Peter Kirgis

On Friday February 7th, Peter and I were settled into a nice breakfast in Lee’s where I got to listen to his plans, hopes, and wants for the rest of the season.  He laid out an incredibly intellectual, well-thought-out path that would get him to his goal.  He wanted to be at Nationals in 5 weeks.

He had basically everything he needed to accomplish the feat.  He didn’t need fitness, strategy, consistency, desire, or even belief.  What Peter needed was to get lit on fire.  So, we decided that I was to become an “arsonist.”  It became my favorite role that I’ve ever played as a coach.

Please allow me to provide some backstory so that you can better understand both Peter and why we chose for me to become a fire-starter.  Because none of this start on February 7th, 2020.  It really began on February 18th, 2017.

That was the day that scrawny, little first-year Peter anchored our DMR in the slow heat of the New England Championships.  In the best shape of his life, Peter was told that he wouldn’t be racing an individual race, instead he’d be relegated to the unseeded section of the DMR.  He didn’t hesitate.  The team needed it.  Even more impressively, he didn’t flinch when he got the stick in complete isolation, totally alone in his first championship meet.  He just starting clicking off even splits.

He soloed an amazing 1600 leg.  Peter had blended patience, persistence and passion in a masterful fashion typically reserved for more experienced runners.  As I stood there in the quiet moments of our 1st heat finishing and the 2nd heat stepping to the line, I remember thinking to myself that I wanted to do right by that kid.

He’d elevated for his team.  He’d stepped into the faceless, nameless role of a relay leg.  He’d leaned into and gave it all he had.  He deserved recognition and I would do what I could to make sure that this team did right by him.

Then we noticed that after 1200m, the “fast” heat wasn’t really living up to its name.  Lap after lap, they couldn’t close the gap.  Granted, they weren’t really aware that there was even a gap.  In my mind’s eye, Peter’s race became the imaginary line that gets put in front of swimmers on TV for World Record pace. But I was the only one who could see.  They didn’t know that Peter was outkicking them.  And Peter “held them off.”  He and his teammates were the 2017 New England Champions.

Two weeks later we moved Peter to the 1200m leg.  His steady, meticulous lead off leg would jump start a national qualifying race.  Just three weeks after lining up for the slow heat at the New England Championships, Peter and the DMR crossed the finish line at Nationals as All Americans.

I don’t have a good answer for why the memory of me standing there, wanting this team to do right by Peter, came flooding back to me while I sat in Lee’s three years later.  But it did.  It was as if Peter had reached across the table and slapped me in the face.  But, in that same instant, I realized that everything that made Peter perfect for that DMR leg was going to be exactly what kept him from going to Nationals this time around.

If you know Peter, you know he’s stoic.  He’s in control of the moment.  He’s actions and words are balanced and poised.  But he’s incredibly passionate.  Don’t think otherwise.  It’s just that he likes to be in complete control of it.

Think back to that first DMR.  Soloing a great effort requires a tenuous mixture of fire and control.  You need the steadfast judiciousness to not let the moment take over and pull you out too hard, making you crash and burn.  But you also need an intense focus and drive to maintain pace and propel yourself through the middle as fatigue begins to set in.  And in order to solitarily push through the pain of the finish, you absolutely need both a connection to your purpose and a raging fire.

Peter had all these traits.  It’s just that he tended towards “steadfast judiciousness” and not necessarily “raging fire.”

But we were running out of time.  Nationals was 5 weeks away leaving only 1 or 2 real shots at it.  It was obvious that Peter wasn’t going to think his way to Nationals.  He needed to start taking chances.  He needed to start risking.  He needed to stoke the fire so much that he risked losing control of it.  We had to admit that he might not get back to Nationals, but if not, we were damn well going to go down swinging.

So, I became a glorified hype man.  And it was awesome.  I got to shut my brain off because I didn’t have anything to do with his training or workouts.  Peter had Dusty Lopez for the training.  And they were crushing it.  The training was a well-designed, thought out, intellectual masterpiece.  But my role wasn’t supposed to be well-designed, intellectual, or thought out.  I was the arsonist.  Before every race, it was my job to light the fire.

