I’m a sucker for cheesy moments. I love the John Tesh voiceovers and the slow motion recaps at the end of the Olympics or an Ironman. I even love the ridiculously melodramatic high definition Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer moments when the hero is hurt and seemingly defeated yet drags his/her sweat drenched and perfectly tanned and sculpted body off the asteroid or Transformer carcas to fight one last good fight (in slow motion) as a fabulously mediocre Aerosmith song fills the silence. I do. I get weepy. I apologize for nothing.
One of my jobs, that I am sure I do as well as Aerosmith does soundtracks, is to coach. This week is the Meet of Champions. There is of course the Outdoor National Championship 10 days later but that is merely icing on the cake. Competing at States can be the apex or it can be one of the great tests of a Track & Field athletes career. Either way, it is special and it is singular. Counties and Conference do not hold a candle to the tension and excitement around a HS state meet. One track, one day (at least in NJ) everyone gets to line up and answer the questions being asked in hushed tones; who will break, who will fall, who will rise, who will risk it all and yes, who will win?
It is my sincere hope that not only my athletes but all the athletes take a shot at it. There is no doubt that our sport is among the very few that can honestly say the better the competition the better the performance. In many sports when someone competes against a poor quality opponent then there is a chance that the players statistics will be articially padded. Often in these other sports the lower the quality of your opponent the seemingly higher quality of your own performance. Not so in Track and Field.
So as we approach the aptly named Meet of Champions I sit here hoping that the young athletes that my guys have to race and compete against bring the best that they have to and that my athletes will respond in kind. I hope all of this this because Jeff Johnson hoped this for his athletes. I was one of them.
I was lucky to have Jeff Johnson as a coach. Jeff was the first employee of Nike. He came up with the company name and advertising gems like the word Swoosh. He was in many ways the soul or at least the moral compass of early Nike. He was great at what he did. He was an even better coach.
Jeff understood the romance that a runner has with the sport and as a result the wild fits of passion that his athletes could have during good and bad times. Most importantly he saw the poetry of competition. Jeff understood that greatness in this sport surely relied upon the individual. There is an element of competition that takes place internally- a battle within oneself every time one races and approaches ones own limitations – ones own greatness. But that greatness relied upon the external as well- the competitors – the rivals. He knew that we truly achieved greatness against the greatest competitors. Jeff knew that struggle against an opponent often inspired us to achieve more than we could achieve alone. He understood that in true competition our best opponents were with us as we battled to reach great heights and in some cases carried us there.
Jeff never spoke of the runners we raced against as the enemy. He never referred to this guy or that girl that wore other jersey’s as anything other than competitors. To Jeff, competition was sacred and therefore the competitors we went up against were not only greatly respected but were really the keys to our own greatness.
Jeff was a great coach .I’ve been a really lucky guy when it sones to coaches.
As we approach this Meet of Champions I can’t help but think about Jeff. NJ, like most states, has multiple State Groups based on size and whether the school is Parochial/Private or Public. We are extremely lucky that we then have a Meet of Champions where the best of each group meet for a final showdown. The Top 6 in each event at each Group meet and next 6 fastest/furthest/highest in each event over all the Groups qualify for the MOC. 42 athletes in each event. A meet where those that can bring the best out of each other can toe the line together. Jeff, who lives in New England now, would love this meet.
The Meet of Champions is Wednesday. NJ will be watching some amazing seniors compete for the last time as high school stars. Fans at the meet will also get to watch as a number of younger athletes stake their claim as legends in the making. The grandest gestures deserve the grandest stage and nothing like a throw down barn burner of a race at the MOC can establish a young athlete as a flat out stud better than one of those. .
So, I’m hoping that my guys and all the other coaches guys take the opportunity Wednesday to do something risky. Risk being great on Wednesday. Risk taking on those barriers. Risk pushing deeper into the hurt. Risk it on the backstretch instead of the homestretch. Risk not letting the pace slow. Risk it on that final throw or that final jump. Risk coming up short because you’re risking it all.
Yes, I know that taking risks can be scary. Yes, I know that you can feel all alone when you risk so much. If Wednesday truly is a Meet of Champions you will be out on that very thin line with 41 others in your event. You will not be alone. Until later. And then, when the 42 of you go your separate ways you all will have to ask yourselves what Jeff Johnson would have asked- were you worthy competitors?
One day. One track. There will only be one answer.
Aerosmith Arcade Fire. Walk away from the track in super slo-mo. Look back, not at an asteroid or a Transformer but at a track and a field. Are those tears? Sweat? We won’t and don’t need to know.
Am I too sentimental? Maybe. But that is who I am. Cheesy and sentimental. Again I apologize for nothing.
And if you competed and in doing so risked much and brought greatness out of yourself and those around you, well, you’ll have nothing to apologize for either.