John Ripa: An Athlete That's Never Satisfied
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John Ripa: An Athlete That's Never Satisfied

How a high school freshman cut from the JV baseball team became a track star phenom.

John Ripa: An Athlete That's Never Satisfied

My favorite running-related memory of my friend and high school teammate, John Ripa, will always be the indoor league championships of our senior year, where he was sick and raced two distances far outside his comfort zone: the 1000 meter race and the anchor leg of the 4x800 meter relay.

On the final lap of the 1000 meter race, John was right behind the leader of the race, but the leader made a move. 40 meters later, the competitor put a sizable gap on John – he was done, his arms flailing, his face straining immensely. However, he stormed back to be right behind the competitor right afterwards. But to the dismay of myself and my other teammates, the leader made another surge, and John was dropped again. It was over.

Then, however, John came back to be right behind his competitor again. With only 100 meters left, we still weren’t convinced John was in the race – after all, he wasn’t 100 percent, and it seemed like he was expending far more energy than the leader in just keeping up with him. Our forebodingly pessimistic prediction seemed to be proven right when John, once again, was dropped, this time with the competitor accelerating so ferociously that indicated a final surge, or "kick."

But in the last 50 meters and straightaway of the narrow indoor track, John summoned a burst of strength and speed that came out of nowhere – that as we were told later, came from the depths of extraordinary pain – and he passed his competitor one last time. Two seconds later, John would emerge at the line as the 2015 league champion in the 1000 meter run.

We as his teammates raucously rose up not only in excitement, but bewilderment as well. The predominant sentiment was something along the lines of, “What the hell?” John was “beaten” three separate times in 30 seconds, and he overcame those insurmountable deficits each time. He was Lazarus in that race – rising from being dead and defeated, over and over.

Unfortunately, that would not be John’s final race of the day. He would anchor the final leg of the 4x800 meter relay, and going into the last lap. It was a coincidental case of déjà vu – John sitting right behind the very same competitor that he beat in the 1000 meter run. 50 meters later, he was dropped, but again, he rose back up to deal his rival that day two defeats in almost the exact same manner.

Not many people talk about that day of all of John’s high school running achievements, but in my mind, that was a testament to the kind of person and competitor he is. He is someone who, for better or worse, thinks that no matter how well he does or how much he accomplishes, it is never enough. John has a work ethic and mindset that flat out refuses to quit and a hunger to do better that is never satisfied – as evidenced by the amount of times he was beaten by the same competitor during that track meet, and he refused to give in. This pattern of the relative unknown John Ripa unexpectedly coming back from seemingly insurmountable deficits would come into play a lot in his later races.

The race that propelled John to recognition in the Suffolk County and Section XI track and field community was ultimately his victory in the prestigious mile race at the high-profile St. Anthony’s Invitational in the spring of 2015. The race boasted a prestigious field of high school runners – whose previous performances far out shadowed his. With 200 meters left in the race, he was in a far second place behind Pat Tucker of St. Anthony’s with another seemingly unbridgeable gap. But this time, his face didn’t have the same strain it did in the previous race. We saw how well he ran some of his workouts – and we knew then that John had this race in the bag.

In his typical Lazarus-like fashion, John came back to be right behind Tucker again, with only 100 meters left in the race. Then, John stormed past him with no response from Tucker – as we rejoiced in his upset victory to the inappropriate words of,

“Holy shit! Holy shit! Did he just do that?”

That day was one of the only times I saw John satisfied with how he raced, he made a roar and fist pump at the line, as he ran a personal record of 4:19 in the mile. He would later win the Section XI County Championships in the mile a few weeks later, just outleaning Port Jefferson legend, James Burke, at the line. John raced that way similarly to St. Anthony’s seemingly being out of contention with 300 meters to go, only to barely outlean two of the best in the county – our teammate, Charlie Theiss, and James Burke.

But John sees the St. Anthony’s race as the best of his high school career, as on the day of the county championships and the state qualifier meet, John and the rest of us were dismayed when the 4x800 meter relay was kicked out of contention to make State Championships. Although he was happy about his race, the team’s pride and glory was the 4x8, and that dream was shattered on the very last event of the day.