As I type this, I realize that I may not have actually been a hype man.  I may have been the devil on Peter’s shoulder.  It became my job to convince Peter to be risky.  To stop worrying that some things may not work out.  To stop playing it safe.  And now I understand why I enjoyed this arsonist role so much.  Both Peter and I were stepping out of our normal shells.

We are stoics who like to control for every variable possible.  We make moves once we’ve already ensured the desired outcome.  The idea of diving headfirst into the unknown is not one of our baseline settings.  I think it felt freeing for both of us to flip that switch temporarily.

It was an awesome ride.  I got to be raw, unfiltered, chest-pounding passion; consequences be damned.  I got to cut loose.  And Peter got to crush some races.  The arsonist debuted for the Dartmouth Invite and Peter had a great tune up 1000m. That led to a lifetime PR in the mile at BU the next weekend.  Two weeks later, Peter then came back with a National qualifying mile at the New England Championships.

Peter already had the pieces.  He and Dusty had built them.  Peter did all the work himself.  He ran every step and did every workout.  But I got to be the bellows pump to stoke the flames a little hotter.  I got to be the devilish one encouraging him to be a little risky.  And now I get to add “Hypeman” to the resume…because, admittedly, Arsonist doesn’t look too good on a CV.

 

Peter Kirgis – for inspiring others through our daily grind, for your measured attack of life, for trusting me when I asked you to be a little more irresponsible, for throwing yourself fully into this team, and for always having your teammates’, and my, backs – I thank you.

Tristan Colaizzi

When the phone rang at 1am, it was pretty obvious it wasn’t going to be a good thing.  It wasn’t.  A panic attack had swept down on one of my athletes and he was looking for my help.  So, as I set the phone down, swung my legs out of bed, and headed out to chat with Tristan, my head swirled with thoughts.  Thoughts of Tristan, of my kids, of my wife.

I thought of my wife.  And how grateful I was for her understanding of my chosen path.  That she fully supports me when I choose to get out of bed in the middle of the night and head out for a conversation.  Knowing that she’ll hold down the fort for us when someone beyond our family needs the time, energy, and support.

I thought of my kids.  And how I hope that if they ever find themselves in a similar place to Tristan, that they would have someone to call.  Someone to get out of bed and help them battle through whatever burden they were carrying.

I thought of Tristan.  And how much he’d given this program and his teammates.  How much of himself, his time, and his passion that he’d put into bringing this group together.  How much mental energy he’d sunk into breaking down barriers and battling to leave this college better than he found it.  And now he needed someone to be there for him.

On some level, I’m glad when I get to be this man for my athletes.  They’re all navigating through a pretty challenging decade.  The one that spans both adolescence and emerging adulthood.  It’s a minefield of unknowns and finding yourself.  Their life is a precarious balance between feeling like you’re in complete control of the ship one moment and feeling utterly impotent to the currents of life the next.

When I was traversing that time, I had people ready to guide me. So, I’m happy to pay it forward.  But this post isn’t about me.  It’s about Tristan paying it forward.  Because that anxious moment passed.  We had a good conversation, some strong tea, and talked about life.  A time-tested cure for a lot of this world’s ills.  But, again, this post isn’t about that moment, it’s about one a year later in Winston Salem, NC.

In all my adult years on this planet, there have been two moments when I sobbed.  Truly wept.  I’m not really much of a crier.  Heck, I don’t really emote much at all for that matter and I’m, most likely, overly stoic.  So, it probably shocked me more than most, when this past March, as we departed indoor Nationals, I was completely overcome with emotion in our hotel parking lot.

You see, what started as a team check in led to a discussion about the meet as a whole, and ended in a decision to leave the meet.  Our convoy was actually halfway back to Williamstown when the NCAA decided to pull the plug on the winter season.  But not before a tidal wave of emotions had washed over all of us.

We were at the National Championships.  And we knew if things went right, we could podium.  It was an experience that was years in the making.  These men had absolutely battled to give themselves the opportunity to suit up at that meet.  They worked so hard, they gave so much, they were that close – and for me to shepherd us away from the meet – it was the hardest decision of my coaching career.  I felt like I was letting them down.

