Running to stand still

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By Scott Akanewich

Madison Sears has spent a good portion of her young life running in purple-and-gold.

But, now those days are over as the Liberty Hill senior and the rest of her teammates on the Panthers’ track squad have had their season ended by the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Sears, the overnight aspect of the season fading away was perhaps the most difficult factor to process and deal with.

“The hardest part for me about this season ending is just the fact it was so sudden,” said Sears, who also competed in cross country over the course of her high school career. “Our last meet we got to run wasn’t supposed to be our last meet, but yet it was, so it’s been hard to get closure on that part and just the fact I didn’t know my senior season and whole Liberty Hill running career was going to end when it did, instead of either at district or as far as I could’ve qualified.”

Especially after having held out hope in the early days of the UIL suspension of sports they would eventually resume competition, she said.

“Hearing it was definitely canceled was definitely harder than hearing it may only be suspended. A suspension of the season still meant there was hope to finish out the season and all of the work we put in year-round could amount to something and pay off,” said Sears. “It still gave us athletes something to look forward to and a goal to work towards, but then just as suddenly as the season was suspended, it was over for good, which was just a shock to everyone I think.”

Liberty Hill head coach Gretchen Peterson reflected back on the suddenness with sorrow, but also with a renewed light at the end of the tunnel, she said.

“Hope is a great and powerful thing – it keeps us going,” said Peterson. “Honestly, this whole thing has been heartbreaking – I can’t imagine what these seniors especially are going through. All the athletes, UIL kids, teachers, coaches, students, staff – none of them knew the last meeting, the last practice, the last game – was in fact that – it’s devastating for those seniors – it’s a year full of ‘lasts’ but to have their last year go like this without proper closure is crazy to think about. We held out hope for so long and deep down we probably knew this would be the outcome, but that didn’t make the news any easier to take. But, hope is also what is going to get us through this. We hold out hope we will all come out of this stronger, better and more united.”

Due to the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and its far-reaching ramifications, Peterson said the most critical thing one can do is to maintain connections despite social distancing.

“There is no playbook or script to follow, so we’re all just trying to do the best we can – that’s all any of us can do,” she said. “We’re all learning as we go, but the most important thing right now isn’t lessons or grades, but making sure we’re strengthening and building relationships. This can be a very lonely time – we have to show each other we’re there. People need to know we care – kids, parents, fellow coaches and teachers – that’s what family does – we stick around for each other.”

Sears battled back from a potential season-ending injury during the cross country campaign in order to be back at full strength for track in the spring, a fact that isn’t lost on her, she said.

“It’s definitely been a hard year of running for me physically, mentally and emotionally and this season ending only added to it,” said Sears. “I battled back for district cross country only to have the rest of the season (regionals and state) not work out, then I had to battle back through more complications to even be able to run again at the start of track and honestly I felt like I had to battle through the whole track season because I was so far behind everyone else as far as being in shape was concerned and now once again my running season couldn’t amount to what I hoped it would. I think track season has been harder for me to watch end because it’s the season that gave me hope and reason to start running again after my injury and now I feel like so much of competing and the sport that’s made me who I am has been taken from me my last year.”

Despite the heartbreak and devastation of the season being lost, Peterson said her athletes have handled that disappointment with a wisdom beyond their years.

“I’ve been so proud of the maturity and strength our kids have shown. No doubt they’ve all had those breakdowns, but haven’t we all,” she said. “But, each time I hear from them or check in with them, they are upbeat and positive. Sad and disappointed, true, but they continue to show me what amazing people they are. They know there is something greater at work here – a plan we just don’t understand yet. They have faith, I have faith in them and in this community. The actions of so many to make sure our kids are being taken care of and shown how much we love them — it’s what makes us who we are.”

Peterson said the current conditions under which society is being forced to live is most difficult because of the one thing which is most important.

