Four years a Sun Devil: Farewell, and thank you

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Me (right) with Head Coach Greg Kraft (left) and Assistant Coach Dan O’Brien (middle)

Almost four years ago, on September 8, 2010, I stepped onto the Sun Devil track for an open tryout, looking to join the Arizona State University men’s track and field team as a jumps specialist. At the time, it was my ballsiest undertaking yet in my 18 years of existence, especially considering I had hardly worked out in over four months and came in looking more like an unnecessarily husky ex-high school quarterback (which I was) than someone light on his feet and capable of bounding great distances (which I’ve become).

I honestly figured I had a slim chance, if any, at earning a spot on the roster. As a kid from small-town Minnesota, I wasn’t recruited by ASU, and my two attempts at communicating with the coaching staff via e-mail ran dry almost immediately after I pressed “Send.” But ever since I was a child, I wanted to compete at the Division I level. I figured that, after turning down several Division II and Division III offers to be a two-sport athlete in football and track, this was my one chance of turning my Division I dream into a reality.

Fast forward to today — May 26, 2014 — and my career as a Sun Devil has officially come to an end. My final competition was last weekend, at the Pac-12 Conference Track and Field Championships in Pullman, Washington. I jumped poorly, finishing off my competitive career in about as sorry a fashion as I could have foreseen in my worst nightmares, especially given my expectations not just for that meet but for the entire season. It was a bittersweet end to my athletic career, a mixture of pride and disappointment so overwhelming I wasn’t entirely sure how to handle it.

Such is the way of track and field, though, and really of sport in general: you win some, you lose some, and if you want to succeed, you’ve got to be willing to take some lumps along the way. What’s more, your entire career is spent prolonging the inevitable — one day, it’s going to end, and you know that. You keep it rolling for as long as you can, and as soon as it’s over, once that big round clock finally strikes midnight, you want nothing more than to find a way to get back out there. Your first words are almost surely going to be, “I just want one last shot,” or “Please, please, give me one more chance.”

As someone who enjoys the daily grind and wants nothing more than to see my team succeed, I decided to continue practicing for the last week to help my teammates prepare for this weekend’s NCAA West Regional Meet, which takes place in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I may not have made it to the meet myself, but everyone — from the coaching staff to the trainers to my teammates — would’ve been sorely mistaken if they thought I’d skip out on practice just because I’m not competing. Track and field is a team sport, and my role on our squad is one I’ve taken great pride in ever since earning my spot four years ago.

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Long jumping during the 2014 ASU Baldy Castillo Invitational

But today, this unexpected journey of mine finally came to an end. Today was, officially, my last day in the sun as an ASU track and field student-athlete. It was my last time leading the group through our warmup; my last time lacing up my triple jump spikes; my last time stepping on the runway at the 125-foot mark, lunging back and forth in preparation for my approach. It was my last time racing down the red Mondo strip toward the take-off board; my last time striking a rhythmic “flat, flat” at my mid marks; my last time gathering my hands back, taking off after my tenth stride, sighting my hands out in front of my body, maintaining good posture in the air, and landing feet-first into the freshly raked sand.

For as eloquently as I can write about jumping, though, that’s not what I’m going to miss most about my track and field career. Jumping can be fun, and I love competing both at practice and in meets, but the sport takes an enormous toll on your body. Track and field makes your knees and ankles crack with each step. It makes your shins ache and burn every time you push off of the ground. It makes your legs and back lock up halfway through a workout, struggling to find a way to make it through without succumbing to the pain. It makes your face cringe with each mention of the words “circuit”, “sprints”, and “bounds”, knowing full well that those words mean impending exhaustion, a trip to the ice bath, an adjustment from the chiropractor, and days of soreness that no amount of stretching, rolling out, heating, icing, scraping, massaging, or whining will fix.

No, what I’m going to miss most, and what makes today a difficult day, is all the people I’ve met along the way who have affected my life in ways they may never fully understand. Today was my last day on the track receiving feedback from my coaches, who have become mentors in all aspects of life; it was my last day being told which stretches to do by my athletic trainers, who have managed to keep me in one piece over the years; and, perhaps most importantly, it was my last day practicing alongside my teammates, talented young men and women who have not only been among my most ardent supporters for the last four years, but who have also become some of my closest comrades in the process.

I’m not normally a human fountain of emotion, but walking away from the track today after four years as a Sun Devil was unbelievably hard, and not because I’m going to miss practicing in 110-degree heat, chugging inordinate amounts of Gatorade and water, running up and down dusty, uneven hills, or bounding on boxes that look as though they might give way at any time to the force generated by your body. Suffice to say, as much as I love working out and pushing my body to its limit, my entire lower body and especially my back will be just fine knowing they never have to endure through four months of fall training or a six-month-long season ever again.