To make matters worse, these men had the perspective, maturity, and empathy to be fully on board with the decision.  That should have made it easier, but in a way, it made it so much worse.

I had done everything in my power to give them the opportunity to be there.  For years, we had followed this path together; they had trusted me to lead them down it.  They deserved the right to attack that goal.  Not to pack up their gear and head home.

My emotions were swirling.  Extremes were coexisting.  Pride and disgust.  Fear and relief.  Powerless and empowerment.  But more than anything, loneliness.

And with everyone loaded in the vans and ready to depart, I walked towards the van I was driving, but I paused.  Why did I pause?  I shouldn’t have paused.  I lost my momentum. And then I lost it. I broke down. It was a moment of pure weakness and I couldn’t bury it any more.  I had trouble standing.  I dropped to a knee, pulled my hat low, and wept.

Seconds later, a van door opened and it was Tristan’s hand on my shoulder.  His voice helping me rise.  It was Tristan offering a hand of support and some choice words.   Letting me know that we got this.  “We” got this.  It was him widening my perspective and helping me remember that I wasn’t in this alone.

I’ve spent hours upon hours watching Tristan train and race.  Four years of workouts, relays, lifts, and meetings.  I’ve seen him overcome adversity, rehab injury, and battle to be an All American, a NESCAC Champion, and a school record holder.  But in the face of all those hours, in the end, it will be the moment of that hand on my shoulder that will remain with me.  A gesture of silent support in a sea of chaos.  A simple act to retether someone to the whole when they were feeling adrift.

Tristan Colaizzi – for the fire, for forcefully willing moments into reality, for the utter refusal to believe anything wasn’t possible, for wanting others to see themselves as strong as you saw them, for helping an old man rise – I thank you.

Kevin LaFleche

You know those pictures of Obama back in 2008?  The ones where he’s young, vibrant and full of life.  He doesn’t even have a whisper of grey in his hair and you can almost feel the hope beaming out of his smile. And then you fast forward eight years and it looks like he aged three decades.  He’s all salt-and-pepper on top and you can tell that he’s seen some s%#@.  Well…that’s what watching Kevin LaFleche race the 800 for four years did to me.

I used to have long flowing hair…now I’m balding.  I never had these wrinkles.  And I definitely don’t remember my joints creaking this much before Kevin.  Sure, I have three kids at home, I should probably be better with sunscreen, and I definitely don’t warm up or cool down anymore.  But it’s just easier to blame it 100% on Kevin LaFleche and his ulcer generating race strategies.

Sometimes I feel like Kevin just got bored by basic Track and Field.  The idea of a straight up race was no longer exciting enough for him.  Kevin needed to spice things up.  He needed to kick it up a notch.  I truly wonder if, somewhere down the line, Kevin was standing on the starting line and said to himself “I wonder how much of a lead I can give these guys and still run them down?  Yeah, that sounds like fun.  Let’s try that.”

And thus, with total disregard for my emotions, mental wellbeing, and ever spreading bald patch, Kevin’s race strategy was born.

I can’t even call his races rollercoaster rides because those have ups and downs…Kevin’s 800 was more like watching a skydiver flirt with how long he could wait to pull the rip cord.

Kevin would walk to the line and I would feel light on my feet, excited by the potential of what he might assemble.  I’d think about all the recent workouts I’d seen him crush.  The memory of him weaving through traffic and sprinting his last few reps in Towne Fieldhouse had me brimming with confidence.  But then the guns goes off and Kevin dives head first out of the plane.

Kevin finds his home at the back of the pack.  Smoothly bouncing his way down the track and totally free of the jostling at the front.  But Kevin has plenty of time to move up.  So for the first 200m, I’m totally relaxed and thinking to myself “It’s all good. He knows what he’s doing.  He’s got this.  Let’s enjoy the ride.  He’s got plenty of time left to pull the chute.”  But in the back of my mind, I’m starting to remember past experiences of watching Kevin’s races and I realize that nothing in life is a guarantee.

