Category: Archive

The gold standard

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

The name of Eamonn Coghlan is one that will be familiar to any sports fan. Just as successful have been Irish names from long ago: Matt McGrath, John Flanagan, Pat McDonald, competitors who set the NYAC on a course of Olympic success that is without peer among athletic clubs worldwide.
One might have thought, therefore, that NYAC’s top slot would long ago have been awarded to a member from the Emerald Isle. In fact, that happened for the first time this past January when John Neary, who is originally from Castlerea, Co. Roscommon, was elected to the club’s highest position.
“I’m truly honored to have been elected president of the New York Athletic Club,” Neary, who’s 62, said recently. “We invariably say that the NYAC is the world’s greatest athletic club. With more than 200 Olympic medals, that’s hardly an exaggeration. I’m very keen to do all I can to continue that proud tradition.”
Although its 24-story headquarters on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Central Park South is far more than just an athletic facility (it boasts 200 hotel rooms, several banquet rooms, a main dining room overlooking Central Park, and has approximately $40 million in gross annual revenue), the NYAC also has the finest of athletic facilities, including a gymnasium, a swimming pool, squash and racquetball courts and a fitness center.
These facilities are put to constant use by recreational members of the A.C., as it is familiarly known, but the club also invites some of the U.S.’ finest athletes to enjoy the facilities and wear the famed winged foot logo in as they prepare for their Olympic bids. At the Sydney Games in 2000, 35 NYAC competitors took part in the competition, among them Deirdre Murphy, who competed for Ireland in cycling.
It’s a long way for any individual to have come, from Roscommon to the head of one of the U.S.’ most prestigious private clubs, an Olympic powerhouse to boot. The route may have been circuitous, but there was a certain logic to it.
It was June of 1960 when Neary, now executive director of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, LLP, one of the world’s leading law firms, left Ireland to chase the American Dream.
“At that time,” he said, “the economy in Ireland didn’t have a lot of offer.” So, after a short stay in England, the young Neary headed to New York, where he took up residence in the tri-state area with an aunt and uncle. They encouraged him to go to university, which he did, graduating from St. John’s in Queens with a degree in accounting. He secured a position at the accounting firm of Ernst and Ernst.
Next came a two-year stint in the U.S. Marines Corps, from 1964-65. “I was about to be drafted, so I enlisted,” he explained. After that, he returned to his position at Ernst and Ernst and earned an MBA from Fordham University.
In 1967, Neary married Joan O’Brien, the couple ultimately taking up residence in Pelham, not far from where they still live today. The NYAC also owns a country facility in Pelham on the Long Island Sound. The tennis courts, marina, crew house, outdoor pool and lavish clubhouse are attractions few upwardly mobile financial executives can resist.
Back in Ireland, Neary had played minor football and hurling with Roscommon. In the U.S., his sporting interests expanded. “I first joined the NYAC in 1978,” he recalled. “At that time I was into tennis. Shortly after that, I started to get into running.”
Neary took up his new interest wholeheartedly. Almost 30 marathons later, he can boast of a best time of 2:47:52, set in the New York City race in 1981. To anyone who cares to inquire, Neary will quickly enlighten them that he was over 40 at the time. No other NYAC member over 40 has beaten his time to date.
The combination of athleticism and business acumen is a quality that is greatly appreciated at the NYAC. In January of 1987, Neary was invited to join the club’s board of governors, the 19-member body that sees to the needs of its more than 9,000 members. After the mandated six years on the board, he took a three-year hiatus before returning to the upper ranks. Thereafter, his ascent was swift. For two years he served as treasurer. Then came a one-year stretch as captain (overseeing all of the club’s sporting programs and facilities), followed by three years as vice president. From now until January of 2006, the “world’s greatest athletic club” will be headed by the man from Roscommon.
“It’s a challenge that I truly enjoy,” Neary said. “The NYAC is so multifaceted that there’s something new to do, see and enjoy almost every day of the week, both sporting and social. Recently, we had Garry Kasparov, the world’s top-ranked chess player, competing against a computer in the club. Last weekend we had our annual judo tournament, one of the top competitions in the nation. It’s a fascinating place and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Though his Irish connections remain steadfast and he makes frequent visits to his mother in Castlerea, he is quick to point out that, although the NYAC’s Irish connections are almost as strong as his own, Ireland cannot take sole credit for building the AC into a club of world renown.
“Irish people have had an enormous influence on the New York Athletic Club,” he explained, “but we haven’t been the only influence. The club is genuinely multicultural. People of Italian, Greek and South American ancestry, to name just three, have had just as great an influence. That said, we are having our annual Irish Night on March 15, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day two days early. That’s always an enjoyable evening. I wouldn’t miss it.”
With an Olympic Games coming up in little more than a year, it is safe to say that athletes bearing the winged-foot emblem will be appearing ever more in the local and national papers, not to mention on the medal rostrums in Athens. On those occasions, it is a certainty that the man paying closest attention and cheering the loudest will be John Neary, the man who, in NYAC history, has traveled the farthest to guide them.

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