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  • Writer's pictureMatt Keyser

The Champ

Will Antkowiak stepped off the Brenham school bus and his feet touched the damp ground where the Class 4A state cross country meet will be held for the first time. The air is cool and crisp.

He feels nervous, not for himself - he’s been here before, three times - but for his team. It’s his senior season and he wants to go out strong.

He and his six teammates crowd in the starting line, surrounded by the best runners in the state. There are three favored to win, however: Antkowiak, Angel Banda from La Joya Juarez-Lincoln and Travis Barclay from Boerne Champion.

The starter gun fires and Antkowiak’s final state meet begins.

It was his sixth-grade year when the foundation was laid for his future success. He was the sixth kid on a five-man soccer team, and he usually found himself in the back of the pack when the team would run. Each day he worked harder to move up one spot, to beat the next kid ahead of him. Six turned to five, five to four, four to three. He was soon leading the pack each day.

A soccer teammate noticed his improvement and suggested he try out for the junior high cross country team. It only took one meet, the Brenham Invitational, for him to catch the eye of Brenham head cross country coach Trenton Hall.

“He didn’t have much training then, but he was well ahead of everybody in the race,” Hall said. “It was pretty evident from that moment right there that he was very talented and that he was going to do something great.”

The two started working closely together, fine tuning Antkowiak’s skills, training at a higher level - determining what he could handle and what kind of mileage he could run each week. The goal was to have Antkowiak ready for the summer track season.

It came as no surprise that the boy wonder, the one who had been in the sport less than a full year, had emerged on the national scene in such a short span. Antkowiak finished third at the national track meet and, as they say, the rest is history.

Back at the state cross country meet, Antkowiak, more than a mile into the race, continues to trail Banda. But he’s following the game plan he set the night before: draft until the first mile and a half and then pick up the pace. He doesn’t want to tire his body too early, but the near-halfway mark of the race is approaching, and he can’t wait too long to make his move.

It had been almost a year to the day when the 4A state title ran out from under him his junior year.

It was Nov. 14, 2009, and there was only one way the day could end for Antkowiak: crossing the finish line as the 4A state cross country champion.

It had been his dream since he started high school. From day one as a freshman when he set his goals to just keep up with the top three runners from Katy Seven Lakes. And through his sophomore year when he finally broke the 16-minute barrier and decided it was time to stop following the leaders, but race with them in the lead pack.

It was time for Antkowiak to show Texas cross country what he was made of.

He was chosen as one of the top three runners in the meet to win the race, along with Banda and Barclay.

But on that day, things took a turn for the worst.

The day wasn’t supposed to end this way. Not this race. Not now. Not after five months of training, and 5:30 a.m. runs with an extra five miles after school to end the day. After so much preparation and hard work, how could his body betray him like this?

Midway through the race it was becoming harder to breathe. He struggled to keep pace with the lead pack and found himself slowing down and being passed by other runners. It was an asthma attack that was holding him back, his second of the season. Now, the boy pegged as a potential state champion was falling short of expectations.

He finished 17th with a time of 16:08, nearly a full minute higher than his 15:19 run at regionals that earned him the regional title and qualified him for the state meet.

The physical pain wasn’t as bad as the mental. After the race the asthma subdued, but the knowledge that it cost him the race lingered. Finishing in 17th when his personal goal was first place or bust, and anything less would be considered a failure.

“Just when you worked for something for months and months, and you get up at 5:30 in the morning, and you have one of those days where something comes up you can’t really control, it sucks,” Antkowiak said.

But he wouldn’t let the day and its results hold him back. He still had one more season left in his high school career, and he would use this day during the following months to train harder, get his asthma under control, and do whatever it took to nab the elusive state title.

Knowing the halfway point of this year’s state meet is approaching, Antkowiak prepares to make his move on the leader Banda. It’s the next step in his game plan: make your move and use the downhills to create a gap.

He steps up the pace and passes Banda for the first time. He’s now in the position he’s trained his entire high school career for. But Banda isn’t going to give the race up so easily. He stays on Antkowiak’s tail, and regains the lead with less than a quarter mile left in the race.

In the offseason between his junior and senior years, Antkowiak knew his asthma was something he was going to have to control if he wanted to win the state title his senior year. He couldn’t take the chance of having another attack in a race.

He began visiting doctors. It was a nutritionist that told him it could have been minor food allergies that caused the attack, and that he should cut out all milk and wheat products - a tough change at first - but he did as he was told and returned to the 5:30 morning runs with his team.

Now a senior, he was driven by last year’s attack, determined to not let it happen again. He followed the nutritionist’s request, trained hard and even weaned off the asthma medication. It was all working - he hadn’t had a flare up or attack since the state meet.

Antkowiak continued to dominate his senior season. He won races with ease through the regular season meets, and nabbed his fourth consecutive district title. He won the regional meet by a staggering 22 seconds as he and the Cubs qualified for the state meet in Austin.

With less than a quarter mile left in the race, Banda has regained the lead over Antkowiak and begins to open a gap — just 5-6 yards — but enough that far in the race for coach Hall to “feel a little nervous.”

Antkowiak keeps his cool, though. He doesn’t let the little surprises worry him, a trait he gets from his mom, he said. He sticks with his game plan as he has all race. And although his legs are growing tired, he’ll be ready to go in an all-out sprint to the finish line.

While running is what Antkowiak is most passionate about, he said he loves to hunt and fish in his free time. But it’s the classroom where his running is complemented the most. He’s ranked No. 8 in his class of 300. Hall said, “His academic performance has opened a lot of doors for him, as well as his running.”

It’s the two combined that will land him deep in the heart of Austin next fall, running for the Longhorns at the University of Texas. He said he’s excited for the next step, and he hopes to take his running to the next level.

The final two-tenths of a mile is approaching, and Banda still has a five-yard lead over Antkowiak. He pushes away the fact that he can’t feel his legs and digs deep; this is what he’s trained for all season, this is his moment to shine. He gets tall and sprints the final leg, passing Banda. One look at Banda’s face and it’s easy to tell he’s out of gas, but Antkowiak doesn’t know that. He’s in his own zone, pulling all the strength he can muster to cross the finish line.

And he does, nine seconds ahead of Banda and 15:07 since the start of the race - a new state meet record.

It is now when Hall’s words sink in. “No regrets. If you’re blessed with this kind of talent, you’ve got a window of opportunity and after that you can’t go back and try again. After this chance, there’s no going back.”

All his hard work, determination and 5:30 morning runs have paid off. His legs give and he collapses to the ground, but the moment is his.

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