And then, around 400m, I realize that I’m holding my breath and my heart is starting to beat a little faster than it should be.  My unconscious has moved me to Defcon 3.  And what’s that?  Is Kevin smiling right now?  If he’s smiling, he definitely shouldn’t be in last place in this heat.

At this point my brain starts to whisper “Hmmm…is something up?  Could there be something wrong?  I really would have liked for him to have pulled the chute by now.  Nah, he’ll do it soon. I know it. He knows that we talked about pulling the chute nice and early this week.  He knows my heart can’t take another one of these.”

And then, around 600m, we’re running out of real estate.  If somethings going to happen it’s got to happen soon.  He needs to pull the chord.  I’m waving my arms and screaming “Pull the #%$ing chute!!!  Pull the #%$ing chute!!!”

Finally, I see the fabric begin to unravel and Kevin lands effortlessly on the ground with his beaming, Cheshire grin.  And by lands effortlessly on the ground, I mean he absolutely hammers the last 150m eating up ground on everyone else in the race and finishes exactly where we wanted him to finish.

But I’m exhausted.  I feel like I just lifted a bus off a baby.  The adrenaline that was coursing through my veins has subsided and I’m left with a fraction of the hype that just jolted my existence.

I look at my watch and it’s been a mere 1 minute and 51 seconds.  How is that possible?  I swear that I watched that race for a solid 15 minutes.  It had to have been longer than than 1:51.  Did I fall into some sort of ripple in time?  My body feels like it’s been through three days of exhausting labor, but it’s really only been 1:51.

Hence, the bald spot, the wrinkles, and the creaky joints.

But from Kevin’s perspective, his brain never left the “This is all good. I got this.” phase of the race.  He was in control the entire time.  He knew his body.  He knew what he was capable of executing.  And you’d think that after four years of watching these races, I would have adapted and normalized to it.  Nope.  Every time was like the first time.

I have little doubt that my body aged 10 years in the last four.  But it was worth it.  Because just like Kevin, I also need to spice things up from time to time.  Yes, I’m utterly exhausted after his races.  I might even feign frustration as I rib Kevin about how the race shook out.  But I loved the ride.

I loved the excitement and exhilaration of watching Kevin fly down the backstretch.  That moment when he decided to flip the switch, pull the chute, and begin his charge to the finish line.  A moment that was equal parts passionate scream and sigh of relief for me.

Kevin LaFleche – for the thunderous kicks, for the daily dedication to self and team, for the trust, for helping us chase something bigger than any one of us, for dreaming big – I thank you.

Mykel Miller

Nothing.  Not a single thing.  I can’t think of a single life experience.  I’ve been sitting here for 20 minutes trying to think of any moment that I wouldn’t walk away from if Mykel Miller said he needed me.  And I can’t think of anything.  I’m not being hyperbolic here.

I’d definitely walk away from one of my kids sporting events.  Recitals, 100%.  Birthdays happen every year and I’m not a big birthday guy anyway.  I’m not having any more kids so there wouldn’t be any more births for me to miss.

A wedding is the only place that gives me pause.  Maybe. I don’t know.  If it was before the service, it’s probably 50/50 that I’d leave.  After the service, I’d probably bounce.  And I’m easily out of there if I’ve already done my dance or toast.

Basically, Mykel Miller has me on retainer for the rest of my life.  If he needs to call me in, I’m there.  No question.  If you want to know why, it’s because in my 40 years on this planet, I’ve never met another human being who lived for others more than Mykel.  He’d put his entire life on pause to help a complete stranger.

He was the beating heart of our team for the past three years.  His presence was felt immediately.  That statement is so important that I’m going to rewrite it.  His presence was felt immediately.  I choose those words carefully. And I consciously did not write “He made his presence felt immediately.”  Those are two very different sentences.  One very much epitomizes Mykel, while the other couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Mykel never sought the spotlight or a leadership role.  They found him because of who he is and how he lived his life.  Mykel, with his effervescent demeanor, his bottomless belief in your potential, and his nonjudgmental guidance was the obvious choice to shepherd this program for multiple years.  He was the solid foundation on which this team stood.  He led by example, sacrificed, and gave every member of this team a platform to be their best self.  Yet he also gave each person the freedom to choose their own path.

