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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Lessons of my team's 2010 season

I coach high school cross country.  Or rather, I did.  Facing a $39 million budget shortfall, last spring our school district cut four sports, cross country among them.  I offered to work for free, but in a large 60-school bureaucracy such things don't fly.

It never occurred to myself, the athletes or their parents that we wouldn't have a team.  We trained, formed a club, got new uniforms, and found racing opportunities where we could.  A few high school meet directors took risks by allowing us in their meets; we ran some open meets and some road races as well.  It is charitable to say that our team is made up of unremarkable runners, but the point was that we still got to run.

As we were not a school team, our end-of-the-season awards banquet was not part of the school-wide one for all fall sports.  We are doing it all on our own tonight.  I have never before made a speech, but I think I need to.  Below is the text of that speech, to be delivered in a few hours.

The biggest story in running this year wasn’t about a great champion runner, or a fantastic race, or a world record being broken. All these things took place this year, but they were all superseded by a rather ordinary person, not so different from you or me, who was going about his ordinary day, when suddenly his life changed forever.

His name is Edison Pena, and he worked in a mine in Chile. On August 5th, he and 32 other miners were trapped half a mile underground, and they stayed there for nearly ten weeks. It was never clear to the miners or anyone else that they would survive until they finally reached the surface.

In his 69 days underground, Pena ran nearly every day, covering three to six miles a day in mine tunnels. Tin snips cut down his high-top work boots into something approximating running shoes. He tied a telephone cord around his waist and dragged a wooden pallet behind him, flashlight in hand. He said "I ran to forget that I was trapped…What I thought about as I ran in the mine was that I was going to beat destiny. I was going to turn the tables on destiny. That I was saying to that mine, ‘I can outrun you. I'm going to run until you're just tired and bored of me,’ and I did it…I went to the depths, the lowest of the low, but I kept running.”

Upon his rescue, he was invited to the New York City Marathon as a special guest, but, despite never having run more than ten miles at once, he wanted to do the race. He wanted to spread the message that “Running is a way of releasing tensions, clearing the head, freeing yourself from chaotic thoughts.” In that, he succeeded admirably. He was in serious pain for the last half of the race, but he finished.

All of you this year learned a painful lesson that everyone must eventually learn: that people and institutions will disappoint you. Adults never want you to learn this, and we certainly don’t want to be the source of the lesson, but eventually everyone will come to know this pain. You already do.

And yet, all of us learned or re-learned another lesson, one that we might never have known without our program being cut. In your hour of need, you will be surprised by the people who offer you help. A sponsor who paid for uniforms. Meet directors who risked penalty from the Ohio High School Athletic Association by inviting us to compete. A shop owner who gave us equipment. A race director who gave us free entry and a special award. People all over who stuck up for us and offered kind words.

An old cliché is that tough times don’t last, but tough people do. It never occurred to me to do anything but continue on, as was the same for all of you. If there is anything that sports teach us, it is to never stop giving your best even in the face of certain defeat. Tough times won’t last for the athletes on this team; you will graduate and go on to college, and your future is, to some degree, whatever you want it to be. I cannot be so certain that tough times won’t last in Toledo or its schools. But what I do know is that I, and the other adults here, will continue to do our best because that is what tough people do.

I am often told that my athletes must be so inspired by what we have done for them. And I reply that they have it backwards: children are, more often than not, an inspiration to adults. You have shown the rest of us why we should not quit, how to be tough, and how to be determined to outlast the tough times even if we don’t know that they will end.

Olympic filmmaker Bud Greenspan passed away on Christmas Day. One of his films once said “if you endure the struggle, you bring honor to yourself, but more importantly, you bring honor to us all.” That rings true. But even better, I like something Edison Pena said:

"People say that we're heroes, but I don't think we are. It's just what destiny had in store for us."

1 comment:

RDW said...

A great post! I counted no less than 3 great inspirational messages in this one post. I have a tough time with one usually. I will be linking to this from my blog: