September 20, 2012

Running for more than just a time

Matthew Christopher, a senior on the cross country team, has an intriguing story, one that has given him much more to be thankful for than just the privilege of being a college athlete.

At age eight, he began having neck pains and occasionally saw double, which prompted his parents to take him to see a neurologist. A cat scan followed by an MRI revealed a tumor on the back of his head and Matthew was immediately taken for surgery. Matthew said that the surgery went according to plan and the tumor was removed without issue.

“I was really calm at the time,” he said, “Because I thought I’m gonna have surgery, I’ll come out and I’ll go home.”

He said it wasn’t until the surgery was over that his parents informed him that he could have died had it not been successful.

“One memory of going into surgery was being wheeled in and my parents were walking beside me I looked up at them and they were both crying and I think that’s the part that got me thinking that if they’re crying it’s obviously something bigger than just getting this done.”

The next six months of his life consisted of chemotherapy and radiation on not only the back of his head where the tumor previously was but also on parts of his spine. While the radiation helped rid the infected area of residual cancer cells, it also killed some of the growth cells in his body, leaving Matthew four inches shorter than his doctor had projected. The therapy also resulted in some hearing loss, forcing Matthew to wear a hearing aid.

Matthew said that having gone through such an experience left him feeling “a little bit anti-social afterwards because I felt a little self-conscious about everything that happened.”

However, he was able to channel the negativity of brain cancer into motivation towards running.

“It’s like another milestone that you can say that you know you were able to do on top of running cross country, which is hard enough for some people to do.”

Matthew came from a family abundant in runners and began running short distances in middle school before transitioning to longer distances in high school.

“I did it mainly to gain friends and to meet people,” he said, “I wanted to make friends at the time. That’s why I joined it, and that’s also kind of why I wanted to do it more here, coming into college.”

When asked about how he ended up in Westminster, Matthew said that he visited the school while here to see his younger cousin Pat, play baseball and found that the small size, respectable cross country team and distinguished exercise science program were an ideal combination of characteristics that fit him well. After completing two years of community college, he decided to attend McDaniel.

“I liked everything about the college, the small size and the people were so friendly around the campus.”

An exercise science major, Matthew will be graduating in the spring with his degree, work for a year, and then decide whether or not he wants to pursue physical education/therapy.

He said that there is most likely a correlation between his medical history and love of running with his chosen area of study.

“Coming out of cancer or any kind of surgery, it’s all about getting back to the way you were before that, as if nothing ever happened.

“I didn’t want people to treat me differently because of this so I wanted to get back into shape and act like I was before.”

The experience has made him lean more towards a career in which he can help others regardless of age or condition.

“It makes me want to help other people, whether they’ve had surgery or if they’re injured. Just get them back into the physical state they were in before,” Matthew said, “Even elderly people; just helping them stay fit as if aging wouldn’t really change them much either.”

Matthew also expressed his satisfaction with being able to be a part of a Division III program in which times are not the sole measure of success. 

“Not being the greatest runner in the world, I didn’t want to have to run with the whole team a mile ahead of me and then I come in dead last. So Division III was a good place to start because it’s more about having fun rather than being pressured.”

While Matthew would like to break his PR, he said that he’d rather enjoy himself and reap the health benefits of the sport than get caught up in the numbers game.

Cross country coach Doug Renner expressed a similar philosophy. His mindset is that regardless of statistics, if you’re willing to work hard, there’ll be a spot on the team for you.

“Unfortunately, the nature of the beast in our sport is times. Everybody wants to know how fast did you run? To me it’s more about where did you run? Are you happy with the effort that you gave? Can you look yourself in the mirror and be proud of the race you ran?”

Both he and Matthew stressed the importance of having fun and meeting new people.

The sense of unification and companionship associated with being a part of a team is what Matthew says he will miss the most about college and just being a part of the athletic program.

“Then you can look back on this and say I became a college athlete. Despite what division you are, you stood up and did it.”

Article by Jake Ulick, Franklin High School senior and intern in McDaniel College Sports Information Office

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