“It’s hard for me as an adult, so I can’t imagine what it’s like for students of all ages,” she said. “We need our people – we need that connection no matter how old we are. Technology has been a blessing during this time – you can feel connected, but it’s nothing compared to the actual human element of school. It’s what makes school what it is – it’s what makes us get out of bed and keep coming back – kids, teachers, parents, staff – we’re all missing that – we love our people.”

Everything the seniors will now miss out on – more so off the field than on – is the greatest injustice the pandemic has brought down on the graduating class, said Peterson.

“Each and every senior will handle this differently and they will work through it in their own way. But it’s so sad – so incredibly sad. They’ve been robbed of so much more than a game or a sport. It’s those last and final memories they don’t get to create – that’s what kills me – the stuff that matters, they don’t get to have it the same way prior seniors have had and their parents and coaches miss out on that stuff too,” she said. “There is so much more that goes into a season and to have it all gone so quickly is just devastating. But, this I do know. These seniors have been and will always be loved and valued for all they’ve given to Liberty Hill. In some way, down the road when this all calms down, I think we’ll find this was one of this senior class’ – parents included – finest moment. They were hit with a crazy amount of challenges, but they didn’t give up, they didn’t back down, they found a way to make it work and do it with grace and class – and that’s the legacy they will leave for Liberty Hill.”

Sears said the fact she and her fellow cross country teammates who also compete in track will never again have the opportunity to share a competitive synergy is one of the most painful aspects.

“We’ve missed out on watching our work we put in pay off. Getting that ‘runner’s high’ after hearing you get a PR or winning a race is an unmatched feeling and we aren’t going to ever be able to feel that surrounded by our teammates again,” she said. “So many of the distance runners from cross country do track and we kind of only hang out with each other at meets because of that family feeling between us and I was so excited to be able to do that again for track season, but this time being able to wear a uniform the same as them and get to finally run with them – unlike cross country season for me and now we’re missing out on that time together. It was another season to spend time with our family and make memories and I’m going to miss that most.”

Peterson added maintaining a positive outlook despite the dreary situation can go a long way toward the healing process.

“All athletes are affected and all kids – athletes or not – this stinks and it’s not fair, but we make the most of it and we keep pushing,” she said. “At some point, you focus on what you do have, instead of what you don’t have – that’s not easy – but I think when they reflect on the year, they’ll find the blessings in what they did get to experience and celebrate that. Not ideal by any means, but finding the blessings is what we need to help them do right now.”

However, all that being said, Peterson still struggles with the current climate – until she once again focuses on the light instead of the darkness.

“Just that – find the blessings in all this. But trust me, there are days when I am just done,” she said.  “But when I stop my pity party and focus on what I get to do because of this all – be with my kids and husband, slow down to enjoy the simple things, build stronger relationships with my faith and family – I get to do those things. Those are great things I get to do – I really stop trying to focus on all the things I don’t get to do and focus on the ‘get-tos.’”

With so many speculating on exactly what everyday life will be like in the aftermath of the pandemic, Peterson is philosophical in finding a silver lining in such a black cloud.

“Cliche, I know, but maybe normal wasn’t so good after all,” she said. “Going through something like this – we will all come out different and better and stronger if we let it. We’ve been broken down, but things get fixed, things get put back together and that’s what this is teaching me. Life after COVID-19 will be our best life ever.”

For Sears, it’s cause for solitary reflection on all she’s lost – but even more all she’s gained during her time wearing the Purple-and-Gold.

“I think this pandemic we’re going through, even though it’s taken a lot from us – especially the seniors – has also been such an opportunity for growth,” she said. “Every time I run on my own now, it makes me somewhat sad I don’t have a team running beside me, but it also makes me so grateful for every single year I did have a team to support me and I think every hard opportunity I’ve gone through in this one year of running has ultimately just made me feel so blessed with the teammates I’ve had for the past four years, the coaches I’ve had be a part of my life and for all the memories I’ve been able to make. I hope this pandemic and all the losses we’ve had only make us realize how lucky we’ve been to be able to spend four years on this team.”

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