Shorewood, Whitefish Bay runners fought through pain to earn state track honors
Both end up as winners
Justin Rabon of Shorewood and Rashadeem Gray of Whitefish Bay are newly-minted high school graduates who go out having drank deeply from the well of success in the sport of track.
Rabon went out as a four-time champ, having won crowns in the 400-meters, the 200 and a record-setting 1,600 relay in 2012 and then anchoring the 1,600 relay to a new state record just a few weeks ago, bringing home an elusive first WIAA state D2 team track crown to Shorewood in the process.
Gray was on state championship 400 and 800 relay teams as a sophomore in 2011. He earned another medal in the 800 relay in 2012 and then brought home the 400 relay to a runner-up finish in his final track race at the state meet a few weeks ago.
In the interim, he and his senior classmates led the Blue Dukes to their first North Shore Conference football championship in decades. He earned NOW All-Suburban honors as a running back and the Blue Dukes came within an eyelash of playing in the state D2 championship game.
Just for good measure, Gray also claimed his third straight berth in the state wrestling tournament over the winter.
Everything these two got, they earned with sweat, effort and pain — especially pain, as the hard won-success of the track spring did not come without a price. In this second part of a series on the sacrifices North Shore senior track athletes made for success, we will examine their trials by fire.
It was all set up for Rabon, heading off to the University of Wisconsin to run track for the Badgers next year. All he had to do was stay healthy and cruise through his senior year, repeating as state champ in the 200, 400 and 1,600 relay.
In early February, all that seemed easily possible, as he ran a blisteringly fast indoor 400 at a high level meet.
Then his foot started bothering him. Doctors had diagnosed tendinitis in the foot his sophomore year and he had been able to manage the pain for well over a year.
"Then it got worse over the winter and before I knew it, they had diagnosed a stress fracture," he said. "They casted me in February and until around the third week of March I was going around in a walking boot."
The season was close to three weeks old at that point and Rabon had not run a step.
"It was really hard seeing everyone go past me, running fast, while I had to sit there and be patient," he said.
After he got out of the boot, he had to be even more patient. To get his conditioning up, he ran on an anti-gravity treadmill to get used to the motion of running again.
It wasn't until mid-to-late April that he got cleared to run again. It soon became clear that defending all three of his 2012 state titles was going to be very difficult, if not downright impossible.
"I wanted to defend," he said. "The conditioning was there, the speed was there, but I was still behind the game as far as everyone else was concerned. Still, I got better every day."
In the end, his beloved open 400 meters had to be jettisoned from his docket.
Still, the Greyhounds had a great chance at defending their 1,600 relay title, still giving him a 400 to run at state. But coach Dominic Newman, Rabon's doctors and eventually Rabon himself realized that two sets of 400s in one meet (the open and the relay) would be just too hard on the surgically-repaired foot this soon.
"I love that race (the 400) with a passion," he said. "I talked to my college and high school coaches and it came down to the matter of managing pain. I won't be fully recovered until the end of July, but they were pretty certain that I would be all right (and not do any more damage)."
Perhaps as a result of his exerperience, he will major in kinesiology and exercise science at UW.
After that decision, in came the revised schedule of the 400 relay (just a 100 leg for Rabon), the open 200 and the 1,600 relay.
"I learned to love the 400 relay," he laughed as he and the team repeatedly broke the school record in the event and earned second at state.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
The schedule worked. The Greyhounds scored a historic trio of team wins, including WIAA D2 regional, sectional and state behind Rabon, his sprint pals and a determined distance group. Rabon got the final touch, as he anchored the 1,600 relay team that included Jacob Goldberg, Taylor Dennis and Alec Grimmer to a new state record.
Furthermore, the relay win sealed the team title for the Greyhounds and that victory tasted oh so much sweeter for Rabon.
"We're really trying to do this," he said of the state team championship the week before festivities got underway in La Crosse May 31 and June 1. "We're really close and ready for the challenge."
Rabon and the Greyhounds decidedly were.
Things were a little different for Gray. He had been a three-sport star for the Blue Dukes, looking for a final closing touch to a sensational high career, but as one of his assistant track coaches suggested, he had been going hard non-stop three seasons a year for four years.
In short, something had to give.
He had a healthy and strong football season, one that netted him a ride to the University of Northern Iowa next fall, and a solid wrestling campaign.
He got rolling in the indoor season of track and was prepared for that grand finish, but it had a hiccup.
"My hip had always bothered me a little bit," Gray said, "but I didn't complain about it too much in football or wrestling. But it was getting bad, so I had it checked out."
It turned out he had an inflammation in the right side of the pelvic bone and the only cure for it was rest.
"I really couldn't do anything," Gray said. "I would have to rest, and in the long run, track wasn't the best thing I could do for it."
He wanted to stay with the team, so as he rested, he biked and swam to maintain his aerobic conditioning, all the while trying to put as little pressure as possible on the hip.
"The coaches knew what I had to do (to get better)," he said. "Some of the guys thought I was just skipping practice at first (laughs) but when they understood, they said take your time."
Gray and the coaches waited as long as they could, and in the end, the Blue Dukes, with Gray's help, were able to keep the strong recent tradition of sprint relays alive. Running on lead-off in the 400 relay, the Bay unit that included Gray's brother Rhashad Gray, Tommy Friesch and senior Bryan Jordan on the anchor recorded a series of fast times all leading to a state runner-up finish June 1 in La Crosse.
Gray also qualified in the open 100 in which he narrowly missed the finals and also helped the 800 relay to state.
"I didn't really have any serious track workouts," he said. "I could have been in better shape but it wasn't as bad I thought it would be."
Because he's tasted championship gold before, the fact that the Blue Dukes' 400 relay set a season best and lost only to a state record by Green Bay Preble was small consolation to Gray, who will play in the WFCA All-Star game next month and put his focus solely on football at Northern Iowa.
"I've been to the top of the podium (at state) and that is a bazillion times better than anything else," he said. "Still, it was great to be able to go out with Rhashad (on the relay). I love having him on that relay with me and I wouldn't have it any other way."
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