From the Vermont High School Writing Contest
“Kent Winthrop is a dead dog,” said my coach one fall afternoon after Kent, having decided to quit the team due to some lackluster early season races, failed to show up to cross country practice. My teammates and I looked nervously at each other and then at the ground. No one said a word, but I believe we were all thinking the same thing: if Kent Winthrop could be a dead dog, then so could any of us. Kent had been one of the top youth runners in the country just one year ago and had come within seconds of capturing the state championship for his age group. The first time I raced him, at a local Thanksgiving Turkey Trot 5k, I lost to him by three minutes, an absolute eternity for a race that distance. At the time, I could not even realistically dream of ever being on the same team as Kent. And yet, here I was less than 12 months later attending what appeared to be his competitive running funeral. I should have been happy that I was one of the survivors, but, instead, I felt queasy. So this was the world of elite youth running: one minute, a rising star; the next, a dead dog.
Running for me had not always been such a grim experience. In fact, when my parents first allowed me to sign up for my school’s track team in the spring of fifth grade, it was pure joy. Previously, I had never played any sport competitively. I had been asking my parents to let me join a team, any team, for as long as I could remember, but their answer was always “no”. Either conflicts with their work schedules or safety issues, as with football, meant I would be left to be a spectator for another season. I brought home the registration form for my school’s new running program and half-heartedly showed it to my Dad, expecting it to end up in the recycling bin like all the others. To my astonishment, I was allowed to join. I’m not sure why exactly my parents approved of running, but I didn’t care. After spending most of my childhood cooped-up in an apartment, I was finally going to get to go outside after school and be a member of a team. It was a dream come true, and I intended to make the most of it. As it turned out, I was better at running than I expected I would be and won a number of races those first two seasons, including the local school championships. However, the main reason I loved running was because I got to spend time outside with my teammates, including my twin brother, practicing every afternoon. At that point in my running career, I was on top of the world, but that was about to change.
When my brother won the local championship in our third season, and the two of us came in first and second in every race, my father decided we should try running in a more competitive league. My brother thrived in the new league, whereas I was consistently middle of the pack or worse. Later that year, my brother was recruited by an elite track team after our coach had seen him run at a meet. I was also asked to join, but it was clear that I was just a tag-along and was being allowed to train with the team so my parents wouldn’t have to drive me to a different practice. At that point, I had lost all interest in and enjoyment of the sport I once loved, as nothing was going my way. I was beginning to fall into the trap of thinking that sports are only worthwhile if you are winning. This is a common mindset in youth athletics which causes many promising young athletes to give up before they even begin to reach their potential.
After a summer of training with my brother, I started to attend my new team’s practices in which I did surprisingly well. Despite my skepticism, I had a solid first meet, which I hoped would set a good tone for the season. That year my team won the state and regional championship meets, and I managed to contribute to those titles as the last of the 5 scorers in each race.
The next step was Cross Country Nationals in Knoxville, Tennessee. This race ended up being the worst I have ever run. With 4 of our 5 scorers across the finish line, our team was comfortably in bronze-medal position. My teammates and their families waited anxiously for scorer number 5, me, to cross the line and secure a podium finish for the team. They waited and waited and, finally, 72 places after our 4th runner I dragged myself through the finishing chute. Due to my terrible race, I ruined the team score and pulled us down from third to fifth place. There would be no team medal for me or my teammates, and it was all my fault. I was now the “dead dog” of the team, who had failed. I wondered what my teammates would think. I could only imagine the horrible things they must have been saying about me behind my back.
Although I tried hard that year and had done well earlier in the season, I knew that my reputation would be ruined when the results from Nationals were posted online. There are two major websites that post results, athletic.net and milesplit.com. These websites are like the stock market of youth running. Depending on your most recent race results, your value goes up or down. Although these websites are helpful and tell you where you rank in comparison to other runners your age, many parents and coaches obsess about these results and rankings and place too much pressure on young athletes to perform rather than to learn. Yes, it is good for parents and coaches to be involved, but most overdo it and destroy young runners’ fragile confidence.
In less than a year, my running career had gone from great to horrible. I was on the verge of quitting. I believed my coach didn’t care about my effort as I was considered second-rate and had just ruined my team’s chance to win a national championship medal. Luckily, my Dad was not about to give up on me. He grew up a diehard New York Giants fan in the dark days of the 1970s, so he knows a thing or two about heartbreak and the value of perseverance. He has a soft spot for underdogs, dead dogs and, basically, every other type of dog. That night, he showed me the now-famous ESPN video of Coach Dave Belisle addressing his Cumberland, Rhode Island youth baseball team after a tough loss in the semifinals of the 2014 Little League World Series. That video taught me a lesson I will never forget. After the game, Coach Belisle went out onto the field and addressed his young team about the need to hold your head high after a defeat. He explained how there is no shame in losing if you try hard and give a good effort. He tells them the following: “You had the whole state jumping. You had New England jumping. You had ESPN jumping. Want to know why? They like fighters. They like sportsmen. They like guys who don’t quit. They like guys who play the game the right way.” Young athletes need someone like this in order to grow and do better in the future, instead of giving up when they first encounter adversity. While I’m sure they mean well, many coaches and parents kill kids’ confidence by focusing on immediate success rather than on learning from setbacks. If there were more mentors like Dave Belisle, I believe we would have more happy and successful young athletes.
The day after my disaster at Nationals, my Dad took me to a small indoor meet to build up my confidence. After a twelve hour drive from Tennessee the previous day and the trauma and disappointment of losing a national medal for my team, the last thing I wanted to do was wake up early and spend the day at an indoor meet. After all, I thought, even the greatest heroics at this minor meet could never make up for the previous day’s disaster. Dad knew that too, but he also knew I had to get right back to running and start looking forward instead of dwelling on the past. By working my way up to bigger races that winter season, I was able to rebuild some confidence and gain racing experience. After about three months of winter racing, I went to Indoor Nationals, where I would try to redeem myself. I ran a personal best that day and felt happy that I hadn’t quit after my Tennessee nightmare. I still haven’t medaled at any big national races, and I can’t honestly say when or whether I ever will. However, I can say that I am enjoying running again. More specifically, I am enjoying the process of striving to get faster, the process of being a “fighter” as Coach Belisle and my Dad would say.
A few weeks ago, with the start of a new cross country season looming, I thought about Kent and wondered what ever happened to him. I decided to log onto athletic.net and see if he was still racing. I found out that he was competing as an unattached athlete and was able to medal at a big national race last summer. When I read this news, a feeling of satisfaction came over me. As I sat there staring at the computer screen, I began to wonder why the news of a former rival’s success would make me happy. Then it hit me: we cross country dogs need to stick together, and, if we keep running hard and enjoying the fight, we dogs will all have our day.
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