The Power of Unified Commitment
I embarked on an incredible journey when I left home and entered the gates of West Point twenty three years ago. I joined a group of guys with the same passion for running as me and with the similar vision of being productive members of the school’s varsity cross country team.
West Point was hard, it’s commitment to excellence in all facets of cadet life was demanding and draining. The members of our Army Cross Country team struggled. We competed in the NCAA Division I and raced against the best runners in the country.
Our class load and military commitments were obstacles to our training. While our competitors slept warm in their dorm rooms, we rose early in the morning, in the cover of darkness, and ran in the frigid winds that swooped off the Hudson River. Everyday was a struggle as we tried to get in a few miles before our busy days started as cadets at the Academy. We were tired, we were frustrated, and we ran defeated at our races. That was until we started the 1993 season, my junior year.
On one particular hot and muggy afternoon, our team was running a typical long easy run. The summer was coming to an end and classes had just begun at the academy. The days were getting shorter and the autumn season was near, which meant the cross country season had arrived. The 1993 season was upon us and there was a buzz among the group as we discussed the upcoming year. Like many runs, our group begin to break into subgroups as some lagged behind and others ran ahead, many pairing off and getting the mileage in for the day.
I was running with my classmate, Jack Swift. We talked about life, running, school, and other topics as we tromped along the dusty trail towards the trucks that were waiting to take us back after we finished. It was a normal run, like many others, except on this particular day, Jason Stewart, senior team captain and All-American stood firm in the middle of the trail. He waited patiently as we approached him. He asked us to all stop short and gather around him, because he wanted to address the team.
“I’m tired of losing.” He opened up to the group and made eye contact with each one of us. “Guys, we are so much better than this and I want this year to be different.”
We all looked at each other and back at Jason as he continued to speak, “I need each of you to commit to be the best runner you can be for our team this year.” He looked over at me and Jack.
“Jack, you need to drop all your extracurricular stuff and get focused on running.” I smiled and giggled at Jack. “Rheamer, you need to get your head in the game and start showing up on time and ready to run and compete, got it?” I stopped smiling and nodded.
Jason addressed each member of the group and told them what he needed them to do and the sacrifice they needed to make to be a part of the team. The wind picked up and blew across our sweaty bodies, but the winds of change was also afoot as our team leader motivated us to commit to a goal that was bigger than each of us individually, but attainable if we could commit to it as a team.
“I love you guys, and I know we can win, but I need you to make a commitment to be full time runners and competitors. Can you do that?” We all looked at each other and nodded. Jason turned away from us and resumed running towards the trucks about a quarter mile up the trail. We finished that run as a pack, unified physically, mentally, and emotionally from that day forward.
It was simple really, a fundamental shift in our mentality all because our team leader asked us to make a commitment individually so we could be better and stronger as a group. He demanded that we work harder, to simplify our lives and go after a goal much greater than we could ever achieve individually. Jason was already an accomplished and decorated collegiate runner, but he wanted more and his passion and excitement sparked us to want more as well.
1993 was a year to remember for Army Cross Country as we went on to finish 6th in the nation, the number one American team in the country. We competed against and defeated some of the best running programs in the collegiate running world. We were seeded as high as 2nd in the country at one point during the Track and Field season. Several members on our team earned All-America status that year, and by the end of it we became a highly respected program and was recognized by our peers as one of the best in the country. Coach Bazil, the Army Cross Country and Track and Field Head Coach, approached us after a particular race where we beat the entire field. He shook his head with tears in his eyes, “What a year gentleman, what a year.”
He was right, we had quite a year. We went from mediocrity to greatness in one magical season all because Jason challenged us to be our best. He asked us to shed all the unimportant stuff in our lives and for a short period of time to commit our lives and our hearts to something that we would remember forever.
We were successful not because we made individual commitments to be better runners and competitors, we were successful because we were unified in our commitment. Our group became one and we trained and competed that way the rest of the year. We no longer ran in small clicks, we ran as a group. We ate dinner, breakfast and vacationed as a group held together by one vision, to be the best and on top of the running world. And for one year, twenty one years ago, we were just that, the best American team in the country. It was magical, exciting, and something I will always remember and an achievement I’m very proud of to this day.
Thank you to my teammates: Jason Stewart, Tim Grein, Mike Bernstein, Jack Swift, Paul Ryan, Jeff Harris, Scott Kirkpatrick, Ken Burkeen, and Dan Brown. Thanks to Coach Bazil, Officer Representative John Kelleher and our mentor Liam Collins. That year we were the best and it taught me what it truly means to be successful. Most of all, it taught me the value of brotherhood and that there is tremendous power in unity. I will never forget that year and I will forever be connected to my teammates. Go Army XC!