Where it all started…

Neo in the Matrix, finally believing he was "the One"...
Neo in the Matrix, finally believing he was “the One”…

Much like the Oracle told Neo in the Matrix, everyone is born with talent, but it’s what you do with that talent that separates you from the rest. In the movie the Matrix, everyone believed that Neo was “the One”. The problem was, Neo didn’t see it. He was insistent that it was not him. Throughout the movie everyone tries to convince him that he is “the One”, but as the Oracle first told him, the only way he would be “the One” was for him to actually believe he was. As the movie progresses, Neo slowly starts to believe that is he. To watch this transformation in Neo is truly powerful. Finally, in one single moment nearing the climax of the film, he realizes he is “the One”. That single moment when Neo finally “believes” is perhaps one of the greatest scenes in  cinema history.

In many situations in my life, I have been both the Oracle and Neo. I have been quite a successful coach and trainer because I always believed in the people I was coaching. Whether they saw it or not, I have always had the mentality that anyone can do anything if they put their mind to it. I believe much like the Oracle in the Matrix that EVERYONE  has talent. But it’s not the talent itself that is important, it’s what you choose to do with it that turns into something special. What happens when you take talent, someone who believes, as Neo ultimately did, and has the drive and determination to bring out that talent? One word- Greatness! For me, I didn’t always believe in myself. However,  I experienced a personal transformation in high school, much like Neo’s, which was absolutely life changing. Now, nearly two decades later, I still attribute every success I have had in life to that single transformation during my freshman year at Schalick High School in the small rural town of Pittsgrove, New Jersey. My personal transformation at the age of 15, much like Neo’s in the Matrix, shaped the person I am today. I hope this story inspires. I hope this story makes you believe that EVERYONE is special and I hope it makes you believe that we are all walking the path of greatness…

Believe

Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to follow in the foot steps of my father and be a great competitor, a great athlete. My father was truly remarkable. He was good at everything he did, played 3 sports in high school, and ended up on full athletic scholarship when it came time to go to college. To top off his athletic greatness, he went on to coach one of the most successful gymnastics teams in history. During his tenure as one of the top gymnastics coaches in the country, his team went undefeated for 7 consecutive years. Damn impressive run if you ask me and a person I will always look up to.

Upon entering high school, I was being pushed by my highly athletic and competitive father to get involved in a team sport. Burned out on baseball and soccer which I played throughout childhood, too small for football and too short for basketball, my father thought it would be a good idea that I try out for our high school cross country team. At least, that was something I could maybe be good at. After a week or two of practice with my team entering my freshman year, most runs were uncomfortably painful and all I thought about was quitting. Running for “fun” was a strange concept for me to grasp. How could something that be so difficult and so painful ultimately bring me satisfaction? I simply just did not get it. However, I didn’t have anything else to fall back on and my coach and my father saw potential in me. Despite wanting to quit just about every day for the first month, I decided to stick it out. At this point in my life, skiing and surfing were just about the only sports I was passionate about but were not offered as a team sport in my high school. I had to do something right? Running on my high school cross country team, at the very least, would allow me to hang out with my teammates who I became close friends with.

From the very beginning, my coach, Steven Pierangeli, believed I was going to be great. Problem was, I didn’t see it. In a way, Mr. Pierangeli, or Coach P as we called him, was the Oracle and I was Neo. He saw the potential I had as a runner and was determined to help coach me until I finally saw it. Most training runs entering my freshman year, were some of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. Each and every run I went out for, firing down the twisty dirt trails at our local park directly across from our high school, I was in last place by a long shot. All the other runners on our team had way more experience than me and it showed. Most of the time, the top runner would circle back to pick me up and help bring me back into the pack. I would stay with them for a short distance and then slowly start falling back once again. It was painstakingly frustrating. I felt like a failure. Why was I going to stick with running if all I did was come in last place every single time? Any normal human being would have quit on the spot. But for some reason or another, I stuck with it. Perhaps if anything, I didn’t want to let my father down. Day after day, week after week, month after month, all I did was run. I woke up when it was still dark and ran five to seven miles before even going to school. Then by 4 o’clock and school was finishing up, I was stretching to prepare for my second workout of the day with the team. I remember feeling utterly exhausted. It was hard enough to focus on my classwork, let alone not fall asleep during a lesson only to have a teacher slap me on the back with a ruler. “Mr. MacNeill, Wake up!” my teachers shouted. All this running was wearing me down. But again, taking advice from my father, my coaches, and my teammates, I stuck with it. The one thing I learned about myself that season, and something that has stuck with me to this day, is that I don’t quit once I start something…

