Cross country is one of the purest sports out there. The spirit of competition exudes every day in practice and is carried out on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. Everyone gets up early to train, and it's all about who works harder and is willing to push themselves the most. If anyone wants to change the results, then they have an opportunity to do something about it. On race day, nothing is even promised. All you can do is give your best effort that day and hope for the best. Every one runs the same course, the same distance and whoever finishes first is the winner.
However, it is more than just competition. Many of the teams not only gather to run together, but there is a support system that is developed and sisterhoods and brotherhoods are created. Teams have pasta nights and communicate on the various team/communication apps and somehow the feeling turns into a familial type.
This weekend, we got to see some of that purity and what the sport is all about.
At The Woodlands Friday Night Lights, we saw a young man who was running for a personal mission. Drew Wilkerson is a freshman at The John Cooper School in The Woodlands, Texas. At 11 years of age, Wilkerson was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes. He spoke of what is was like to win his first high school race. He also talked about his purpose of running, which was, "Not just for my love for competition, but I'm here to help support the entire type-1 diabetes community."
With all of the challenges that he has faced adjusting to the disease at such a young age, Wilkerson demonstrates the composure of someone far beyond his years. He has had to make adjustments to his personal life with his eating habits, medicine regimen, as well as in athletics.
By his own admission, since learning of having the disease, he has had to grow up and mature. What seems to be unfair for a kid who is now at age 14, Wilkerson takes it in stride and has developed quite the outlook on things. Wilkerson said, "Something that is so insane to me is that if I can come out and win I can help all these people understand that even if you have this disease you can fulfill your beliefs and what you want to do with your life, its not some reason to stop, just keep going."
At the same meet, we met a young man who by first glance isn't your prototypical cross country runner. In fact, cross country wasn't even on Jaylon Merchant's radar until recently. The Cypress Creek senior was a football player, but after several injuries to his knee, he decided to give his body a break.
Friends of Merchant began to encourage and persuade him to come out for the cross country team, and he did. Now, as he describes it, cross country is his passion. But, it's not because it's something he has done for years or because he is one of the top athletes because it's not and he isn't. This is Merchant's first year in the sport and he finished last in the Boys Open race.
Merchant loves the sport for the same purity I described earlier. "I think cross country is my passion, I really love the people." To love something that he hasn't been doing long and for the many people he has met that he doesn't even really know says a lot. In Texas, high school football stadiums are packed with both young and old frequently in attendance - It's like a religion down here. Cross country doesn't necessarily have the same status, but it still has managed to get Merchant hooked. "The people just really make it worth while, they cheer you on no matter how fast how slow you go, it's like the highlight of my week."
For a sport that has far less fans at any given time than a football game, the joy from the support of others speaks volumes to Merchant and it has changed his life.
The guys from Boerne caught my eye for two reasons. The first thing that stood out is that they had their music blasting (The genres were all over the place) and they were sort of dancing to the music. Only interesting people do that at a cross country meets, right?
Well, the other reason they caught my eye was because they were enthusiastically cheering for the JV boys and girls races. The thing is they weren't just cheering for their teammates, they were cheering for just about every kid passing their area. "Cheering really helps everyone, it doesn't really matter what school you're from."
Boerne has had it's share of other people cheering for them and they enjoy the feeling as one of the runners said, "I feel good whenever schools cheer for me, so I feel like we should do that for other schools."
Another Boerne runner added, "At the end of the day cross country is like a family, that's how it is." Boerne is paying it forward to cheer for others while greatly appreciating the community that has and will continue to cheer for them.
We all love the sport and for different reasons no doubt. One thing you can't deny is that this sport is special as are the coaches, athletes, and the fans.