I’m sure that Mykel will hate this post simply because he hates the spotlight.  Deal with it, Mykel.  Honestly, I should be embarrassing you in person at our banquet.  I should be thanking you in person.  I should be able to shake your hand and give you a hug to say thank you for the countless hours you put into this school.  To thank you for how much you self-sacrificed to make sure that others never fell off the pack.

Please take a moment to reflect on the magnitude of what I am describing here.  If you don’t know Mykel, my words can’t even begin to convey the effect that he had on those around him.  What made Mykel so impressive is that, like each of us, he had his own struggles.  He carried with his own personal burdens.  It’s just that while he was working through his own challenges, he would never hesitate to take on someone else’s load.  If he was able to ease someone’s weight, he wouldn’t blink.  He was there.

I recently used Atlas as a metaphor in an email to the team.  That in these abnormal times we are all our own personal Atlas carrying our own heavens upon our shoulders.  I still believe that.  Each of us have our own existence bearing down on us.  But I also know that Mykel Miller wouldn’t hesitate to roll his heavens onto one shoulder so that he could reach down to help someone overwhelmed by their world.  He would do it without a second thought.

“Off the charts” doesn’t even begin to touch on Mykel Miller with respect to empathy, selflessness, and altruism.  He’s the Flo Jo or Usain of making this world a better place.  He is an outlier amongst the rest of us.  I learned a great deal working alongside Mykel Miller for the past four years.

So, yeah, I’d walk away from a basketball game, a family dinner, a graduation, or a wedding if Mykel needed me.  I also know the look on my wife’s face when it happened.  I would simply look up from a text or set the phone down and say “Mykel needs me.”  And she would look at me with this “Well what the hell are you still doing here” face and say “Go.”

Here’s the crux of it all.  If I’m somehow able to instill ½ of Mykel’s inclusivity and kindness into my children then I’ll consider my job as a father a complete success.

If you ever need anything Mykel, I’m there.  And, honestly, I know I’m not alone with that sentiment.  So…when you need some help carrying that universe of yours, we’re here.

Mykel Miller – for making sure none fell off the herd, for your humility and drive, for always being true to self, for your assertiveness, for championing all, for your belief – I thank you.

Frank Scheck

As the coach, you should rarely be the one to do any of the actual work.  It’s your job to line things up so someone else can do what needs to be done.  It’s your role to scaffold the situation so that the team or athlete can follow a path that moves them toward their desired outcome.  But you have to resist the urge to do any of the actual work or overly influence the situation.

Coaching is like doing a puzzle with a small child. (Wow, I really hope I don’t insult my athletes with this metaphor).  If you’ve ever done a 30-piece puzzle with a toddler, then you’ve obviously had the feeling of knowing which piece to grab, how to orient it, and even what the next three pieces should be.

But it’s not about you doing the puzzle…it’s about the toddler.  So you spend your time not actually doing the puzzle, but flipping over pieces, drawing some attention to ones that fit, or even spinning them into better orientation to see the connections.  You may also enlist another toddler or older sibling to keep it exciting and interesting.

But what it will never be is picking up the pieces and building the puzzle for him/her.  It’s their job to struggle, repeatedly.  It’s your job to keep it fun when it gets frustrating.  It’s your job to celebrate when they get a piece in place.  It’s your job to ignore their requests to do it for them or to make it easy.  It’s a puzzle, it’s supposed to be a challenge.

Yes, they are likely 100% unaware of the scaffolding that you are providing.  If you’re doing it well, then they can’t sense it.  However, they will always be able to see where you aren’t making it easier and they may even get frustrated at you for it…deal with it, it’s not about you.  That’s parenting coaching.

Please, don’t think for one second that I look at only my athletes as small children…because in reality I look at every one of us as a small child.  It’s all relative.  I’m positive that my older, more veteran coaching mentors see me in this perspective.  As I struggle or wrestle with a puzzle that they solved 15-years ago, they ask me questions and orient my pieces.  They see my path forward, but they let me struggle and help me find it myself.  We’re all just toddlers looking for the right puzzle piece.

