Last night my 13-year-old son ran with three of his team members in the 4 x 800M Finals at the USATF Jr. Olympics National Championship on a team that my wife, Rocky, helped coach. That’s a lot of pride in one event. And the race was a joy to watch, but not for the reasons I might have imagined. Last night’s race was about team and motivation and the true joy of coaching.
I’ll admit to not seeing Track as a true team sport prior to my children being introduced to the sport at the encouragement of my wife. For me, it was a collection of individuals who just happened to be wearing the same uniform. The last few years have changed my mind on that.
This is the second year in a row my son has advanced as part of a relay team to the National Championships. In both years his teams were ranked as one of the top three or four teams in the country coming into both races; last year the 4 x 100M and 4 x 400M and this year the 4 x 400M and 4 x 800M races. And now, in both years, I’ve watched a special chemistry develop among the members that has very little to do with a common uniform.
This year, just before the regional championships, one of the original members of this year’s 4 x 800M team had to pull out due to an injury. The coaches had to scramble to find a replacement so the team could compete in the Regional Championships for a chance to advance to the Nationals. One young man, pictured above hugging my wife, stepped up. But here’s the thing, he had never trained for nor ran the 800M distance, ever. For those of you not familiar with track, this distance is one of the toughest in the sport.
At Regionals, his performance showed both his inexperience in the race and his lack of training for the distance. The members of the team each ran their best times of the year and the team qualified with a new team PR and came into the National Championships seeded third in the country. I asked Rocky after the meet, can you get him prepared for this distance in three weeks. She didn’t even flinch. “Oh, yeah.”
She was right. That’s not an unusual occurrence. The team finished in 6th place last night, improving their best time by six seconds. And that young man pictured above – the one who joined the team late and had never trained for this distance – looked like he belonged in that race, because he did. It was a joy to watch.
Two of the four team members, including my son, did not run their best races of the year – not even close. And yet, there they were on the podium, each of them wearing their All-American hats, a treasure given only to podium finishers at a National Championship. And the most unlikely of its members had been a key reason why.
As I snapped this picture, I knew what was going on in my wife’s mind. She was thrilled for this young man, joyful in his performance, happy for the team and for the path she and the other coaches had helped him and them navigate to get to this moment. And that joy was not for their position on the podium, but for what the journey means in the development of young lives.
As the team came off the podium, they each took off their hats for a moment and looked at the writing on the front – Junior Olympic All-American. They did it together. They joy and pride showing in their faces was a shared joy and pride. That joy and pride was reflected in the faces of their coaches as well.
After watching this beautiful sport for many years, with an insider’s view of performance at the highest level, my opinion of the sport has changed. It is one of the most beautiful sports, a pure sport, with clear winners and losers. Great coaches matters, a lot. And track & field is most definitely a team sport.
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