Canzano: Not all victories come at the finish line
Tom Rudolf's story is an inspiring one.
The track at Ione High School isn’t really a track at all. The coaches at the tiny school in the southern portion of Morrow County mow an oval path in the grass around the football field every spring.
“We run on the grass,” Tom Rudolf said.
On Friday, Rudolf and his teammates lined up and competed in the 4-x-100 relay at Hayward Field at the University of Oregon as part of the state high school track and field championships. The senior bolted out of the blocks on the relay’s first leg surrounded by $270 million in renovations. He ran a terrific leg. After he passed the baton, Rudolf crouched on the track.
“I cried,” he said.
Too often we get caught up watching the finish line. Not all victories happen there. Rudolf won on Friday the minute he put his spikes on.
“Kids aren’t supposed to get cancer,” his mother, Allison, said.
That’s what happened, though. Late last year, Tom complained about his knee aching. He’d sprouted to 6-foot-2 and everyone thought it was just growing pains. But a visit to the doctor produced somber news. There were tumors on the tibia of his left leg.
“B-cell Lymphoma,” specialists said.
He’d miss the rest of his cross-country season. Worse yet, Tom would lose his senior season of high school basketball. He found himself in a fight for his life. Between the pandemic and cancer, Tom said, “I missed out on so much in high school.”
He’d grown up as a fifth-generation alfalfa and cattle rancher. But the final year of school at the K-12 school of 150 students featured a series of medical treatments designed to kill his cancer. He started treatment the day after his 18th birthday.
Three rounds of chemotherapy.
Fifteen radiation treatments.
One determined kid.
His father, Ryan, serves as the track coach at the high school. He said, “As a dad you want to fix everything. For me, that was really hard. I couldn’t fix it.”
Tom has two sisters — one older, one younger. He raised steer in 4-H and loves basketball. The graduating class at Ione High is comprised of 17 students. When one of them is absent, it gets noticed.
It helps explain why Tom received a stack of hand-written letters of encouragement from his classmates. Also, why the varsity basketball coaches invited him to watch practices, attend games and even address the team in the locker room. But nobody could have known that the Ione High student body would refuse to hold the prom in April. The students insisted the event be postponed to mid-May, so Tom could come, too.
Then, they voted him Prom King.
“That meant a lot to me,” he said.
Ione was founded in the late 1800s by sheep and cattle ranchers. The Columbia River sits to the north. The Blue Mountains are to the southeast. If you make the drive on Highway 74, from Heppner to Arlington, you pass through Ione along the way.
“It’s a small-town thing,” Tom’s father said. “Everybody knows everybody. People care. They want to help. There’s a lot of good in that.”
Tom focused on getting healthy and back to high school. Also, he decided he wanted to attend Oregon Institute of Technology as a college freshman. He plans to serve as team manager for the men’s basketball team. His cousin is the head coach.
“Early on, his dad and I told him that we’d take care of the medical details,” Tom’s mother said. “His job was to focus and relax. I think it was really helpful that he had his college decision done early — he had a place to be.”
The place to be on Friday in Eugene was the track at Hayward Field. The kids from Ione High looked around the venue as they warmed up. Tom peered at the multi-story tower, the high-tech track surface, and 12,650 permanent seats in the grandstand and had a thought.
“It was,” he confessed, “a humongous shock.”
Tom is an 800-meter runner. But due to the cancer, he instead ran the 100 and 200 this season, competing only in a handful of events. Ione High’s 4-x-100 relay team squeezed into Friday’s event with the 11th-best time in the state.
What was Tom’s father thinking in the quiet moments before the race?
“We got here,” Ryan said. “Maybe we didn’t have the best time in the state but I was thinking, ‘Man, how did he get here from where he was in November?’”
His mother, Allison said: “I was just crying.”
Tom and his teammates were assigned Lane 3 in Eugene. He warmed up, adjusted the starting blocks, then just before the race, he did a curious thing. Tom turned his back to the lane he’d run in. Then, he crouched low, cradling the baton in his hands, and closed his eyes.
He said later: “I was praying to God for his strength and guidance.”
Tim Healy, a long-time freelance track and field photographer, was at the track, shooting the state meet on Friday. He’s photographed some of the greatest track and field athletes in the world and learned to shoot using black and white film in the late 1970s.
“I’ve only seen a few kids say a little prayer, usually the Catholic-school kids,” Healy told me. “This was the first time I’ve seen somebody actually turn around and kneel down like that.”
Healy snapped the photograph.
“People focus on the superstars or the big teams, which you have to do,” Healy said. “But I always feel like it’s the kids in the middle of the pack or the back who are just as compelling.”
It’s true, isn’t it?
The kid knocked cancer out during the last six months. His hair fell out. One of Tom’s kidneys still isn’t functioning properly after treatment. He’ll travel to Portland and see doctors about that on Monday. But Tom won on Friday, just by walking on the track.
He thinks maybe growing up on a ranch, around cattle, helped some.
“I think it’s made me the person I am today,” he said. “How strong-willed I am. How I can bounce back from stuff. Cattle are relentless sometimes. Gotta have that mindset. Gotta go get it done.”
Tom Rudolf’s 4-x-100 relay team didn’t win a state championship on Friday. It didn’t set a school record or even a personal-best mark for the season. Tom and the relay team competed hard, but didn’t place in the Top 10. If you were looking at the finish line, you missed the biggest victory on the track.
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