Ok, so that was a really long intro.  I’m supposed to be thanking Frank Scheck right now.  In a way, I have been.  What does all this have to do with Frank Scheck?  It has everything to do with the man.  Because Frank was more than an integral piece in the puzzle that was this team.  Frank was something that I, at times, was unable to be.  Frank made us laugh.  Trust me, this is a difficult, yet critical ingredient for a team to possess.  To a team, laughter is a glue.  Its a balm.  It’s a performance enhancing drug.  Remove it and a team starts to take things too seriously.  Sport becomes toiling work, practice becomes drudgery, and the joy is lost.  And without joy, there is no passion.

Sadly, Frank never got to actualize his full potential.  Not for a lack of effort or fight on his part.  Illness claimed his senior year of HS.  A poorly landed hurdle hop led to a broken ankle and a lost first year of college.  And a shoulder injury stole the end of his junior campaign. But Frank doubled down and went to work.  Rehabbed his shoulder over the summer.  Worked with his coach to figure out why it happened and put the time in to address the weakness.

The outcomes were big PR’s in every indoor throw for Frank.  Given that Frank was focusing primarily on the discus and the hammer throughout winter for our NESCAC team run, seeing PR’s in the SP and WT were foretelling of big things for the spring season.  A spring season that would never be.

People who know me, know that I’ll always need a Frank.  As a competitor, I tend to be the hood-up, headphones-on introvert.  I admit that I don’t tell a lot of jokes at my team meetings.  If there is laughter, it’s probably at one of my failed mixed metaphors.  Frank fills a hole in my coaching that I find very difficult to fill myself – playfulness.  And I’m grateful to him for it.

But we should all pause and think about it for a second.  Because you might be under the impression that what I’m talking about here is not a big task.  Or that it’s an inconsequential role.  That couldn’t be farther from the truth.

I’ll 100% agree, it is easy to be a clown.  A clown is a distraction.  A clown doesn’t work.  Some teams have them.  We do not.  Frank is no clown.

Frank did work.  Frank battled for PR’s and he wanted this team to be as could as it could be.  Frank had fire.  He’d get pissed when the discus kept dropping 10cm off his goal.  He’d do deep TFRRS dives into the NESCAC lists to keep himself motivated by what his competition was throwing.

But he balanced his fire and drive with humor and relaxation.  Everyone’s passion comes in different forms.  And every team needs those individuals who can carry their passion and their humor in the same place.  Personally, I have yet to master that skill.  And although I have no use for clowns, I have every need for Franks.

Frank Scheck – for rounding out my weaknesses, for never letting hard work become drudgery, for 12 seasons with a W on your chest, for never being complacent when you knew you could make it fly father – I thank you.

Sam Wischnewsky

I find it interesting that almost every memory I have of Sam Wischnewsky involves me screaming.  I don’t have any rational explanation for this, but I have a number of visceral memories of me screaming for Sam as he attacked his 3ks.

The first one has me standing on the Tufts track, right by the 3rd hurdle mark.  The thermostat and clerking table are at my back.  I’m fighting against the yellow plastic chains that are trying to keep spectators off the track.  I’m winning though as I’ve stretched them to the point where I’m standing in lane 5.

Sam is hammering home in his first collegiate championship meet.  On his way to a PR.  And I feel like I’m a part of it.  I also feel like I just met the whole Sam Wischnewsky for the first time.  That there had been a side of the man that had he had hidden in the shadows until this moment.  Like I just met Mr. Hyde for the first time.

Every conversation that I’ve ever had with Sam has been measured, caring, and thoughtful.  He’s seen the big picture, been aware that setbacks are a part of the process, and has always factored in how his actions would impact others.  I admit that at times, it almost felt as if Sam’s unselfishness almost stood in the way of him voicing a goal…as if the idea of saying “I want X” flew in the face of him supporting his teammates.

This composed, noble man is Sam’s baseline.  And it was an amazing addition to have as a member of this team.  He’d never monopolize a coach at the expense of a teammate.  He’d always keep an eye on someone gravitating to the periphery of a group and pull them back in.  Sam was the glue that held our team together.

With that said, do not for a single moment think that this was all there was to Sam.  You would be doing both yourself and him an enormous disservice if you remained unaware of the Sam-that-lies-beneath.