No, walking away from the track today was hard, first, because I know I will never return to it in quite the same personal capacity: as a valued member of the team strolling into the facility to fit in one more day of work before the next meet. It’s weird to think that the next time I’m there, I’ll officially be a visiting alum and a supporter of the team, my athletic career complete, the next stage of my life officially underway.

But more than that, leaving the track on this beautiful Monday afternoon was difficult because it meant I was walking away, if only symbolically and for a moment, from all the people I’ve met: the teammates I’ve worked with, the trainers who have kept my body in tact, the coaches who have provided innumerable tidbits of advice, all the friends and mentors I’ve gained along the way. These people will undoubtedly remain in my life in one capacity or another, but the glory days, so to speak, are behind me now.

Gone are the mornings spent preparing for practice, the afternoons spent sprinting, jumping, and lifting, and the evenings spent icing sore muscles, replenishing fluids, and doing my damnedest to study, relax, and recover; and that’s a tough pill to swallow. When my junior high sports careers ended, I still had high school to look forward to. And when high school ended, there was a college career I could chase after.

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Beginning my approach for triple jump at the 2014 UA-ASU-NAU Double Dual Meet

But now, after four years of college track and field, and with them, an unbelievable amount of hours spent fine-tuning my craft, this is the end of the road, the last stop on the route. For me, there is no professional sports career to move on to, no more organized competitions sanctioned by certified bodies that count for anything except making it seem like I’m trying to relive my high school or collegiate experiences.

That moment, walking off the track for the last time, was bittersweet, something I’ve been trying to delay for as long as possible, but that I knew had to happen eventually. I’m proud that it happened when and how it did: after four years of hard work and dedication, because my last season ended and my eligibility ran out, as opposed to my career ending due to injury or some other personal reason. This journey has been a whirlwind, a thrill ride, to say the least.

So many people have played a part in making my experience what it was, in helping me to compete at the level I’ve competed and to achieve the goals I set out to achieve. The last four years have been unforgettable, a roller coaster ride I never really thought I would get to experience but one I’m glad I got in line for, and one I’m even more thankful to have been given an opportunity to tackle. There are times it has been difficult beyond belief, times I’ve thought my body wouldn’t be able to take any more, but I wouldn’t give up or trade my Sun Devil career for anything else in the world.

My coaches, athletic trainers, and the program’s academic support staff have been fantastic, some of the smartest and most caring people I know, people without whom I never could have succeeded in the ways that I have. And of course I wouldn’t be anywhere without the undying support and unconditional love of my parents and my siblings, the rest of my family and friends, and my faith in God.

But most of all, I want to give a huge shout out to all my teammates over these last four years, for providing memories and making this experience all that it was; for always holding me to the highest standards; for welcoming me as just another member of the team, even though our paths to Tempe were all very different; for working together each day and pushing through the physical and mental exhaustion towards a common goal; for making sacrifices in all sorts of ways so we could be the best team possible; and for coming out of it all not just as better athletes, but as better teammates, better friends, and better people.

In an episode of “SpongeBob SquarePants”, the title character once said to his world domination-fueled competitor Plankton that, “It’s not about winning, it’s about fun.” For us, at this level, a lot of it is about winning — it’s about bringing home hardware, setting school records, being conference and national champions, and earning All-America honors. It’s about providing money and recognition for the program through fundraising efforts, community outreach, and successes on the track.

Honestly, I can’t say I ever really won anything tangible in my four years as a Sun Devil; I’m well aware of the limits of my athletic abilities, and I can realistically declare that I wasn’t a standout athlete like some of my teammates. But like all the young men and women I competed alongside over the last four years, I put forth my best effort each time I stepped on the track, whether for practice or for competition, and despite the difficult nature of everything we do, I had a hell of a lot of fun along the way, and I can’t thank enough everyone who played a hand in this unbelievable experience.

I have love and respect for all of you, and I’m proud to be part of the Sun Devil family. More importantly, though, I’m proud to consider all of you not just teammates, or even just my friends, but my family as well. Welcome, all of you. Ours is a bond that can never be broken. I am sincerely thankful for each and every one of you.

God bless you all, and Go Devils.

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Leaving an early spring practice with the rest of the men’s jump squad. Pictured from left to right: Edmond Baker, Bryan McBride, me, and Josh Dixon.

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