“St. Anthony’s was cooler than State Quals,” John said. “I would have rather gone for the 4x8 than the mile.”

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John is very humble about the beginnings of his running career – his freshmen and sophomore years, he was not great, but was not terrible either. He broke five minutes in the mile at the end of his sophomore year. But at the beginning, baseball was his ideal sport and dream as a high school athlete. In his freshman year of high school, John was cut from the baseball team.

“I started running because I was too afraid of getting cut from the JV baseball team,” John said. “I got mediocre at running, so I didn’t stop.”

But it was the change of coaches and culture in the transition between his sophomore and junior years that propelled his college career. That year, the Ward Melville Cross Country team lost five of its top seven runners, so the team was in for a huge shakeup and transition, not only in leadership but also in culture, and Gregg Cantwell, Ward Melville and University of Delaware alum, became the new Cross Country coach at Ward Melville.

As much as I loved the team before Cantwell arrived, there was an obvious deficiency: the old team didn't focus much time on runners outside the top seven. Besides the top runners on the team, almost everyone else was nearly invisible, leading to a lack of depth that so many surrounding teams had, as well as a culture that didn't necessarily attend to younger guys too well.

But with the arrival of Cantwell on the team, runners on the team across the board saw unprecedented growth and progress, as well as a new team culture that was far more egalitarian and collective in nature. Gregg Cantwell and the top guys on the team pulled out all the stops in integrating younger freshmen and sophomores on the team. To see the team now is to see the epitome of depth - more than 20 kids have broken five minutes in the mile.

But no one benefited more from that shift in culture than John. "Cantwell definitely helped me the most of anyone, not just with the training," he said. "The team culture he created made coming to practice very fun, and running becomes very easy when it's fun."

As John's teammate for four years, I've seen that the hard part in the sport for him isn't physical - it's mental. Again, he is someone who is never satisfied or happy with a result, who always believes in the fact that he can do better. I genuinely believe that if John Ripa ran a sub 4 minute mile, he would wake up the next week and think I really should have run 3:55

. He is a perpetual overthinker and overanalyzer - and from what I have witnessed, he always feels worse than what the result was - if he runs well, he will think he ran okay. If he runs badly, he will internally destroy himself for weeks. He will achieve a goal he's had for years, only for that goal to have turned into something more.

"I don't get injured often," John said. "I think my biggest weakness is just mentality. I tend to overthink bad workouts and races and create problems out of nothing."

But time and time again, I have seen John shut off the internal monologue that holds him back, and tap into an near impossible resiliency - especially when it matters the most. It happened in our indoor league championships, in the St. Anthony's Invitational, and in the state qualifier meet. When everyone thinks John is down and out of it, he comes back to bite them - something I've likened throughout the article to Lazarus.

I don't know how he does it, but I've always seen that John's greatest moments as a runner usually come when he's running for more than himself. I know that he always tapped for more because Cantwell believed and knew that he could. My biggest regret as a high school runner was letting my team down at the Cross Country County Championships my senior year - where we did the best that Ward Melville every has in Cross Country, tying for first place, but losing the tiebreaker. While I let someone pass me in the last second, John ran the race of his life, running a huge PR on arguably the most difficult Cross Country course in the Northeast, in a race where we were heavily expected to be blown out by our county rival.

On that day, when the stakes were highest, when it mattered most for his team - John stepped up and defied the short expectations.

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Now, John is going into his junior year at SUNY Geneseo on their Cross Country and Track and Field teams. He is a political science major who one day wants to go into Law School.

He ran huge personal records this season--3:57 in the 1500 meters and 15:32 in the 5000 meters. Solid times, but John knows he is capable of more, "I want to eventually make D3 Nationals," he said, "That's my goal."

And while some will look at his PRs now and think he can't do it, he has proven, over and over again, that it doesn't matter what you think or expect. When John is pushed against the wall, he rises up and comes back stronger than ever, and I will bet anybody in the world that he will.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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