The sun is hiding behind the clouds. The track and the bleachers at Travelers Rest High School are shaded and muted.
Several student athletes and their coach, geography teacher John King, meet me after school. We gather outside, all the students and Coach King dressed alike in their black team pullovers.
The mood is jovial and the smiles are steady. And why not? Light is beginning to break through the clouds, we are all squinting in to the sun and we are talking about what was probably the best moment in their high school sports careers – maybe even in their coach’s.
At their recent State Championship, held in Columbia, South Carolina, the Travelers Rest Devildogs surprised everyone (even themselves a little) by placing second in the final competition of their cross country season.
Five years ago, in 2015, the TR cross country boys team finished in fourth place. This year’s runners up victory is the best finish in cross country that TR High School has had in thirty-five years.
“We all had a good day,” student athlete Griffin Gillispie says. And I want to give him a high five for the greatest understatement of our conversation.
However, as we talked that afternoon and as the sun moved across the sky, I realized that perhaps that very sentiment and that seemingly casual attitude might be just the reason TR found themselves exactly in the right place at the right time at the right speed.
These kids – and their coach – are humble and proud. A combination that a whole heckuva lot of adults could do well to imitate.
Joining us on the bleachers with Coach King are three boys from the team – seniors Sam Kyker and Gabe Herron, along with junior and all-state finalist Griffin Gillispie. Two members of the girls team share the conversation with us as well – Caroline Kyker and Cydney Stevenson.
Coach King said he expected the team do well – they’ve had a good season. But this ending blew all of their expectations out of the water.
“I knew moving into this year that the boys had a chance to be very competitive,” Coach King says. “We were trying to make small, achievable goals that way. I kept saying – Let’s get through regionals first and then we’ll worry about state.”
Apparently the one step at a time mentality paid off.
Regionals turned out to be an impressive victory for TR. The boys finished the race ahead by about thirty points. “We dominated that day,” Coach King adds, almost as casually as Griffin declared winning second place a good day. The boys in the bleachers chime in with excitement about the experiences from regionals. (In fact, it was at that regionals victory that the quintessential sports photo took place – the classic pouring of cold water on the coach’s head!)
After regionals came the state championship. The bleachers bounce a little as we talk about the path that lead the team to the finals. “We joked about winning second, ” Coach King says, a small grin playing across his face. The boys glance at one another and laugh. It seems no one really believed it was possible. (From the glances back and forth, it also seems like there’s a good healthy dose of inside jokes between the teammates and their coach. A situation I fully support.)
As the race was proceeding, Coach King kept his eyes on the race times. “I noticed the guys were finishing really well – Griffin in the top 15.” Following that, Sam and Gabe came in among the top 20. Coach King says he remembers thinking, “Wait a minute. Okay. Maybe – maybe – we have a puncher’s chance at third.” At that point in the race, he said he was not thinking of runner up as an option.
At the end of the race, as the teams gathered to hear the announcement, King says he grew hopeful, although still not runner up hopeful.
The countdown began and two other teams were announced in their sixth and fifth places. This made TR realize that they had already beaten out powerhouses like Hilton Head and Catawba. The excitement on the field was actually palpable. As soon as the third team was announced, it became clear what was coming next for TR.
“And runner up – Travelers Rest High School.”
The teams were literally jumping for joy. Everyone felt invested. The girls cross country team had joined in as spectators for support. “They were fantastic fans – they were screaming. They had made posters. It was really good for them to be there and to share in the moment,” Coach King says. “We were so grateful they were there.”
“It was a euphoric moment. Total surprise for us – we weren’t expecting second. It was just an awesome feeling – to get that runner up trophy.”
We’ve seen the video from that moment – euphoric seems to be about the best word. Turns out, according to Coach King, that the boys team actually screamed louder than the girls team that won their state title.
On the bus ride home the medals were worn (Griffin even had his on the day of our interview) and the trophy was passed around from teammate to teammate.
Winning second at the state level is a milestone – for the athletes, for Coach King and for Travelers Rest High School.
A local himself, King attended high school as a Devildog, graduated from Furman University and found himself right back at his alma mater to teach freshman social studies. Ironically, he was not a high school athlete. He laughs at the memory. “Long story short, when they asked me to coach they knew I didn’t run. They really needed a warm body/ bus driver back then,” King shares. “They were just glad someone said yes.” He agreed to give the coaching job a year. “I remember asking, if I hate it, can I quit?” he chuckles.
I guess he didn’t hate it because that first year yes has turned into eighteen years of yes.
The first year King served as coach, his cousin was on his team. King says the team barely slid into state that first year, but he was hooked. “I thought, okay – this is kind of fun. I got competitive with it.” At that point, Coach King thought that he might as well get into shape too and he began to run with the athletes.
“Does he still run with you guys?” I ask – looking at each student to see how they respond.
“Not with them, they’re too fast,” King says first, pointing to Gabe and Sam and Griffin. “I cannot keep up with the state runner ups.” Those boys grinned wider and looked even more honored.
As a rookie eighteen years ago, King relied on his athletic friends at Furman who pointed him in good directions for coaching and leading.
“I was a little rough around the edges the first few years – definitely,” he admits.
I don’t think anyone would call his coaching rough around the edges now.
“If you don’t know something, you gotta ask. I was trying to be humble and trying to learn the sport.”
I’d say he’s learned both – humility and expertise, that winning dichotomy his athletes are receiving an education in too.
