talk after the meet, Kaufhold was one of seven athletes to stand up and speak. He said the final stretch of his 300 race was as easy as it had ever been, almost as if Saleem was pushing him through the finish.

McCarthy had to plan what he was going to say that day, too. He woke up early that morning, did 44 push-ups (his way of remembering Saleem with his goal of breaking a 44-second 300) and tried to think of a way to bring some closure to a hurting community.

"There needed to be some kind of direction moving forward," he said.  "For a number of athletes, their track season was coming to an end."

He chose to center around connection.

"Do something everyday that keeps you connected with your team and with Saleem," McCarthy said to his athletes. He plans to keep doing 44 push-ups every morning.

Other athletes and coaches announced their own oaths on how they plan to remember Saleem before taking a team picture with a hurdle sitting in front.

This group, upwards of 100 athletes between the boys and girls teams, will forever be connected by the tragedy they have experienced. And for them, the way forward is through remembrance together.

"Life often times is not fair," McCarthy said. "But sometimes beautiful things can happen. I saw a lot of beautiful things on Thursday."

This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: South Bend Saint Joseph track honors fallen teammate