When I was in high school, a time so long ago my students will assure you dinosaurs roamed the earth, I was a pretty fast runner.
I ran cross country and track all four years, and eventually got fast enough that I was able to run Division I cross country in college. But for as fast as I was in my high school years, I was never the fastest on my team, not to mention my league.
I was a middle-of-the-pack runner, good enough to earn a varsity letter three out of my four years, but not good enough on my own to earn a post-season CIF berth, the holy grail of high school sports in California. And my high school team, filled with runners faster than me, was never fast enough either to qualify collectively for CIF.
That was the dream for every member of my cross country team, and one that for me had obviously gone unfulfilled for decades.
Until this past weekend.
On Saturday, for the first time in Ojai Valley School history, our girls’ cross country team competed in the CIF Southern Section preliminaries, a race that drew more than 3,000 high school runners from across Southern California.
Decked out in their new OVS jerseys (thanks Mr. Floyd!), my five girls toed the line against 148 other runners from 22 schools, nearly every one with a larger student population than ours. My runners were nervous. I told them there was no need to be.
Because as far as I was concerned, we had already won. Our victory was just getting to CIF, for being a team that sweated and bled and cried together to accomplish a goal that at the start of the season seemed unattainable.
I told them not to worry about how they placed, or how the team finished. I told them before they started to have fun, and to remember to look up at some point during the race and remind themselves where they were, and what they had accomplished together.
And I told them this: I have never been prouder of any team I have coached, and no team I have coached has ever displayed more heart.
These girls this season gave me a great gift. Yes, I finally got to go to CIF, only three decades later than planned. But there was more to it than that. I got to see these athletes develop a power they never knew they had, the power to come face-to-face with adversity and keep moving forward.
I got to see a group of girls – three from China, one from Korea and one from Ojai – make the always mysterious transformation of going from strangers to friends to sisters. They will have this bond the rest of their lives.
Through a flurry of fortunate circumstances, I got to coach the team this year alongside my eldest daughter, a talented young woman as smart as she is dedicated to the teaching profession. Her star is rising, and I beam with pride. My heart nearly bursts when I think of the role model she provided these high school runners this season.
And I got to forge deep friendships, the kind that will last forever. In a world where so much goes wrong on a daily basis, a world where the spotlight shines too often on misery and the prospects of doom, what these girls achieved this season was commendable, and should be celebrated.
What greater gift could there be? Thank you girls for a phenomenal season. Go Spuds!