Westmont College senior Michael Oldach, the No. 2 miler in school history, was already hobbled by injuries when he got tripped during the first mile of last fall’s NAIA National Cross Country Championships.
His view from the ground was actually a flashback from his freshman year when a fear of failure prompted him to quit that same race.
“I was confronted by those same thoughts to pull out with every single step afterwards,” Oldach said. “But I didn’t … I chose to get back up and I chose to persist to the finish line.”
Oldach, a three-time All-American and the national runner-up in the 1500 meters in 2018, finished 229th that day. But he also finished with expressions of gratitude for his Warrior coaches and comrades, explaining to them that, “I don’t know how many more times I’ll race in a Westmont jersey.”
The COVID-19 pandemic would make that his last time, cancelling his final track-and-field season this spring.
But Oldach, an Augustinian Scholar and one of a dozen Westmont athletes honored this week with Golden Eagle Scholar-Athlete Awards, could still see the big picture from his personal finish line.
“While I wish I could pull on the maroon and white jersey a few more times,” he began, “I’ll always carry with me what I’ve learned during my time at Westmont as an invisible jersey … and I will keep getting back up.”
The Golden Eagle banquet, sponsored since 1995 by Pete and Gerd Jordano of Pacific Beverage Company, was cancelled by social-distancing regulations. Westmont, however, still honored Oldach and 11 others who ranked as the top scholar-athletes from their sports with a video-taped, “virtual ceremony.”
Oldach, who is graduating with a degree in chemistry, showed his acumen in history, as well. He summed up his Westmont experience with a quote from Winston Churchill “during the more serious times” of World War II: “Success is never final. Failure is never fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”
Russell Smelley, the Warriors’ veteran coach, saw that courage develop in Oldach over the last four years.
“Michael is a very critical person of himself and had high expectations when he started as an athlete on the team, and as a student and individual,” he said. “It took a while for us to get him to point where he could give himself credit for the hard work he did and the victories, and sometimes the second places or the losses in his mind that he incurred.
“Over time, he became more reflective and introspective, and that made him a better person and a better athlete … Our conversations went from angst over performance to evaluative, and ‘How can I learn from this?’ and ‘What can I do about this?’ and ‘How can I give to others?’”
Nobody persevered more than junior Patty Kerman, the women’s volleyball Golden Eagle and a double major in economics/business and communications studies. She walked on to Westmont’s team as a freshman and had her sophomore season wiped out by a major knee injury suffered the previous spring.
But she became a key player for the Warriors as an outside hitter last fall, helping them advance to the NAIA final for the first time in school history.
“Patty was one of the shining beacons to why we made it there,” coach Ruth McGolpin said.
“If I’ve learned anything from my few years at Westmont, it’s to always be ready for the unexpected,” said Kerman, a 5-foot-10, opposite-side hitter. “My freshman year we had the Thomas Fire, mudslides, torn ACL … I was out of action my sophomore year, and now we’ve got this whole pandemic thing.
“But Westmont has also taught me that through Christ, anything is possible … Who would’ve thought that the kid who tore her ACL would be playing in the national championship game a year later?”
Isaiah Leach, Westmont baseball’s Golden Eagle and an NAIA Academic All-American during his stellar junior year, was struggling with injuries when his senior season was abruptly ended by the coronavirus.
Despite the injuries, “Isaiah was steadfast in his commitment to putting his teammates first,” coach Robert Ruiz pointed out. “He certainly was part of plenty of big moments on the field, but in the background he quietly carried the torch day in and day out exemplifying the core values of our program.”
Leach, a senior majoring in communications studies, said that Westmont taught him that he was “more than an athlete … That sports doesn’t define me, but who I am in Christ defines me.”
“Before I came to Westmont, I don’t think I really thought that way,” he continued. “I thought that who I was on the field was who I was as a person, and my identity was wrapped up in that. But through the teachers at Westmont, through different coaches, different players, older players on the team, they’ve showed me the way.
“What coach Ruiz has taught me throughout my four years at Westmont is that if we don’t walk away from the field learning how to be a better man, how to be a better husband, how to be a better brother, how to be a better friend, we’re missing the point of why God gave us sports.”
Westmont’s other Golden Eagles are track and field’s Jack Dickinson (senior in education) and Chena Underhill (senior in political science/data analytics); tennis’ Cade Pierson (senior in psychology); swimming’s Allison Gonzalez (senior in kinesiology); soccer’s Josh Phillips (sophomore in biology) and Brooke Porter (senior in kinesiology/chemistry); cross country’s Sarah Claud (senior in kinesiology), and basketball’s Jordan Spaschak (senior in liberal studies) and Maud Ranger (senior in economics and business).
Spaschak spent most of his final day at Westmont with his coach, John Moore.
“I remember our daily talks, how he listened to me, and how he made me feel like I was the most important time of his day,” he said.
Moore, whose Warriors were ranked No. 7 in the NAIA when the pandemic ended their season, said he just didn’t want it to end.
“I wanted to show him some of my favorite places,” he explained. “I wanted to have more of Jordan.”