There is incredible depth and passion and fire that bubbles below the surface.  You can see flickers of it in conversations when you’re really looking for it.  Sam controls it well.  But when certain topics come up, you can see a glimmer escape.  The slightest upturn at the corner of his mouth as he voices what the XC team is capable of or he’ll physically lean into the conversation as he puts his goal to voice.

But these are merely the sparks that have escaped from the furnace within.  Because there are moments when the walls completely come down.  Typically, the fire is fully exposed for less than 9 minutes a week.  A 3k for Sam.  That is when Mr. Hyde gets to come to the surface and attack the track.  Don’t get me wrong, this Sam isn’t some rage filled monster who has abandoned all connection to reality.  No, because it is Sam who chooses to release the dam.

That’s why on Feb 18th, 2017 I felt like I “met” Sam Wischnewsky for the first time. We’d spoken many times in months leading up to that DIII NE Championship meet, but watching Sam hammer home and keep our team momentum flying down the track, that was our real introduction.

Oddly, I have similar mental clarity for the final race I got to “scream” for Sam Wischnewsky in a Williams uniform.  I put “scream” in quotes because I didn’t actually make any noise with my voice for his entire race.  I had cheered myself mute that day at Nazareth College.  Literally.  I lost my voice sometime during the women’s PV.  I tried to yell for Kelsie Hao and nothing came out.

So there I was standing on the infield of the track, just inside the rail at the 50m mark.  I don’t think I’ve ever cheered so “loud” for a race in my life.  Every time Sam and our pack hit the home stretch, what I wasn’t able to give them with my voice, I did with animation and clapping.  I like to think I was able to voicelessly mime some communication to them.  At the very least, I entertained them.  I actually bruised my palms because I clapped so hard for that race.  I didn’t know that you could do that.

It was Sam’s first race of the season.  I remember feeling so much joy watching his return to the track that day.  It was supposed be the first of many in what would be a dominant track season.  2020 was going to be his exclamation point.  It wasn’t supposed to be my final opportunity to cheer for Sam.  His rust-buster wasn’t supposed to be my final moment to say thank you through cheers.

I can’t even begin to tell you how glad I am that Sam’s path and mine have overlapped.  Even more so, I’m happy that I got to meet the whole Sam.  I’m proud that we were teammates.  Sam is never one to jump into the spotlight.  He’d never be one to demand recognition.  But Sam deserves to be recognized.  For all that he is.  The caring, inclusive, thoughtful teammate off the track.  And the passionate, hungry, driven competitor on it.

Sam Wischnewsky – for scrapping, for balancing your own passions with those of your teammates, for picking them up and dusting them off when needed, for being willing to risk, for letting loose the fire every time you put the W on your chest – I thank you.

Ben Hearon

Do you know where Ben Hearon ran his 800m PR?  At a New England Championships.  Do you know where Ben ran his 1000m PR?  At a New England Championships.  Do you know where Ben ran his 1500m PR?  Actually…it was at the All New England Championships, but only after throwing down a PR at NESCACs two weeks prior.

Ben and this team had a beautifully cyclical relationship.  I watched as this squad fueled him.  It drove him to his absolute best and motivated him through dark times.  We were a staple for him through his four years at Williams.  But the reverse was also true.  Ben was our rock.  His consistency served as an anchoring point for us.  His omnipresent support was a guiding force.  And his calming energy stabilized us.

The easy post to write would be about Ben’s performance at NESCACs his sophomore year.  That day, he anchored our 4x800m relay.  He was our exclamation point at the end of a great team day.  Admittedly, we put him in a situation where he was outgunned.  He was a developing 2nd-year going up against a number of seniors and All American anchor legs.   I couldn’t even begin to tell you what must have gone through Ben’s mind as he watched his our 3rd leg hammer down the homestretch shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the pack.

Honestly, I don’t want to know.  Because it didn’t matter.  From our perspective, any avalanche of emotions pouring down on Ben was imperceptible.  He was locked in.  He threw down.

