The Soul Of A Champion: What It Takes To Win State

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The 2014 3A Boys State Cross Country Championship Was One To Remember
As fall's champions are made in the summer, I thought it would be beneficial to write a piece to motivate current high school athletes. However, answering this question is something that I alone cannot even hope to answer completely. I wanted to hear from others, with unique and yet oddly familiar journeys to the top. And thus, to answer my questions, I set out online in search of the champions of the past--a scoring athlete from each of the last ten 3A state championship teams. A few were fairly difficult to find. For some, recent photos showed lives fully recovered from the running bug.

But the spirit in their eyes was still there, the one you can see easily just a few clicks later when their younger, jubilant faces show them hoisting a state trophy above their heads. I came up with five questions; two champion athletes, from back to back years, answer one question in an order of recent to oldest, from Downers Grove North just last year to Naperville North in 2008. I hope you enjoy their responses, and take note of the passion in their words, still burning.

Q1: Many runners describe the best races of their life as "magic" - was your team state race magic? Is "magic" a legitimate thing?

Nick Chudzik (2nd man for Downers Grove North, 2017 Champions):

What makes State so special is the environment and atmosphere that comes with it in Peoria. When I think of magic I feel as though it's used to describe an unexpected or extraordinary event. Don't get me wrong I'm not saying the state race wasn't magic. However, it's the countless hours of training we put in, mile after mile, that made winning state so special. Once all the work was put in, the goal of winning state became a reality and it no longer was a reality that wasn't expected. We did what former head coach of DGN Will Kupisch always said to do, step into the unknown and make it known.

Josh Mollway (5th man for Neuqua Valley, 2016 Champions):

I wouldn't describe our team state race as magical. We knew going into the race that we were capable of winning as long as we performed the way we had performed all year. We knew it wasn't going to take anything more or extraordinary to come away with the team title, and that if we trusted in ourselves, our coach, and our training that we would be able to do it. I do believe that magical races exist, however. For example, the team from McFarland had a magical race at state. A performance like that, where the odds are stacked against you and you're somehow able to have the race of your life and all the puzzle pieces fall together to grant you the championship, is magical. Though the experience itself was magical, I don't believe Neuqua's race at state in 2016 was magical. It only stemmed from moderation and consistency, and the drive to be the best we could.

Q2: What kinds of sacrifices were made to win state?

Max Lehnhardt (2nd man for Sandburg, 2015 Champions):

I never thought there were any real physical or social costs because it never felt like we were sacrificing something to win. I was never "sacrificing" any type of food in my diet because the reason I ate well was that I wanted to be an elite athlete. And we never felt like there were social costs because we had an awesome fan base that treated us dorky distance runners like we were celebrities. I believe the real "cost" of winning an Illinois state championship comes from the mental grind of having to outwork and outcompete the best distance runners in the country (Illinois' state-level racers). Our experience at Sandburg was unique because we lost the state meet in a heartbreaking way the year before we won, so the "cost" was having to convince ourselves to wholeheartedly commit to another year of grinding. In 2014, when we lost, it was tough on everybody because we gave it everything we had that season and it still wasn't enough to bring home a state championship. Meaning, we had to wait an entire year with that awful taste in our mouths and swallow our pride until we were finally able to compete again for the coveted Illinois Cross Country title. So, the real cost of winning a state championship for us was overcoming the mental defeat of giving what we felt like was everything we had and that still not be enough. It takes resilience and the ability to roll with the (mental) punches that a cross country season entails. The state meet is won well before the race even starts because in Illinois you cannot a fake a win against the caliber of talent we have.

Griffin Gartner (4th man for Hinsdale Central, 2014 Champions):

Every single day, day in and day out, we put it all on the line, even if that meant collapsing to the ground on a workout day. Each runner fought not for himself: but for his coaches, his school, and his brothers. Sixty plus miles a week and absolutely brutal workouts took a major toll on us not only physically, but mentally. To the point where during school on a "workout Wednesday", all of us prepared throughout the entire day to be ready. Everything we did was to not let our teammates down. We thought more about our PRs than the rest of our lives, it was the most important aspect in our lives, to train as hard as possible for each other, so much that we would ensure that even our weekends were not wasted. Our parties and social lives became less important to us by a wide margin than our training.

Q3: In the simplest terms, why was your team the best? (What separated your group from 2nd place...if anything?)

Kevin Huang (2nd man for Hinsdale Central, 2013 Champions):

At the end of the previous track season, our whole team sat down together and made it our team goal to trophy at state the next cross country season. That summer and during the season we trained harder than ever and made sure that everyone was focused and accountable. Every long run and workout was taken seriously. We had two inspiring coaches who believed in us and inspired us to dream big; State was just another race for us. Most of all, I think what separated us from other teams was how close our team was. My class in particular was and still is extremely close ever since we were freshmen. When we raced, we were running for each other, not just for ourselves.

