“There is no failure except in no longer trying”
– Elbert Hubbard
In 2002 as a college freshman I had two significant goals and I wrote them on a dry erase board next to my bed so that I could see them every morning when I woke up.
1) Graduate with a bachelors in mechanical engineering
2) Play Division 1A Soccer for the University of Buffalo
Engineering seemed challenging enough. On my first day they sat us down in a lecture hall and said “take a look to your left, now take a look to your right, statistically one out of three of you will not be completing this program.” Soccer was much harder. On the first day of compliance I remember hearing only 1% of high school athletes ever make it to the D1 level and unfortunately even in high school I was never that great. But, I was always very passionate about playing. There’s a reason it’s referred to as the “beautiful game”. I first tried out in the fall of my freshman year as a walk-on and was invited back to second tryouts but nothing after that. In the spring of that year I was brought on to work with the team in the offseason. At the end of the session, right before break a team meeting was held and summer training packets were handed out which included lifting, running and agility training that we were required to do leading up to preseason. I wasn’t certain if I was expected to do it because I didn’t know if I would get called back but I did it anyway and when fall came around I never heard anything. This continued for 3 more years. I played club ball in the fall and would participate in spring training and games but when preseason came around I would never hear a word.
With each let down I remained determined but began to realize that my chances were diminishing. Freshman year the team was comprised mainly of domestic players, some from NY. Leading up to my senior year it had transformed to a majority of international players with very few from the area. In addition the team had improved significantly, from a losing record with very few wins to nationally ranked (I believe as good as 7th at one point) and a conference contender. Meanwhile, spring of my Junior year I had started making friends with some of the Cross Country guys and was joining them on long runs from time to time. I think they were less impressed by my ability to keep up and more so in my capacity to go out partying with them and still show up to 10 milers the next day ready and eager to run. Some suggested that I go out for the team in the fall, which I thought was ridiculous since I had never competed in cross country before, but I figured it might be worth a shot. So when spring ball ended and again summer training plans were handed out I made the decision that I would train for soccer in hopes that the 4th time would be the charm, but also put in the miles for cross country allowing I still didn’t hear anything by the time preseason came around.
Keep in mind I had that 1st goal to worry about and in order to satisfy a senior course requirement, and help further my career I accepted a full time co-op with an engineering consulting firm located in the heart of NYC’s financial district. To make matters worse I had to commute each day from my parents’ house in Westchester County; a 20 minute drive to the train station, hour plus ride on Metro North to Grand Central, subway to Wall Street and finally 3 block walk (2 hours door to door each way, on a good day!). Now, the soccer training plan consisted of 4 days in the gym and some running/agility training where cross country was more raw miles, up to 60 a week with some core, workouts not going into effect until late summer. Fortunate for me there were soccer scrimmages 3 days a week at a park in my home town which included some current and ex collegiate players. Unfortunately they started at 6pm where I didn’t get out of work in lower Manhattan until 5pm, so in order to have a chance at playing (since games were very popular and filled up quick) I would walk casually out of my office building then sprint down Wall Street in a shirt and tie to barely make it to the subway on time, gushing sweat from the sweltering summer temps, and if I could make my train in grand central, which often came down to seconds, speed to the park, changing at some point along the way I could somehow manage stepping onto the field by 7pm to get in a solid 2 hours of play time.
This was a Tuesday/Thursday ritual. On Monday/Wednesday/Fridays I would have a similar routine but would meet a friend to run 10 miles instead. Afterwards, each night, I would drive to my local gym for an hour lift. I remember being so exhausted from my game/run that I would get the bar stuck on my chest during the bench press often, too tired to lift it off, and have to wait for an employee to come upstairs to bail me out. The club stayed open until 11pm so I had plenty of time to get my workout in and take a dip in the hot tub to reflect on my day before going out to meet up with my friends for a couple drinks and bed by 2am to be up again by 5am. When I was asked to work overtime, since I was so busy in the evenings, I would get up earlier to pull more hours in the morning instead. Although I was getting only a few hours a night I could sleep on the train and had even mastered the art of sleep standing on the subway. Regrettably there were a few hazy mornings on the drive to the train station where I was awoken to sound of tree branches on the minivan, but somehow I managed to survive and stay on top of my training for both soccer and cross country. The burden of balancing my job, commute, training and social life was so overwhelming in the moment but in hindsight I now feel this was one of the best times in my life.
