When the Heavens Opened Up for Victory
It all started my freshman year, 2015, when I got a call from my high school coach, Tim Dearie, telling me that he wants to bring me to the Penn Relays to run in the 4x800m, and that we’d be leaving for Philly that next day. It was completely unexpected and surprising, but no questions asked, I quickly stopped everything I was doing and started packing my bags for the weekend.
I remember the older guys on the team talking about the hype around the Penn Relays and how great of a meet it was, but I especially remember our moderator Brother Antonio telling me how amazing the Penn Relays are.
We got to Franklin Field, and everything seemed so hectic. I was lucky enough to have such great teammates who were juniors and seniors at the time, and knew where everything was and where to go, and were simply unphased by everything that was going on.
I remember walking into Franklin Field and having to walk through hundreds of people to get to our seats, but then walking out into stands, and everything, in a way, freezing. All the chaos froze, and it was just me, looking out towards the track, amazed by the atmosphere of the stadium. And I think anyone who has been to Franklin Field can say that their first experience is very similar to that.
It’s a special feeling you get when you walk into that stadium for the first time, and in a way, you know special things have, and will, happen.
That had to be the best weekend of my freshman year. From fooling around with the Jamaicans to getting to know and build great friendships with those juniors and seniors on the trip, I soaked it all in. Along with everything the meet had to offer, Drake had released his fourth studio album “Views,” so the weekend was just that much better with that wonderful addition!
With all this being said, there is one thing I remember vividly from that trip, and that was, watching the Championship of America DMR.
Our coach made sure we were at the stadium to watch this race, and I remember him telling us that the teams in this race were some of the best teams in the country. We watched as the race unfold, and history happened before our eyes as Drew Hunter ended up edging Jack Salisbury — who would later become my teammate — right at the line.
Hunter splitting 4:00 to catch up and win the race was inspiring and all, but from what I was looking at, I do think Jack had him by a hair — I got you Jack.
Anyways, from that moment, it became one of my goals to have a team qualify for the race and ultimately win a wheel. Little did I know, one of my coaches, Bob Higgins, was on a team that won a wheel about 40 years prior, which was anchored by an all-time St. Anthony’s great, John Gregorek.
Fast forward to my junior year. We had one of the strongest DMRs in the country, coming in 2nd in the event at the New Balance Indoor Nationals. We were the “A” seated team in COA DMR, and we really thought it was our year to bring home a wheel. I was put on the anchor, and I knew once I got the stick it would be my responsibility to finish in the lead.
With that in mind, when I got the baton the team in first place was about 30 meters ahead of me. I thought I’d have to go out and try to catch him quickly if I wanted to put myself in a solid position to win. I ended up going out in around two minutes flat for the 800 meter split: way faster than I had ever gone out before.
I ended up paying for it over the last 100 meters, getting outkicked by Sean Dolan of Hopewell Valley.
This sat heavy in my stomach for a while. To add to this burden, the next day the people in charge of the meet handed out booklets to everyone who came to watch the races, and right on the back cover was a photo of Sean crossing the finish line, and right in the background was me in anguish finishing right behind, for thousands of spectators to see.
I was truly devastated. I left everything I had on the track and I did everything I could do to get ourselves back in the race, but it wasn’t enough.
I brought that picture home, and hung it up on the ceiling right on top of my bed, and left it there for a year.
It reminded me every day that there was work to be done in order to come up on top, and that I need to work my ass off to get there, but next time not go through that misery again.
It was now my senior year. The year was going smoothly for me and my teammates. We were deciding on where we were going to attend college, and really just enjoying each other everyday, on and off the track.
All was well until around the end of December and beginning of January, when our coach Bob Higgins was admitted into a hospital. My teammates and I didn’t really quite know what was going on and thought everything was ok and was going to be alright. We later found out there was a tumor in his brain — which devastated us — but we all remained optimistic, even when he was put into hospice.
Coach Higgins passed away on February 11th, 2019 at the age of 57.
All this happened in the span of a month or so, and my teammates and I really didn’t know how to handle it.
Thankfully, my head coach Tim Dearie — who was best friends with Coach Higgins — really helped us through this catastrophic point in our lives.
He was there for us, but also geared our minds into focusing on the rest of the season. He told us that Coach Higgins would want us to go out there and keep running our hearts out each and every day. From that point, all the races we ran were run with him in the back of our minds.
Especially the coveted Penn Relays DMR.
The four of us were doing a typical pre-race warm-up an hour before our race, and right when we finished our 15 minute jog it started to pour. Luckily one of us had our phones on us, and we quickly called coach Dearie.
He told us that the meet had been stopped due to the weather, and then all of a sudden it started to thunder. Not really knowing what to do, coach Dearie reminded us that nothing should “unnerve” us. This was a common phrase coach used throughout our four years running under him, and it helped us big time during this time.
He told us where to wait and to stay relaxed until he had more information about when the meet would be running again, and to wait for his instruction on when to start warming up again and when to check-in.
We followed his words and did exactly that.
We waited for about thirty minutes without any worry about what was going on. We finally got the call from coach Dearie to start warming up again, and by the time we had to be on the starting line, we were completely prepared to race as if nothing happened at all.
It was our time.
The race played out, and thanks to my teammates, I got the baton in perfect position — right up with the leaders.
Now I just had to treat it like any other race I had ever run in the past. The race turned out tactical, and with about 500 meters to go, Matt Rizzo of Bronxville made a strong move. Thinking about the year before, I knew I wanted to save some energy for the last 100 meters so that I wouldn’t get outkicked.
I let him go a bit, but only just enough so I would still be able to catch back up.
I stayed in around 3rd place until 150 meters to go, and it was there when I made my move into the lead. I could start to see glory when I made my move, and once I crossed the line, I couldn’t believe that we had pulled it off.
We won the race in a time of 10:10.
MATTHEW PAYAMPS — GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY // ST. ANTHONY’S
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