Vassar is fortunate to have so many talented and dedicated student-athletes on campus. This year, The Miscellany News would like to highlight the voices and stories of these athletes. “Why We Play” will be a weekly installment in the Sports section where Vassar players will have the opportunity to speak about what their chosen sport means to them. This week, we are excited to feature senior men’s fencing captain Tom Racek, who writes about how he has overcome adversity to thrive in his sport.
I love cheering for the underdog. In any competition, I’m always rooting for the ones with their backs to the wall, the ones who are simply chasing a dream. I so readily fall in love with such players, because I sympathize with their plight.
My dream was to be a collegiate fencer, and in my senior year of high school I chased it down. I was in full swing with respect to training and recruitment, but I had to miss some time in September, as I had a run-in with a Rottweiler. Two weeks, 15 stitches and a mountain of antibiotics later, I was back at it.
Little did I know that this hindrance foreshadowed more difficulties. At home, things reached a boiling point and my parents separated. I stayed with my mom as my dad left the state. Those days in October were so painful. I didn’t need a spoiler alert, I knew how the story would end. The house, the finances, the responsibilities, everything ruptured. Everything except a dream.
I had lots of work to do, but with my Mom’s constant support, we worked together to ensure that it happened. We cut out everything unnecessary. We ended our cable services, bought food in bulk at a discount supermarket, rocked the prepaid phones and did not turn on the heat for the winter. If we sought relief from the Pennsylvanian cold, we would heat the electric oven and leave it open.
We had one car with 200,000 miles, which we lovingly called “Big Blue.” Three times a week, “Big Blue,” my Mom and I would trek from Scranton to Lebanon, New Jersey, so I could train at Clinton Fencing Club. An hour-45 minute commute each way.
The support given by Clinton Fencing Club owner Connie, coach Eric, and all our friends at the club was surreal. I was at the club when I received the acceptance notification from Vassar. For a brief moment I was frozen in disbelief. Dreams do come true. The hard work, sacrifice and many oil changes had paid off!
Once the emotions thawed, I felt a sense of obligation to the Vassar Fencing team, even though at that point I hardly knew them. I wanted to enter in my best form, and with a bang.
I set my eyes on the April National Tournament. Cue “Eye of the Tiger.” My memory is just one single blur from this point on, all the way up until the week of the tournament. I followed a routine: load the car, drive to Jersey, work like hell, drive back, be home by 11 p.m., pass out. Next day, mom goes to work, I go to school, then repeat. Finally the week of the tournament arrived, but we hit another bump in the road.
Our beloved dog Rocky was diagnosed with lymphoma on Christmas. This first week in April, he was making his last stand. I left for school on a Wednesday for a midterm examination; my Mom stayed home to be with him. Before I left, I kissed and hugged him; his big eyes were so expressive. I told him I loved him, and that I would see him again. While I was in math class, I broke down and tears poured out. I shielded them with the sleeve of my sweatshirt. Even though I was in the middle of a test, my mind floated elsewhere. Instinctively I felt that he was gone. When I came home after school there was no familiar bark, there were no clicking nails on the tile. Rock was gone.
When I departed for the tournament on Friday, I felt cold and distant, but I knew what needed to be done. The tournament was being held at the Minneapolis Convention Center, which meant that I would see my dad for the first time in six months. It was great to see him, but there were many difficult feelings that came along with it. I ran into his attorney, who articulated to me his conviction that they would gouge my mom in the courtroom. On top of that, an overzealous aunt asked, “When are you selling the house?” My level of anger rivaled a Trump Twitter meltdown.
But at the tournament I had something within my control. I vowed to make it count. I finished third out of 82 competitors, and I earned a new ranking and a Division 2 National Medal with it.
As I stood on the podium, emotions warred inside me. The people that most deserved to see this moment could not be there: my mom, Coach Eric and all of the friends at the club.
When it was over I went to my phone and found two unread messages. The first one from Mom: “Congratulations Tommy!!! I am so proud of you!!” The second from Vassar, my new coach, Bruce Gillman: “Congrats on the result, the team can’t wait to have you!”
When I look at that medal from the meet, I don’t remember the moment of triumph. I remember the countless hours of work that it represents. Four years later, a similar feeling resonates.
Sure, I remember the women’s team killing it at EWFC or the men’s team upsetting the defending National Champions on their home turf, but my nostalgia rests with the hours that the team spent together. The 5 a.m. wake up calls, the 7 a.m. lifts, the practices, the get-togethers and the travel with it.
Through it all, the team has given me a reason to strive to become a better person, leader and athlete – even before I ever donned the burgundy and gray.
These transformative experiences and the journey molded my college experience. The process is where the value is. Everything else comes and goes, but the memories stay.
So why do I play? I don’t play for the championships or victories, I play for everything and everyone behind those successes. I play to respect the work of yesterday and how it got me here today.
Tom and his team continues to advance through his final season at Vassar. The fencing team will head to Baltimore, Maryland this weekend to participate in the MACFA Invitational.