Alex Mimlitz (3rd man for York, 2012 Champions):

I remember doing strides from the starting line and taking a second to look around at all the teams that have lined up to try and beat us. This may sound arrogant as hell, but at that moment, I knew we had trained five times as hard as everyone else that was racing that day. Because of this, we believed we were the best. Mr. Newton motivated us to run times we literally didn't think was possible. I think that's what it all came down to he made us prove ourselves wrong, time and time again. With every workout or time, we previously thought impossible, we believed in him more and more. This translated to complete belief in ourselves on race day. It was this belief that made us the best.

Q4: What does winning state X years ago mean to you now?

Peter Tomkiewicz (1st man for Palatine, 2011 Champions):

Thinking back to my senior year when my team was able to win state, it does bring up old feelings. Primarily, I would say it is pride that I feel that this was something I was able to accomplish with a group of teammates that had never been done in our school history before. It was something special that I got to be a part of, and got to enjoy how 4 years of hard work paid off. As well as being able to apply the same type of commitment to my college and current job I have today.

Jack Driggs (1st man for York, 2010 Champions):

Winning in 2010 was such a validation of hard work for the group of seniors at York. We would've been the first class to go through high school without experiencing a state title, learning how to execute in a high-pressure situation like that was invaluable to my growth as a person. That moment solidified the fact that hard work does pay off in the long run. We had a goal for four years and just kept chipping away at it day in and day out until we made it a reality. That was and will be as Mr. Newton said "a forever moment", it's something that no one can take away from us. It's one of the proudest moments in my life to be able to say that our group left a mark on the most decorated program in Illinois History.

Q5: What's the best advice you can give to younger athletes who, just a few weeks ago at the first day of summer running, committed wholeheartedly to chasing the "pearl of great price," just as you did?

Aaron Beattie (1st man for Neuqua Valley, 2009 Champions): 

I think it's important to identify something about the sport that you enjoy and find gratification in early on and let that dictate the degree of involvement you want to have with the sport and your teammates and coaches. Running at a competitive level will require you to adopt a lifestyle which prioritizes running above almost everything else, so not having any sort of fulfillment during the grind is going to make it that much more difficult to make the sacrifices you're going to have to make to advance in the sport. I think there's a lot of valid ways to motivate oneself and others to make these sacrifices, but the best method to sustain that motivation long-term is to find personal gratification in the things you do, so that your motivation-reward cycle perpetuates itself. Your personal motivations can be whatever they want, but steer clear from using fear and intimidation, since they will do more harm than good over time. Ultimately, run because you think it's fun. The moment it becomes a thing you dread doing every day is the moment you should consider spending your time doing something else, not just with running but with anything you choose to spend time doing in life.

Kyle Gibson (1st man for Naperville North, 2008 Champions):
I think the important thing is to commit yourself to run every day and follow your coach's training program, beginning in the summer. Push yourself, but listen to your body when you need rest and recovery. Improvement in running takes time, so you need to be patient and understand that progress can be slow, so you shouldn't get discouraged if you don't make big improvements right away. There are a lot of little things you can and should do (like yoga, core work, and eating healthy), but there are no shortcuts to success in distance running. It really just requires consistent hard work. Look to some of the older runners on the team as role models and find teammates of a similar fitness level as you to run with, motivate each other, and have fun. I can't imagine finding success without finding ways to have fun throughout the process. For our team, we already had a culture in place where we had a large group of committed runners that found plenty of ways to have fun before, during, and after practice. If you don't have that, think about how you can build that culture with your team.

In addition, I asked each athlete the same last question:

Q6: When you think of state the year you won, what's the first memory that comes to mind?

Chudzik: I first think of the finish. Crossing the line exhausted, bending over then looking up in front of me I smiled as I saw Jacob Ridderhoff then looked back to see the rest of the team come in one after another not far behind. As we walked to our friends, family, and coaches, what stuck with me the most was the look on everyone's faces, especially Sipple's. The pride in their eyes grins on their faces, and tears on cheeks, pure joy.

Mollway: Actually, the dinner we had afterward at Alexander's Steakhouse in Peoria. It is a Neuqua tradition to always celebrate the season - no matter the performance at state - at this restaurant after state every year. It was a really cool and special thing to be the last one to walk down the steps to the open dining room with all the coaches, athletes, parents, and alumni looking at me as I was the one to bring down the first place trophy for the first time in 7 years (it's also always fun to see Vandersteen cry).

