On a recent Friday morning, 2016 Alumnus Daniel O'Brien came back to connect with James River students. Daniel was the featured speaker at a all-school meeting. This humble young man gave a tremendous talk and set an example that inspires. His speech follows. Read on and become acquainted with a person who demonstrates scholarship, leadership, and citizenship.
Good morning! Thank you, Mrs. Sydnor for inviting me, and thank you to Mr. Twadell and everyone here for having me. It feels great to be back. Not much has changed. The new building looks great, but the playground! I’m a little jealous of the new playground. And, my friends and I may, or may not, have used the slide a few times.
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Daniel O’Brien. I graduated from James River in 2016, where I ran cross country for four years. It was here that my running career truly began. I love running, and I love talking about running, but I am not a huge fan of talking about myself, but when Mrs. Sydnor emailed me, I couldn’t say no.
I am currently a junior at VES, where I run cross country and track. I am an 8-time state champion. I have competed in several national championships; I was named a 2018 Footlocker Nationals All-American and recently received the Gatorade State Runner of the Year award. While in San Diego, I was able to compete with the 40 best runners in the nation, was coached by an Olympian, Andy Butchart (one of the best track athletes in the entire world), and finally, my proudest accomplishment has to be -- my third place finish in the Fourth Grade One Miler.
But today, I’m not here to talk about my achievements or what I have done, but rather about the drive, goal-setting, and years of hard work that got me to this point. I have not achieved these goals because of talent. I am not unique or special, and if there are two things that I want you all to take away from this talk, they are that hard work will always beat out talent and setting unreasonable goals will lead you to tremendous success.
My career began here at James River several years ago with Coach Gillum, and still to this day it was one of the best experiences I have had. I was teammates with a fantastic group of runners from fifth grade on. [I ran with] runners such as Theo Woods, one of the best middle distance runners in the country, who runs for E.C. Glass and recently committed to run at Georgetown; Libby Davidson, who was one of the nation’s best high school distance runners and currently runs for UVA; Jette Davidson [currently at Glass and named 2018 All-Area Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year]; and my sister, Kate, who [ran at VES and currently] runs for Gettysburg College. Coach Gillum, I don’t know what it is, but James River is a machine when it comes to distance running.
It was here at JRDS where my career began, and where I fell in love with the sport. Throughout middle school, I played baseball and basketball, but as I continued to run I realized that I loved not only the competition of running, but the ability to push myself to limits I had not ever experienced before. Although I did not win every race, if I could run a faster time or place a little higher, I always walked away with a tremendous sense of accomplishment.
So in seventh grade, in a race called “The Running of the Wolves,” I placed fourth. Although it was a good performance, I knew I wanted more, and I told myself that next year, I would be one standing on the podium in first. I went on to win in my eighth grade year (I still have the goofy hat that they give the winner), and it was an unbelievable feeling that day. To see a year of work pay off, a year of coming home from baseball practices and heading out for a run – through rain, snow, anything – truly was rewarding.
On entering high school, I was ready to roll and ready to run with the big dogs. Freshman year, I ended up placing second at the state cross country meet, and I was super excited. I set a goal that day to win a state championship by the end of freshman year. That winter, I qualified for the New Balance Nationals Indoor in the mile. My family and I took the train up to the Armory (one of the world’s most famous indoor tracks) in NYC, and stayed in a hotel right next to Times Square. I remember walking into the Armory, hearing the music, and walking by dozens of running celebrities. I actually ran into one of my idols in the gift shop, who now runs for Oregon, and I got a picture with him. I was starstruck to say the least. The next day, I stepped on the track and finished 13th in the freshman mile. Just when I thought I had reached the next level, those guys ate me for breakfast. I felt as if I would never reach that level of competition. I remember the long train ride back. [I was thinking,] “Am I good enough for this national level? Those guys crushed me; do I really belong with that crowd?”
That outdoor season, I achieved my goal of winning a state championship in the two mile, and heading into the summer before sophomore year the training intensity increased. Sophomore cross country season, I won the state cross country title and continued on to the indoor state meet. There in the mile, the race came down to the line, and – with a lean – I managed to win by .05 of a second. The crowd was insanely loud, and it was one of the most exciting races of my career. As I continued into my outdoor season, I managed to qualify for the New Balance Nationals in the two mile, and was once again back on the national stage – with the big guys. This time, I promised myself the race would be different. In the 95° heat, I came away with eighth in a stacked field. The next level was in sight.
Throughout my career, my training slowly increased in volume and intensity. The summer before junior year, I heavily increased mileage, core, and weight workouts. Sunday through Saturday, 60+ miles a week, between nine and twelve miles a day through 90° weather probably doesn’t sound like a very fun summer. But, through every run, every ab workout, every 6:00 AM wake-up, when I just wanted to stay in bed or play Fortnite, there was only one goal in mind. The goal was to qualify for the Foot Locker Nationals in San Diego in December. At the time, it seemed outrageous. To qualify and be among the 40 best cross country runners in the entire country seemed so far out of reach. These guys were my idols. I read articles about them every year, never dreaming that I would ever reach their level. But throughout the season, after winning my 7th state title, beating some of the nation’s top recruits in huge invitationals, and setting a state meet record, it seemed possible. My goal, my high school dream, was within my grasp. Thousands of miles had been run, countless social events sacrificed, every meal carefully planned, having early bedtimes on Friday nights – all had led to one race.
This past November at the Foot Locker South Regional, I placed third, running 15:07 for 5000m, qualifying for nationals in San Diego.
Two weeks later, I flew out to the Foot Locker Cross Country National Championships in California to hang out with and race against the best runners in the nation. It didn’t seem real. Runners I had idolized, I was now roommates with. In addition, dozens of professional and Olympic runners were our coaches. On our first day, the pros knocked on our doors and hand-delivered massive bags of New Balance running gear.
After countless interviews and various activities planned for the athletes, I knew there was still one race left to run. The day arrived, and after a conservative start, I managed to place 12th, capturing a top-15 All American spot. I beat guys that I had idolized for years, and proved that I can run at this level, too.
This story sounds exciting, and I am beyond blessed to have the tremendous support of my parents, coaches, teachers, and friends, and I plan to run at a competitive Division One program in the future. However, what I want to emphasize is that it is not the glory, the awards, or the gear that is important. I am not special. I have not achieved what I have achieved based on talent. I just trusted the training. I’m sure all of you have had a test that you’ve studied really hard for. You’ve worked ahead; you know the subject; you’ve done everything you can. The same goes for training, and I had done everything I could. Now, all I had to do was believe in the preparation. I trusted all of the miles, the hours, and the sweat, and the years of training, and I set unreasonable goals. Goals that, frankly, one year ago, if you had told me I would achieve, I would have laughed. Goals that seemed so far off that they were almost out of sight.
But, these goals must be set. With preparation, work, and faith, they will be met.
Although I have spoken primarily of running, this applies to any sport, any class, or any activity that you are passionate about. It may be a lacrosse game, or maybe a math competition, or a piano recital, a dance competition, or a basketball game, or – anything. There are few of you out there right nowthat have much more talent than I do. Several of you. Now, it’s your turn. Set high goals; commit yourself. Be the most prepared. I bet some of you will run a lot faster than I ever did.