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On Heathwood: Doing the Right Thing and Winning Anyway

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Last week, the Charleston Post and Courier ran a great article (http://www.postandcourier.com/sports/jewish-runner-balances-religion-and-competition-porter-gaud-cross-country/article_8da0f4ac-a10b-11e6-b964-1be7b9527eb7.html) about a runner from Porter-Gaud who recently spent two nights in the Hospitality room in Heathwood’s gym so that he could compete in the state cross country meet. The runner, Judah Ellison, is Jewish, and his observance of the Sabbath prohibited him from riding in a car on the day of the meet. If he had not stayed on our campus, he would not have been able to run in the state meet.

There are a lot of remarkable things about Judah’s story—starting with the fact that he only took up cross country in this, his senior year of high school, and he quickly emerged as one of the strongest runners in the state. But one of the things that struck the Post and Courier reporter as most remarkable was Heathwood’s willingness to open its doors to Judah when his ability to compete was so clearly not in the Heathwood cross country team’s best interest. By that point in the season, the Heathwood team was in strong contention to win the state title. Judah, who was likely to finish as one of the top three runners at the state meet, could easily have dashed their hopes.

“In every sense,” noted the article, making it possible for Judah to run “was a competitive disadvantage to his own team, but [Heathwood Athletic Director Jeff] Whalen wanted Judah to compete.”

Porter-Gaud Athletic Director Larry Salley said much the same: “For [Heathwood] to say to a team that’s trying to knock them off from being the top seed, ‘We’ll go ahead and (help you),’ that is not acting in their own best interest.”

As it turned out, Judah Ellison finished in first place at the state meet—and so did Heathwood. While Judah won the individual title, the Heathwood team of Hugh Willcox, Joe French, Nick Basile, Matthew Quan, Aidan Powers, Baron Stanton, and Ben Feldman beat out Cardinal Newman to claim the team title.

As a cross country parent—my son Ryan, ’22, has been on the team for two years now—I am thrilled about our state championship. But I am even more proud of our school’s willingness to open our doors to Judah Ellison so he could compete that day. I am proud to work with people like Jeff Whalen who instinctively prioritize doing the right thing over winning at any cost. And I am proud of Heathwood student athletes like the members of our cross country team, who were excited to welcome Judah to our campus even though they knew he was likely to outrun them in the most important meet of the year.

When the Post and Courier reporter asked Jeff Whalen why he agreed to host Judah, Jeff said, “I always tell the kids that I coach that we want to be able to run or play against the best because that’s who you’ve got to measure yourself against. Solely to win, that’s not why we’re in the business. You work at a school, but you’re still in it for all student athletes. You really are.”

We all like to win, and we at Heathwood are justifiably proud of the championships, the all-state honors, and the college scholarships our student athletes earn. But as Jeff said, there are more important things than winning. The fact that our cross country team won a state championship is reason to celebrate. But the fact that the team, its coaches, and our whole athletics program didn’t hesitate to support an athlete from a rival school is even more reason to celebrate, and to say with true pride in our voices—GO HALL!