It was moment that epitomized the fearlessness bravery with which Ben lives his life.  Ben steps up.  Ben demands your best.  Ben always has your back.  Please know that I very consciously use the word bravery here.  (Trust me, I’ve had hundreds of conversations with my kids about the difference between bravery and fearlessness).

Bravery isn’t the absence of fear…it’s born from it.  Bravery requires fear to be firing on all cylinders and then allows the moment to overpower it.  That race epitomized Ben and personified our team that day.

But this isn’t about Ben’s sophomore year.  That would be too easy.  This is actually about Ben’s junior year.  This isn’t about one of Ben’s fastest races, it’s about one of his slowest.  And more specifically, it’s about the months that led up to it.  Because those months tell us more about Ben than any mere 2 laps of a track could ever begin to portray.

As I said, Ben was our rock.  When I walked into Paresky at 7:30am for breakfast and coffee, Ben was sitting there.  When I sent an email out to the team, Ben responded in seconds.  Practice started at 4:15…Ben’s sitting there at 3:55.  You need a pick up after a tough race or workout?  That’s Ben’s hand reaching down.

That’s why it felt great to watch Ben crush his junior year indoor season.  He narrowly missed Nationals by a few ticks in the DMR and seemed to be flying into the outdoor season.  But then his motor started to fade.  Workouts got harder.  It got tougher to wake up.  Ben was no longer sitting there when I rolled in at 7:30.  It turned out that a rough case of mono had put a governor on Ben’s motor.

Immediately, we knew that the man who hammered down the homestretch anchoring our entire team at the 2018 NESCAC Championships would not be the same person in 2019.  It felt like a real punch in the gut.  I had no idea that what we would get would be something even better.

Despite mono, Ben stepped up huge.  He doubled down on his presence.  He found countless ways to make this team better.  He gave his body what it needed.  More sleep, more days off, more rest.  Equally important, he gave his teammates what they needed.  More motivation, a louder voice, workout splits, or company while cross-training.  And then Ben started to claw his way back.  What once felt like moving a mountain started to return to normal.

Still far from his true physical potential, Ben returned to the track.  And nothing made me happier.  The worst thing you can do to a true competitor is to rob them of the opportunity to compete – to put them on sidelines.  The smile on Ben’s face as he got to lace up the spikes again and his joy of throwing down a 2:02 that day brought me so much happiness.

The best part was that Ben’s rusty 2:02 actually earned him a spot at NESCACs the following Saturday.  The problem was that it proved to be one of the most brutal Saturdays of the last 20 years.  Temperature in the mid 30’s and raining.  Typical Vermont Track & Field at its best.  You didn’t want to be outside for 15 minutes that day.  Let alone at a 10-hour, marathon track meet. And the driving wind and wintry mix quickly made the day feel like an ultra-marathon.

That’s where Ben came in.  Our rock.

A miserable day.  The slow heat of the 800m.  Still recovering from mono.  I’m sure each of these thoughts flickered into Ben’s mind.  But they drifted away as quickly as they bubbled up.  Each one drowned out in the wake of “This is the f%$ing NESCAC Championships…let’s do this thing.”

Ben attacked his race.  Freezing wind in his face on the back stretch.  You were looking at track in its purest form.

Step up to the line.  Do work.  See who comes out on top.

And Ben came out on top.  Absolutely hammering on the home stretch, wind at his back, Ben sent the same message he sent the year before…”We’re here to throw down.  We’re not giving you anything.  You better come and take it.”

We immediately felt his presence.  Ben had shown our first-year, Jett Ballantyne, how we do things at NESCACs.  In the next heat, Jett stepped up and matched Ben.  He sprinted home to win the 2nd section.  Tristan then followed suit in the fast section with his own competitive battle the team felt renewed vigor to finish what we started.

Ben had done what he did everyday.  He gave everything he had and he made everyone around him better.  He was a rock for his team in the middle of a storm.  Sophomore Ben Hearon impressed me with his bravery and tenacity.  Junior Ben Hearon went above and beyond.

Ben Hearon – for your heart, the one that poured so much into its teammates and the one that never backed down from anything, for your eloquence, for your patience, and for being all in, whether in uniform or not – I thank you.