As the Strider “old timers” know we published a weekly Strider Newsletter virtually every week for the first 12 years 2002-2014. In many of those Newsletters we opened with a story in an attempt to inspire and encourage the team. I used to get on average 8-12 responses to each Newsletter but none matched the overwhelming response we got from a Newsletter we wrote 5 years ago this past week in October 2011. Over 40 Striders replied how the story of Navy Pilot Willie McCool touched them. Since so many Striders have come along since that day, I thought I would repeat the story below. If it helps kick start your week ahead or inspire, gain focus and resolve then my copying and pasting was well worth it. For those who wish to read, here is the story once again……….
“Just 16 Minutes From Home” The Story of Willie McCool.
An avid and accomplished runner, trusted friend, husband, father, confidante to many and yes a consummate lover of planes with youthful dreams of being a pilot. Most of you have never heard of Willie McCool, and from what I have read that would be just fine with him.
The United States Naval Academy takes no wimps. As a freshmen plebe, you take a lot of heat without dishing it back. As a freshmen runner on the Navy Cross Country team Willie McCool faced the same taunts from the coaches and upper classmen as everybody else. Freshman runners were required to carry a baton while running and pass it along to others during their training runs. During his sophomore year Willie, having gone through all that, began to purposefully help the freshmen plebes find sanctuary at his house and they treasured that safe haven. And as a measure of support for them, he continued to carry a baton even though he didn’t have to. He drove the freshmen to their JV meets, he fed them and he with their homework all while seeking no fanfare. The names of the fastest 25 Navy Ship men of all time are prominently displayed in the lobby of the Navy student union building on a large plaque. Willie McCool posted the 26th fastest time ever, a 5 mile PR best of 24:27 or a blistering fast 4:54 per mile. He was just fine with being # 26.
Due to his exceptional running talent and his encouragement of others, he became captain of the cross country team his junior and senior years. His favorite training run went up a grueling hill on the Naval Academy golf course and once you reached the top, according to Willie, you were just 16 minutes from home (finish line). At 3 miles away those were some fast miles going sub 5:20 per mile to reach that finish line in 16. Throughout his final 2 years at the Naval Academy, Willie’s trademark would be to get to the top of that hill first, stop and wait for each tired teammate and greet them with his very loud “come on, just 16 minutes from home!” screams of encouragement. Willie McCool graduated from the Navy in 1983 and continue his duel passions of running and piloting. He was selected to the NASA space program in 1996, an honor few are given. He was humbled with the responsibility.
Along with several other Striders I still remember vividly that fateful day on Saturday February 1, 2003. The Striders had just finished an excellent 5K “Featured Race” in Starkey Park and the Strider age group wins were plentiful and much laughter was taking place near the podium. However, the joy we were experiencing quickly dimmed by the Race Director’s announcement that the Space Shutter Columbia, just before re-entry had just gone down over Texas. All 6 astronauts including the pilot Willie McCool perished in an instant. All the evidence suggest that McCool spent his last fateful moments doing all he could to save his friends and the shuttle by his maneuvers. After the tragedy was reviewed by the engineers, it was determined that the Space Shuttle Columbia was just 16 minutes from touching down on the ground. In training runs as in life Willie McCool was once again just 16 minutes from home. Willie was 41, leaving behind a wife and 2 kids. His heroism as a pilot was obvious, but his heroism in his private life while less obvious was no less profound.
As a Strider told me as I pounded out some good miles with him last Thursday, we all have a date on the calendar out there. While we certainly hope it’s not anytime soon, like Willie McCool we do have a date. If you were to visit the Naval Academy golf course in Maryland today, with that tough hilly 5 mile cross country training loop, you will see a stone marker at the top of that hill with the small and simple inscription, “Willie McCool, just 16 minutes from home” Like Willie McCool, we too can leave a positive and lasting legacy behind some day. As you continue to enjoy some great running in the days and weeks ahead with your Strider buddies, think about your own baton that you are carrying, one that you will pass along one day and determine now that you will reach out and touch someone in a profound way. Because like any good race, training run or along life’s journey, at some point we will all be “just 16 minutes from home.”