By Ken Trainor
A month ago, I received a query about one of my past columns. Seven years past. It came from Kathleen Schrobilgen, mother of Malachy, who said he was inspired by it when he ran track for OPRF High School, starting in 2008.
As a senior in 2012, Malachy was state champion in the 2-mile run and came in third in the mile. He moved on to the University of Wisconsin, where he won the individual Big Ten championship in cross-country his first two years. Then injury struck, a stress fracture in his back during last year's Big Ten Championship meet. As his mom put it, "The whole team faced the perfect storm of injuries following that." They failed to qualify for the NCAA meet for the first time in 43 years.
So this year was comeback time. On Oct. 30, the Badgers won the Big Ten championship, with the individual title going to Morgan McDonald, a junior. But coach Mick Byrne, in the athletic department's summary article, gave Schrobilgen much of the credit for the team championship.
"What a lot of people didn't see out there was what Malachy did," he said. "He sacrificed his own personal goals for the team. He was the guy who kept that group together for the first 6K. We asked him to do that and he embraced it. It's that type of unselfishness that wins championships."
The day after, he texted his mom about my column and she contacted me.
"They just won the Big Ten up at Minnesota on Saturday," she wrote, "and have two big races left, regionals and the NCAA National Championship. He's the old man on the team now and I think is looking to inspire his younger brothers."
I wrote that column, which ran on May 19, 2009, at a time when I was personally discouraged. After the economic downturn in 2008, it was looking like I might get laid off. So I was thinking a lot about the end of my time here at the newspaper. One night as I listened to No. 9 of Elgar's "Enigma Variations," I wrote the following poem and included it in the column:
No matter how you've run the race till now,
On your feet, on your knees
Or by your fingernails,
With tears in your eyes or a smile on your face,
Don't run against anyone.
It's not about winning or losing.
It's about finishing.
So finish strong.
Don't doubt you have what it takes.
You have what it takes.
Ignore the other finish lines.
You'll know when you've crossed yours.
However long it takes,
This is the moment that redeems
Everything that went before.
Don't let anyone configure your course.
You know what's ahead
And where you're headed.
If the odds seem long,
They're just a measure of your magnitude.
By all means go the distance
And finish strong.
Don't expect a hero's welcome.
Exulted, exhorted or ignored,
When you find yourself closing in,
Your last legs
Are still your legs.
Find out what they're made of.
In pleasure or in pain,
You don't need to finish fast.
Just finish strong.
In sickness or in health,
In silence or in song,
Your whole life long,
Ten days later, Wisconsin won the Great Lakes Regional with Schrobilgen edging out McDonald for the individual title by one-hundredth of a second. And on Nov. 19 in Terre Haute, Indiana, the Badgers finished eighth in the nation, their 47th top 10 finish. Malachy earned All-America honors, only the 13th runner in school history to earn the designation at least three times.
McDonald, who finished seventh, credited his teammate with a major assist.
"Having Malachy there made a huge difference in my race," he said. "About 1,200 meters in, I almost got tripped over, and Malachy pretty much caught me in midair and pulled me back up, so I don't know what I would have done without him there. He definitely helped a lot with the tactics."
Schrobilgen said, "When you come to a program like this … it can be daunting, but I think the best way to look at it is a challenge. To pursue that challenge is so much fun. It makes it worthwhile being here and being part of it. I'm happy to be able to help my team today. It helps them get on track for something really special here in the future. I think this team has got such a good culture now where they are just going to improve by leaps and bounds."
Finishing strong indeed.
As you can see, Malachy Schrobilgen is plenty inspiring in his own right, but he was kind enough to write, "That poem (and the memories that come with it) really pulled me through some tough patches this year."
However much that poem inspired him, it came back around because Malachy's story inspired me. It brought my poem to life again. Which I then sent to my son who was in the midst of basic training at Ft. Benning, Georgia (Army National Guard), as grueling an experience as most people (except maybe cross-country runners) ever go through. And he, in turn, wrote that "Finish Strong" became his mantra during "the infamous 12-mile ruck hike."
So I find myself in the unusual position of thanking someone I've never met for inspiring me because of a poem I wrote seven years ago and forgot all about.
I guess that's how it works in team sports — and also in life.
We are each other's inspiration.
We just don't know where or when it will happen.
Answer Book 2018
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