Seeing my breath in the bitter cold February mornings here in Pennsylvania brings back fond memories. The roads were lined with snow, ice and salt from months of plowing and shoveling. I grew up in a small PA town. My high school, Mount Pleasant was not generally known for it’s athletic teams but had produced some great individual athletes. But when I stepped into the school in 1994, Mount Pleasant had yet to have a PIAA State champion. Not in wrestling. Not in any sport. Many had fallen just short and silver was the unfortunate standard.
I would continue the silver standard by losing consecutive state final matches in both my sophomore and junior seasons. Wrestling clubs, which currently offer the opportunity for the best wrestlers in the area to congregate weekly in one mat room, did not exist in the mid-nineties. And as many teenagers I know, my father’s advice of running 3 miles everyday to be in great shape had gone unheeded for my high school years up unto this point.
But prior to my senior year I decided to take his advice and began the dreadful task of running the recommended daily regimen. With practice after school and schoolwork in the evenings, the only time to really get the extra workout in was pre-dawn. Each morning my mother would get up and drive me 3.2 miles from our home to the local Sunoco station also known as the ‘Open-Pantry’. She would pull into the lighted parking lot and I would climb out and mumble “See you in twenty,” before shutting the door.
I breezed through the first month of the season with a perfect record winning both the Beast of the East and PowerAde tournaments without much competition. An unfortunate car accident would sideline me in early January for the entire month. I was unable to do anything during this time, including working out of any kind. No running, no wrestling no lifting. I once again began to feel the fear of future failure creep in.
Once my doctor gave me the green light, I resumed my regular workout schedule that again included my early morning running routine. On one particular frozen February morning, my mother advised me that it was seven degrees out and implored me “not to run this morning.” “I gotta go ma,” I responded. We hopped in our blue Toyota Corolla and away we went.
My mom was right. It was brutally cold out that morning. As I stepped out of the car in the Sunoco parking lot, I could see my breath fog up the air around me like smoke from a cannon. Not a soul was seen as I made my way up and down the countryside roads, hugging the snow-banked sides.
My lungs were burning and my stomach was cramping. My face was frozen and the thought of stopping and walking was clearly at the forefront of my thoughts. I had just climbed the last large hill and was in the middle of a long straight away stretch just about a mile from home when I noticed headlights coming toward me in the distance. As the lights grew closer, I could tell it was a truck. Closer and slower it came. I tightly hugged the side of the road as the truck neared. It was slowing down. No, it was stopping. As the truck reached me, I could see the window rolling down. My heart was pounding and all thoughts of pain and my current suffering had subsided. Behind the wheel was a bearded man. We locked eyes. “Go get it Waller!” he yelled as he hit the gas and sped off. Stunned by this stranger’s comment, I nodded as I backpedalled and watched his taillights fade out of sight.
I turned and ran the last mile home as hard as I could. I felt no pain and no suffering. Lingering fear over my encounter with a stranger coupled with bewilderment and an awkward sense of appreciation for this stranger’s statement carried me the rest of the way home.
One month later I would win the PIAA State Championship and become my high school’s first-ever state champion.
Pennsylvania roads aren’t paved with gold during the winter months (or anytime for that matter). And along with the snow and salt, I can guarantee you there will be failure along them. But you can also find success somewhere along the way, if you’re willing to find the daily motivation to get up and continue on that same road toward a goal that many aren’t even willing to look down.
On that freezing February morning, a stranger had taken away my pain and doubt, and filled me with a sense of motivation (not to mention fear!). He didn’t know me, but he knew what road I was on. One filled with potholes full of failure, disappointment, and shortcomings. But he was kind (or crazy) enough to stop and let me know that my journey wasn’t going unnoticed and that he too wanted his town’s first state champion. I never found out whom that bearded man was but I’m glad he was there that morning.
Throughout my coaching career, I have been blessed to coach NCAA Champions, All-Americans, and U.S. World and Olympic Team members. All of them pulled motivation from different areas of their lives. Whether it was faith, family, past failures, or their community, they all found it. They found it everyday and for every workout.
The whereabouts of my PIAA State medals are unknown. I lost track of them. It doesn’t really matter. Medals and trophies don’t define your success. Experiences do. Everyone takes their own individual and unique path toward their goals. And whatever those goals are, it’s going to take a tremendous amount of motivation to get there. Don’t be afraid to look in stranger places to add more fuel to your fire. Because you never know where your next challenge will come from and who or what it might be.