Lehnhardt: How many "Superfans" we had come out to the meet. We had multiple busses full of fans and friends take the ride down to Peoria to watch us compete. It was so cool to see how our sport could bring people together and I talked to a lot of the "Superfans" after the race and they were shocked at how fun it was to watch distance running. When I run into people that were there they always bring up the Illinois State Meet, which is cool that the non-runners can appreciate what we do. Oh, and on an unrelated Coach O'Malley ate a raw onion that day because he lost a bet.

Gartner: I cried after the race. For once in my life, day after day of absolute sacrifice and a complete life change from a mediocre football player to a potential state runner for cross country paid off. It felt like everyone had just watched me and legitimately cheered for me and finally acknowledged that this guy was one of the worst runners on the team when he came out for cross country, and now he is going to help us win a state title. And somehow, I knew when I crossed that line that we had won, even though we were not favored to win after getting crushed by Sandburg in sectionals and having one of our best runners place terribly because of a broken foot. I knew we had won, and I cried for hours because all of my hard work and sacrifice had finally paid off.

Huang: In the bus ride home from state, someone farted. We were accusing one another of doing the deed when Coach Lawrence yells, "It doesn't matter, because we just won state!!!"

Mimlitz: Hoisting the trophy above my head with my lifelong teammates- truly a forever moment.

Tomkiewicz: The final 300 meters of the race running up our Illinois "hill". Running in the middle of the tunnel of parents and coaches screaming and cheering is definitely one I cherish.

Driggs: First despair, as there were rumblings that we might've gotten third. Lake Zurich had a heck of a day and we believed that they had won. Once the scores were announced it was pure relief, we were fortunate to get away with the title, as I believe we have the highest score ever in IHSA history to win a state title.

Beattie: I think about a photo of me hugging my coach. I think we knew we were very good but not quite the best team on paper that year, but as a team we showed up for State with a mental confidence that if we raced to our potential and got a little lucky, we'd have a good shot at stealing a win from the two other teams in contention. The photo was taken right after the results were released, and I think it captures everything we felt once we realized we pulled it off.

Gibson: Going in to state my senior year we knew it'd be a close race between us and York. After the race, it looked like a toss-up and we'd just have to see how the scoring played out. So my first memory is waiting for the scores to be posted and celebrating with teammates, friends, and family when we got word that we won by one point. 

Much of what these guys say is self-explanatory, but here is my takeaway. Soul. Not magic - soul - is what propelled these guys to the top. Cross country can be bitter, and sadistic, and unbelievably callous. But it can also be joy, and pure ecstasy and the single greatest validator young men and women experience in their lives of the fruition of investment in the self and the group. At the exact same time in different years, each of these ten to-be champions stepped onto the matted-down grass of Detweiller Park with inner doubts and demons, same as everyone, but more importantly with a deep belief and love in one another that shined just a little brighter than the rest. The thousands of shared experiences and struggles light the fire. After all the miles, training, and workouts are finished, how ironic that the soul - an invisible, completely immeasurable factor - plays such a powerful role in performing to one's fullest at the state meet. You can see it on their faces - out of every state meet I've been to, I've yet to see championship team that didn't have teammates crying and falling apart into one another's embrace.

I firmly believe you can get yourself 90% of the way to realizing your full potential, but it's your teammates that will give you that last 10%. You cannot get it alone. That's how I rationalize Palatine's victory, along with every past team. The mountains they climbed, metaphorically and physically, were simply higher than anything they, or anyone else in the state, had done before. It created a binding force that lit their souls on fire all the way to their very last moments racing together as a team, barreling up the final 300 meters of Detweiller. They disregarded rankings and rumors and ran their hearts out for each other. It's not just the physical training that's essential. It's the synchronized, beating heart of five athletes collectively risking everything for one shot at the mountain. Only when there's everything to lose can everything be gained. That is what it takes to win state. The mere memory of the roaring screams and dust can quicken the pulse of a long-retired runner.

Minutes before the start of the race, when you notice Ethan briefly struggling to get his sweats off over head, know that he's only a nervous wreck because, for the very first time, he feels the limitless possibilities that Detweiller holds. When the gun goes up and the world stands still and Matt lets out some strange crackling war cry, recognize that's the first time you've ever seen him show anxiety, and that he wouldn't do that if he didn't believe wholeheartedly in your chances. With 300 meters to go, when you think you're alone and then out of nowhere, Josh emerges on your shoulder and grunts, 'let's f---ing go Chris' realize that for Josh - Josh - to say that, truly means something. And when it's all over, and you find Griffin sitting alone under a small oak tree silently weeping, think about why he's crying, and what a half hour ago meant to him.

Good luck to everyone gearing up for the season this year - now's the time to make it a reality.

It's your time... make it count!