Running as a freshman Circa 1994
Running as a freshman Circa 1994

By the midpoint of my freshman cross country season, the tides were slowly turning. At this point in my season and only a couple months of training under my belt, I managed to lay down the fastest 5k time ever recorded by a freshman runner, in a school that had rich and deep running history. Oddly enough, I started to enjoy the “pain” that came with running and all my hours spent training on the local trails of Parvin State Park became my way to let out my anger and frustrations with life. Everyone seemed to see potential in me from the beginning and much like Neo in his transformation in the movie, I slowly started to believe. I was still a long way from winning races, but I was getting faster each and every day. My team was stacked with good runners, most of whom were in their senior year. They were bigger, stronger, faster and had years more experience than I did. Practically every race I ran, I didn’t even crack the top 10, getting beat by all the senior runners on my own team; not to mention, there were usually a few people who beat me from the other team as well. I must say, that finishing in 10th place every single race did nothing but light a fire under my ass. Despite, losing all the time, I believed that with more hard work and dedication, I could maybe prove to Coach P and my father what they had been telling me all along. I trained harder and harder each and every day and seemed to get faster by the second. My race times rapidly started to drop. I was starting to believe!

By the start of my sophomore year, I finally understood what everyone was talking about with my running talent. Four of the five top guys on my team all graduated, leaving only one person better than me, my good friend Matt Davis. Matt was a total stud, winning many races the previous season in his junior year and putting down some seriously fast times including the fastest 2 mile time since my high school opened its door’s in 1980. He was very talented. Once again, I found myself always “losing” the race and taking second place to Matt. But, I believed in myself at this point. If I could progress so much in my first year of high school, what could I do in my second? I was curious and so was my father, coaches and the community that surrounded me. It’s as if people started to bet on me and I remember the feeling of not wanting to let them down, especially Coach P. He believed in me. I started believing in myself. Most of my sophomore year, Matt and I ran neck and neck the majority of  the race. If anything, he held back to pull me along and to help me put up a faster time. But, in typical Matt fashion, he would pull away from me the last half mile of the race and left me panting in his dust. I just could not keep up with him to finish the race.  Occasionally, Matt would run with me until the finish line was in sight, then he would drop back and throw me a win. For me, the taste of victory was like throwing a juicy steak in front of a dog, I couldn’t help myself and I gladly crossed the ribbon in first. But for every race Matt “let” me win, I had an emptiness that overcame me. Deep down, I knew Matt was faster than me and there was nothing I could do about it. Finally, I asked Matt to stop letting me get the occasional win. If I win, I wanted to do it on my own terms. What my sophomore year taught me in a nutshell, was to try my absolute hardest and try hard is exactly what I did. Each and every practice, I gave 110 percent. I was the first one to show up and the last one to leave. Talent was no longer enough. I believed in myself and I was going to prove to everyone that I had what it took.

First and Second at nearly every race, running behind my close friend and main rival, Matt Davis
First and Second at nearly every race, running behind my close friend and main rival, Matt Davis

Nearing the end of my sophomore season and approaching some of the biggest races of the year, it finally happened. It was South Jersey Sectionals, held on a grueling course at Kinsgway High School, under the lights, with every runner and every qualifying team in the south part of the state gunning to place for the coveted state meet at Holmdel in North Jersey. The gun went off and Matt and I took off. As with nearly every race, we ran side by side for the majority of the time. But something felt different during that race. I believed that I was stronger than Matt. At about the two and half mile mark and about a half mile left to go in the 5k race, I started taking a lead over Matt. I was determined to beat him, and beat him I did. It wasn’t that Matt had a bad race either, he ran a very fast race. I simply had the “race of my life”. I will never forget that moment. That was the moment when I finally believed what everyone was telling me all those years. It was parallel with Neo realizing at that very moment in the Matrix when he knew he was “the One”. Even though I came no where close to winning that race, there were 300 runners in the field, I finally believed! That running race literally changed my life. I spent two long years always finishing in second place to my close rival and finally I deserved to win. He knew it, I knew it, my coach knew it. That single event in the South Jersey Sectionals would be the major turning point in my running career and to this day I consider one of my greatest physical achievements. I ran nearly a minute faster than I ever had in the past.

