Matt Whitcomb's Wahconah teammate Tom Keefe introduces him at Thursday's assembly.
DALTON, Mass. — One in a long line of successful Wahconah Regional High School athletes was back at the school Thursday to tell the student body to relish their failures.
"Surround yourself in strength," was the theme of Matt Whitcomb, a state high school champion, 1996 Wahconah grad and, more recently, coach on the U.S. Women's Cross Country Ski team that won the nation's first-ever Nordic gold medal at the 2018 Olympic Games.
Whitcomb told the students that no matter what they were doing — whether athletics, academics or some other pursuit — the secret to success is to surround yourself with successful people and feed on them.
"What is the best environment to improve?" Whitcomb asked the students. "Is it to be the person who is always winning everything on your soccer team or your cross country team? Is it to be the smartest classmate? Or is it to be someone who is able to challenge one another but is also willing to be pushed, willing to take a beating because to be surrounded by strength is to improve."
Whitcomb pointed to the person who introduced him at the assembly, Tom Keefe. Keefe was known to many of the kids in the room as a physical education teacher at Dalton's Craneville Elementary School.
But back in the early '90s, Keefe was a freshman on the Wahconah Nordic team that Whitcomb captained to a state title.
In his remarks, Keefe talked about a grueling preseason run through prickle bushes to the top of Windsor Mountain and back.
"Matt convinced me to do something that I thought was too hard, that I didn't think I could do," Keefe said. "But on that day, Matt showed me how to push the limits of the human body and the mind, to never give up and never surrender. Matt made me believe in myself and to believe that I could accomplish anything with the right work ethic and mindset.
"On that day, Matt challenged me to raise the bar. As a freshman, I could not have asked for a better role model than Matt."
Whitcomb remembered the same anecdote from a different perspective.
"[Keefe] fought and scratched and clawed to keep up with us," Whitcomb said. "And by halfway through that fall of dryland season, he was keeping up. And come state championships, while Tom wasn't one of the guys who was first or fourth or sixth, he scored the points that you look back and say, ‘That actually made the difference.'
"It was because Tom embraced the idea of being surrounded in strength. What could have defeated Tom his freshman year by never being able to win a single workout was instead what allowed his team to win.
"Surround yourself in strength."
Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins were the pictures of strength at the Pyeongchang Olympics.
On Thursday afternoon, the Wahconah students watched a video clip of the Americans' gold medal-winning finish in the team sprint.
After the cheers in the Wahconah auditorium subsided, the school's girls Nordic ski coach, Kiersten Touponce, talked about how she jumped up and down on her couch watching the event in February.
Touponce said as a coach, she had an appreciation for how much work went into Randall's and Diggins' gold medal moment. And as a Wahconah coach, she was thrilled to know a member of the school's family helped guide all that hard work.
"I hope you take anything he says today and apply it to your life," Touponce told the students.
"Matt only spends a few select days in the states," Wahconah Principal Aaron Robb said. "He wanted to spend one of them here with us."
Whitcomb told the students that he was honored to have the opportunity.
"I am unbelievably proud to be a Wahconah Warrior," he said. "And I'm taking off tomorrow. I start my journey in Boston and we go to Finland to live, literally on the Arctic circle where there are actual reindeer running around on the ski trail. And I'll come back on March 24 after hitting just about every country that there is. It is a cool job.
"But to get fired up for that trip, I can't think of a better motivating event than this for me, and I thank you for that. And to make sure I leave fired up, I'll be at the football game tomorrow night.
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