My senior year I had retained my on campus apartment through the summer and made the decision to get to Buffalo early enough to participate in preseason soccer, if invited, but if not I had planned to meet up with a friend and train for cross country tryouts instead. Having heard nothing for the 4th year in a row by the time I got there I had to make the difficult decision to switch gears and train exclusively for Cross Country. It was during a 10×400 workout on the track in Kuntz field, running repeats around a BDSL soccer game, that the varsity assistant coach who happened to be playing stopped me and said something along the lines of “you look fit Welby, would you like to come out to preseason with the team?” Even though I was committed to cross country at this point of course I said YES!! He told me he would let me know after 2 weeks if I had made it or not.
Where preseason was hell to some players, especially those who hadn’t trained adequately over the summer, it was paradise to me. Morning fitness at 7am on the track led to afternoon training sessions and evening scrimmages under the lights. My favorite was the Cooper test, a standard 2 mile on the track that had to be completed in under 12 minutes. I seem to remember only half the team making it that year on the first attempt, whereas I finished in about 10 minutes, a full minute ahead of the rest. Against my better judgment I continued my cross country training late at night after the last session to keep up my mileage in case things didn’t work out. As the days passed and players recovered their fitness I became increasingly more tired, but after 2 weeks I was still around. The 3rd week came and went. It wasn’t until almost the 4th week that the coach pulled me aside after a late night scrimmage session and said “Welby, we’re impressed by how far you’ve come and would like to keep you around, how does that sound?” Until this day that was the greatest moment of my life! I immediately called all my family and friends to tell them that I had made it and was congratulated, hearing from each of them how proud and happy they were for me. They all new how hard I had worked for it.
Later that night I received a call I wasn’t expecting. It was the assistant coach again. He told me “I’m sorry Welby. We have another player coming in from Trinidad, and no extra spots. We can’t pass him on for a guy like you.” I was crushed. I had to call everyone back to let them know the bad news. I felt I was letting them down almost as much as I had been let down. To make matters worse my apartment window was adjoining the practice field so the next morning, having finally been permitted the opportunity to sleep in, I was awoken by sounds of whistles and players instead of my alarm. Frustrated I eventually rolled out of bed, grabbed a different gym bag than I was used to, and headed over to the track for the first day of Cross Country tryouts. There were some hardships from that point on. I remember sitting back down in the same compliance room for a second time and hearing “what are you doing here again?!” in a condescending way in front of my new team. I remember going out in a 6k TT faster than I had ran my previous fastest mile. But I also remember afterwards, when approaching my new coach to thank her for the opportunity to be there hearing “We want to keep you around Welby.” And she meant it.
From then on I completed 2 years of competition for UB Cross Country (scoring every meet my super senior year), Mid-D training with track, and even another spring season with soccer (Thanks Vicki for letting me do that). The friendships I gained with close teammates are strong bonds I carry to this day. We still get together once a year to compete in the home meet, racing shoulder to shoulder with the college guys to prove that some of us still got it, and afterwards reminisce of the “good old days”.
I consider the end of my competitive soccer career to be my biggest failure, but also my greatest accomplishment. I heard from the same coach years later that I simply “wasn’t good enough” and I believe that now, but the important thing is that your likelihood to be good enough or not should never impede your decision to follow your dream. Soccer is over, that chapter has come and gone, and I am very fortunate to have triathlon in my life, benefited greatly by my running background. I know very well that I will likely never get my pro card, may never even get to Kona. I am ok with that realization; however I am not ok with giving anything less than all of myself to get there. And if I fail then I fail. There is no one else better at failing in my mind. But if you’re afraid to fail you’ll never accomplish anything. My greatest fear is not falling short of my dreams but looking backing one day and wondering if I could have achieved them. I consider myself very fortunate to have had significant goals in my life and more so that my greatest ones are still ahead.