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"Perseverance leads to Clemson running dream", reads a headline from the Hartwell Sun's June 4th publication. Below the headline is a photograph of Samuel Garringer, smiling and surrounded by friends and family as he officially commits to run cross country and track & field for Clemson University. The signing ceremony was originally scheduled for March 2020; the June date is a reminder of all that Garringer lost due to the COVID-19 crisis. In February, he was predicted to finish 2nd in the 1600m race at the state meet -- and he had aspirations for both individual and team state championship titles. In spite of efforts by the Georgia High School Association, a month later Garringer's season -- and hopes for a title -- were ended. At the time, the blow was devastating. Now, the cancellation of his final high school season is a mild disappointment compared to the decision to eliminate the Clemson Men's Cross Country and Track & Field program.
In his sophomore year of high school, Garringer set his sights on competing at the Division I level. It was a daunting task, and though he was committed wholeheartedly to his goal, he faced what he describes as a "constant uphill battle". After a particularly poor performance at his junior year state meet -- a race he describes as his "rock bottom" -- he was forced to evaluate his athletic future. In the face of countless challenges, Garringer poured himself into his training. He saw a future competing for the glory and honor of his university, competing alongside teammates that would be more like family. All his hard work paid off in early February 2020 when he received a call from distance coach Vicky Pounds, who extended an offer to compete for Clemson University.
Throughout summer 2020, Garringer's disappointment surrounding the cancellation of his senior season was replaced with mounting anticipation for his freshman season at Clemson. He was particularly excited about early opportunities to bond with his new teammates. "The guys who were living in Clemson and Greenville at the time started inviting me on runs and really invited me in," says Garringer. "I was looking forward to competing with my teammates… You get to be around them year-round [cross country and indoor/outdoor track seasons] and form a bond with them."
His first semester, though, was certainly not a typical college experience. He quickly grew frustrated with COVID-19 protocols -- over the course of the semester, he lived in four different housing assignments. "The constant change made it extremely hard to focus on academics and athletics," he states, describing his aggravation. The transition to college is taxing on any student, but it is particularly challenging for athletes, who find themselves with limited time and energy outside of their academic and athletic requirements. In addition to these typical stressors, Garringer was forced to deal with the stress of COVID-related issues. He describes the mental and physical fatigue following the ACC Cross Country Championships as the most intense of his life.
Six days after ACC Championships, Garringer and his teammates were summoned to a meeting with Clemson Athletic Director Dan Radakovich. The team was completely unprepared for Radakovich's announcement: the athletic department had decided to eliminate the Men's Cross Country and Track & Field program following the May 2021 outdoor season. Garringer was completely stunned. "It took me a while to really process what had happened," he states, still in disbelief that the department could make such a decision. "It wasn't until we went down to the indoor track for our meeting with Coach Elliot [head track coach] that it really set in. I looked around and saw all of my teammates that I wasn't going to get to compete with anymore… I don't know how to describe how I felt in that moment -- I was very upset and disappointed."
Garringer angrily recalls Radakovich's attitude of dismissal towards the team. "When he first made the announcement, a couple of guys immediately stepped up and asked what we needed to raise -- or what we could do -- to assist in getting the decision reversed," says Garringer. Given Radakovich's statement regarding financial and budget issues, the team wanted to attempt to raise the money necessary to save their program. "He [Radakovich] told us that any efforts we would put forth to get the decision reversed would be useless -- the decision was final. It was disappointing knowing that our athletic director did not appreciate the hard work and sacrifices we were willing to commit to keeping our program alive."
Mentally battered and bruised, Garringer nevertheless still chooses to persevere regardless of Radakovich's efforts to quell any resistance from the team. He expected to compete alongside his teammates. Now he will fight alongside them to save the sport he loves and preserve the community he loves -- not only for himself and his remaining three years at Clemson but for the generations of runners who will come after.
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