TAMPA ― Once he got past his 14-year-old pupil’s stringy brown hair and braces, her beaming smile and angular frame, Mike Williams found a cauldron of competitive juice.
Middle school distance-running standout Aida Castelli was not only a talent, but a terrier.
“I have yet to train anybody that resembles her competitiveness,” said Williams, a local private running coach who still owns the University of Florida’s seventh-fastest indoor time in the 3,000 meters (8:09.19).
“She’s the only person I ever trained that I actually think wants to win as much as I want them to win.”
Which is to say, she’s every bit her dad’s daughter. Maybe Williams never trained a runner with such doggedness, but he darn sure battled one.
Thirty years ago, he and Tommy Castelli were engaged in a perpetual dead heat for Hillsborough County distance-running supremacy.
“It’s so ironic,” Williams said. “My biggest (high school) competition, I end up training his daughter.”
Back in the era of Bon Jovi and Bermuda shorts, Williams and Castelli waged a fierce-yet-friendly rivalry that stretched from autumn to spring.
It came to a head in the 1988-89 school year, when Williams ― a bespectacled King High senior ― ran cross country for the first time.
He looked like (Steve) Urkel," said Castelli, referring to the popular nerdy character on the ABC/CBS sitcom Family Matters.
“I was running one day, he’s coming right behind me. I look back, it says King High School (on his jersey). I’m like, ‘I don’t know anybody from King High School.’”
By the end of the regular season, Williams had edged Castelli in two consecutive races. Castelli, who wore hearing aids as a result of a severe hearing deficiency diagnosed as a toddler, beat Williams by nine seconds to win the Class 4A, District 4 meet in Winter Haven.
“(Castelli) was a heck of a runner,” said Dan Lucas, longtime sports anchor at WFLA News Channel 8 and a Castelli teammate.
“He had a hearing impediment, so he wore the old-fashioned hearing aids. ... He spoke perfectly, but sometimes he had to slow down. We had to tell him to slow down all the time talking. He would laugh at himself. That’s what drew you to Tommy, it was his personality.”
A week after districts, Williams out-kicked Castelli to win the Region II title at Brandon High in a course-record 15 minutes, 14 seconds ― one second faster than his nemesis.
A week after that, at Seminole High, Castelli led the Falcons ― then widely known as the “Long Red Row” ― to their fourth team state championship in seven years with a fifth-place individual finish (15:29). Lucas was sixth (15:36), Williams seventh (15:37).
“We battled,” Williams said. “And ironically, my senior year, Leto was on our schedule literally every single meet. I couldn’t take a meet off, I couldn’t take a race off, because Tommy was gonna be racing me.”
The rivalry’s intensity grew more heated with the weather.
Williams won the 880, mile and two-mile at the 4A-District 5 track meet in the spring of ’89, but was edged by Castelli in the two shorter races at regionals. Williams ultimately finished third in the mile at the state meet in Winter Park, where Castelli said he was hindered by a high fever.
Castelli was named the St. Petersburg Times’ boys cross country runner of the year; Williams won the same honor for track.
“He and Tommy, they ran these incredible mile races, and (880) races, too,” Lucas recalled.
“Just unbelievable times, untouchable. And it was interchangeable, too. It was kind of a 50-50 battle, it wasn’t like one guy dominated the other. It was small dual meets, and it was also the big invitationals. It was always those two in the mile, and it was something to watch.”
Williams would go on to run at Santa Fe Community College and UF. Castelli moved to South Dakota for his senior year to reside with his mother, ultimately earning a track scholarship to the University of South Dakota. They ran into each other at an indoor meet at Iowa State in the early 1990s, then lost touch with each other.
They re-connected about four years ago, in the King High parking lot. Tommy had accompanied Aida ― middle of his three daughters ― to an AAU track meet, where she ran for a different club program. The old competitors snapped a selfie together and exchanged phone numbers.
Nothing came of that encounter. Then last summer, Williams sent a group text to a majority of his cell-phone contacts: Some new techniques with which he was experimenting had produced astounding results with some of his younger runners.
By that time, Aida had been battling some nagging injuries. Castelli called Williams and said he’d like him to work with Aida.
In late February, she finished fifth in her age group (girls 11-14) at the Gasparilla Distance Classic 5K (24:30).
“We do some strength-records stuff (during training) and we keep track of that stuff. She’s taken down every record that I have and crushed it,” Williams said.
“And then she puts it out there where nobody will get it.That’s the kind of stuff I do, that’s the kind of stuff I used to do all the time, try to push yourself to that level. I’ve been coaching 22 years, I ain’t ever had that.”
The progress hasn’t plateaued. Though she had the slowest qualifying time for the 1,500 meters (5:29.95) at the Florida Youth Running Association middle school championships at IMG Academy in May, Aida finished 15th (5:16.33), knocking more than 13 seconds off her time.
She also knocked more than a minute off her 3,000 time over the course of the season (from 13:18 to 12:10), according to her coach.
“We’re very happy with (Williams) because he has experience,” said Castelli, who recently finished his degree (via a correspondence course) at South Dakota.
“It’s easy for me because we have the same philosophy, and I can’t coach my daughter because my daughter and I are very stubborn. She listens to him.”
Aida becomes a bona fide Terrier later this summer, when she begins her freshman year at Hillsborough High. She can’t wait for the cross country season to commence.
Williams will be there to push her every step, to elicit every ounce of potential from her mind and body.
Just as he did for her father a generation ago.
“She’s what I’ve been looking for for 22 years,” he said.
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.