More than 40 years ago, one of my first reporting assignments was to cover City Section cross-country at Pierce College. It was, and still is, the quintessential high school sports experience, teenagers competing with their friends while seeking to challenge themselves in a three-mile test of endurance to reach that finish line and feel a sense of accomplishment.
My annual visit last weekend to the City Section preliminaries on a cool, cloudless morning offered another reminder that the days of high school sports before Twitter, transfers, private coaches, and parents becoming infatuated with winning, still exists. It’s like time has been frozen, with athletes and coaches focused on learning life lessons.
Joseluis Rincon, a 17-year-old senior at North Hills Monroe High, was dressed as if visiting Alaska, wearing a heavy jacket, gloves and two hoodies.
He didn’t get to compete for Monroe because he was designated as an alternate but was there to help cheer on his teammates.
It turns out three years ago, in the summer before his freshman year, he showed up for a workout at Monroe with his friends. He had never run before. Coach Leo Hernandez welcomed him with open arms.
“I remember I threw up that day,” Rincon said.
And he came back for more. Again and again.
“I wasn’t disciplined and motivated as a student until I reached high school and met coach Hernandez,” Rincon said. “I learned what a healthy community could do for me running. I didn’t want to turn to a bad outlet like doing drugs. That’s how I dealt with my depression.”
Rincon was lost before high school, still upset that his parents had separated when he was 6. He lived in a one-bedroom apartment with his mom in Panorama City.
“Overcoming the separation of my parents was my most significant challenge,” he wrote in an essay. “I was depressed and struggled to focus at school. I could not take it one day at a time with my education and my family. The biggest problem was worrying about tending to my responsibilities at home while getting good grades.
“Mentally, I could not balance my life at home with my life at school. I felt as if I was getting pulled down by a wrecking ball, which was the pressure of responsibility I had as a kid. Because my mom had to work two jobs, my responsibility at home was twice as much. I had issues focusing on myself. I could not find any interest in anything, which left me with little to no motivation at school. Having no outlet is why the problems took a heavier toll on me.
“Running was my therapy.”
Three years later, Rincon has a 4.0 grade average, runs six miles a day and dreams of attending UCLA and becoming a doctor.
Hernandez, in his 27th year coaching cross-country, explained, “I like to see outcomes like that. You try to get the best of the kids and help them achieve goals they never thought they could achieve running. And that opens their mind to be able to do better in life. It’s about improving themselves as a person, setting goal after goal after goal to be successful.”
Running has taught Rincon that “everything didn’t seem as hard.”
He wrote, “I found something to look forward to every day. The balance in my life began to form and so did my motivation for school. I was around a healthy community where I could get pushed to my potential. I began to handle my responsibilities at home with ease, which gave me more freedom at school. I had the opportunity to involve myself more with my classes, clubs, and sports teams. I overcame my depression with a healthy outlet. Now, I have my eyes set on becoming a doctor, which is something I could never set a goal on in the past.”
The magic of the high school sports experience still exists. You just need to visit a City Section cross-country meet to feel it, see it and hear it. The City finals are Saturday morning at Pierce College.