By my junior year, I had had enough of the second place finishes. I had trained my ass off for three consecutive years, worked harder than everyone else and I finally knew what I was capable of. At the start of my junior year,  I had the confidence of a champion long before I was one. I believed I was the best and just had to prove it. I remember one single moment before my first race of my junior year that has stuck with me to this day. Our team huddled together and put their hands in a pile. Coach P started a prayer as he did the previous 2 years while coaching me. ” Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…….”. When the prayer was done, our team shouted “Schalick” and everyone threw their arms into the air. As the huddle broke apart and my teammates started doing their own individual pre starting line rituals, Coach P walked over to me and smiled. He and I both knew it was my time to shine. With Matt no longer on the team, he graduated, and me with another year of experience under my belt, I was ready to do what I was born to do. I was stronger than ever before. Coach P said three words to me, “Go get it!”. I did a few fast sprints and some fast twitch muscle drills to loosen up my legs and then the referee called everyone to the start line. All the runners lined up, the official raised the gun and fired one shot into the air. I took off like a bat out of hell. I was in the lead within the first 100 feet of that race and I NEVER looked back. For my first race of my junior year, I came in 1st place for the very first time. I will never forget that feeling.

long_distance_running

During my junior year at Schalick High School, I won every single race I entered. I went on to shatter high school records, to shatter coarse records and to obtain the most individual wins in an entire season by any runner in school history.  By the time I made it to Tri-County Divisionals, I hadn’t lost a single race. Even on my bad days I still won by a long shot. The Tri-County Race was one of the biggest events of the year and much more competition that I had previously experienced. In that race, we had hundreds of runners from all the top qualifying schools in the area. I won that race with such a commanding lead from the very start that I could have probably walked the last half mile and still won. I remember finishing that race and having a slight discomfort in my leg. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I had two more big races of the season to go and I was determined to not lose a single race.

When the gun went off in my second to last race of my undefeated season, I took off to move in front like I had in the past, but something felt different this time. I had a pain in my right leg that had started at the end of the race before and followed me with each training run prior to our big sectional race. Even during the warmup that day, something felt “off”. I started the race in first like I was use to, but at about the half mile mark, my leg started to give out from under me. It was a weird feeling. At this point in the season, having won every single race I entered, it was a weird feeling getting passed by other runners. Not by one person, not by two people, but by everyone. About a mile in, I was in dead last, and a strenuous limp started to dominate my stride. I tried my absolute hardest to keep going but the pain became so unbearable that I had to stop. I could barely walk at this point and was carried off the field in darkness. That was not only the first race I ever dropped out of, it was my first loss of the season.  Many x-rays and MRI’s later, it was determined that I had a severe stress fracture in my femur unlike any doctor had ever seen. They didn’t know how I could even walk, let alone stand the intense training my body had to endure throughout the season. You see, everyone has slight imbalances in their legs, one foot being slightly larger than the other, or in my case one leg being slightly longer than the other. Most people would never have an issue with it, the only problem was, I wasn’t most people. I ran well over 100 miles a week for 3 full years and finally the imbalance of having one leg longer than the other caught up to me. After reviewing the x-rays with the doctor, the stress fracture or crack in my leg, looked like a steak knife lodged in my femur bone. Little did I know, I not only wouldn’t be able to finish my undefeated running season, I would never run competitively again…

A quote from one of the greatest runners of all time...
A quote from one of the greatest runners of all time…

I often think what would have happened if I had ran my senior year or ended up going to college to run. The point of this story is not to brag about my talent as a runner nor is about the disappointment of me not finishing what I started. That was my choice. I could have run again, I simply didn’t want to. This story is to inspire people to believe in themselves, as Neo did in the Matrix. We are ALL destined for greatness! Every single human being on the face of the earth has a gift, a special light within. Believing in yourself can take you beyond your wildest dreams.  At the present age of 35, Coach P has been one of the most influential people in my life.  I now realize how one persons belief in someone else can change your life. I am forever grateful to have worked with Coach P and for him to have helped shape me into the person I am today.

Live big, dream even bigger and in the words of Coach P, “Go get it”……

Despite what people say, still one of the greatest athletes of our time.
Despite what people say, still one of the greatest athletes of our time.

Just for the record, I never did run competitively again. But, and this is a BIG but, I got into cycling as rehabilitation. My very first mountain bike race was nearly 6 months after doctor’s discovered the 8 inch crack in my femur and the very race that ended my running career. The race was in Pocahontas County, West Virginia at the West Virginia Fat Tire Festival. I didn’t know what to enter as a category, I had never been in a bike race before, so I checked off “First Time Beginner” when signing up for the race. When I came out of the forest to win my first mountain bike race I ever entered, in the presence of my biggest fans, my mother and father, the crowd lining the race course was going ballistic. “What’s the big deal?”, I thought to myself? I won the weakest category you could possibly put down on your timing sheet. What I didn’t realize, is that my time was faster than anyone in every category with the exception of the Professional race. And so, it started ALL over again…..

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