“Sports is my best connection to the kids – it’s relationships. You get to know them in a different light, outside of the classroom,” King says. “You get to know them on another level. These will be my best memories whenever I retire from teaching.”
The week before the state meet, Coach King said he had been chatting with another local coach, Rob Henderson at Eastside. (Eastside won this year’s state final, by the way.) “I was asking Henderson who he thought would be a contender in the finals,” King shares. “And he said, ‘You know what? We might actually have to watch y’all.'” Coach King’s response was to make a joke right back, “Haha Rob – that’s great, I told him. I thought he was just being nice. I guess I have to give him credit for predicting this one.”
This wasn’t just any year to win this sort of prize – it was a hard year. Not even athletically, as we all know, but accomplishing any sort of group activity, with Covid challenging the status quo, was a hardship. The schedule was redone at least five times, Coach King says.
“The schedule had to be flexible but it was a vulnerable schedule.” (Sounds like all of us too, Coach King.)
Earlier on this summer, it was unsure whether a cross country season would even happen. Students weren’t allowed to practice together as a team at school. “There was so much uncertainty about this year. But what was cool about these guys – regardless of me not being able to meet with them in the summer – is that these guys still got together. They get the credit. They ran together. They held one another accountable. They were committed to making this season happen,” Coach King says, deferring as always and pointing the conversation in the direction of his team.
King credits in part his athletes’ consistency for their record-breaking season. “For us to have such uncertainty this year, for us to finish with a regional championship – first one in 35 years – for us to surprise the state and finish runner up, that was such a positive! In the video, what you saw was actual pure joy.”
“It was their unity that really carried us,” King says. “These guys like one another and they like running together. Team unity really matters.”
Coach King is also quick to praise his support staff and his volunteers, the parents and the fans – he sings their praises highly. His assistant, Coach Taylor Bui, plays a major role in the success of the team as well. “We wouldn’t be here without their flexibility, their help and their support,” King says. “We’ve had to play the cards we’re dealt – and all of these athletes and folks overachieved this year. ”
What makes a kid keep working hard when there’s no one to motivate them? When there’s no one to time them and no one to sing their praises at the end? I asked the boys this question.
“We just kept training with time trials.” Gabe says. “We just kept showing up together.”
“At some point, you have to come back to real life and you’ll have to step up against everyone else,” Griffin elaborates. “We hoped we’d have the opportunity to run, the opportunity to get better,” Griffin says.
Gabe adds, in a soft spoken drawl, “We had to believe that we might get a chance to run this year in order to train.”
While both Gabe and Sam plan to run cross country when they head to college next fall, we all know that life is bigger than a sport and more challenging than even the most difficult cross country race. And yet, we also know there’s a connection. A sports as life and life as sports metaphor that really matters.
Sitting on those metal bleachers, the sun slowly heading west and clouds slightly shielding its bright warmth, we all talk about that connection. The reason students pursue athletics and parents support students pursuing it and coaches dedicate their limited time to it.
“It’s hard work,” Sam says, squinting into the sun. “But you learn how to do hard work. You learn how to set goals. You learn how to achieve those goals.”
“Sports can help you become a leader,” Griffin adds, confident and well spoken. “It helps you learn to work with other people. It helps you build relationships and know how to interact.”
“I’ve learned how to push myself harder than I thought I could,” Caroline shares. Sporting a walking boot for a stress fracture, Caroline has also had to learn about disappointment and supporting your teammates from a different angle this season too.
Cydney speaks quietly and adds to our conversation. “Sports can make you more confident – and can teach you not to give up.”
Gabe rounds out our discussion with his own zinger. “I think it teaches you to become comfortable doing uncomfortable things,” he says. (Let’s stick that on a poster in Coach King’s classroom.)
“To do a long run, it takes perseverance. Discipline. Responsibility. Accountability,” Coach King adds. He tells a story of a former student who had actually just contacted him recently. She shared how running has helped her to deal with stress positively. She has used running to handle the difficulties of a freshman year of college with something positive instead of all the other options out there.
There’s more. There’s so much more, because any challenge we endure comes paired with valuable lessons too.
“We learned to not take anything for granted,” King states. A lesson we’re all being tested on – 2020 is a little like a constant final exam. “Every year you think you’ll get ten meets in but this year – you better run hard, you might not get any more meets in at all.”
“Make the most of every opportunity. You don’t know when it will be taken away,” King says, looking at his athletes and looking out at the track. And of course, sitting on these bleachers with a handful of sincere students just beginning to barely understand this idea, I feel the weight of what he’s saying.
He gestures as he speaks, maybe he’s talking less to me now and more to his athletes. “Learn to appreciate this. When you’re young, you think the opportunities are limitless. As you get older, you learn to appreciate all the opportunities.” I can’t help but nod silently and verbally affirm his words.
At this point in the afternoon – and in the conversation – the sun has all but burst forth from the clouds. We’re heading down to the track in the golden hour – and that feels fitting too. The clouds are passing, the sun is warming us all – and shining its beauty on this portion of the team rehearsing their recent glory.
The story unfolds. The sun comes out. A lot like this last season for Travelers Rest High. Started under a cover of what if, cloaked in try try try and winding up a blast of sunshine and good vibes and victory. The sun shining down – like hope, like a prize, like the promise of a bright afternoon and a bright future.
Who can outrun that?