December 02, 2011

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 5. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.

Maybe you saw the story in mid-September: a high schooler in Minnesota named Josh Ripley, running in a big cross-country meet, stopped because he saw another runner, a stranger, on the side of the course with blood gushing from his ankle. Josh stopped his race, picked up his opponent and carried him a half-mile to his coach.

Mark Paulauskas, the injured runner, was a 100-pound freshman from Lakeville South High School, near Minneapolis. Josh Ripley, the impromptu EMT, is a 6-5 junior from Andover High. The stories about the episode made me want to know more about Josh Ripley. It also put him on my short list of nominees for Sportsman of the Year.

I got Josh and Mark on the phone -- both are a pleasure to talk to -- but before we go there, let's make a quick nod to their underrated sport.

Cross-country should be our true national high school sport. It's cheap. It's environmentally friendly. It doesn't play gender favorites (at least not these days). Cross-country teams are often open to runners of all abilities. A runner runs for himself and for his team. It gets you outside. It's a high school sport you can play for the rest of your life. If you spend time in high schools, you'll often find the cross-country runners are disciplined, tough and intelligent.

Cross-country is not supposed to be a contact sport, but stuff happens. At the Applejack Invitational on September 16, Mark got spiked by another runner on a crowded turn, causing a gash which eventually required 20 stitches.

"I got spiked and went off to the side of the course, by a fence, so I wouldn't be trampled," Mark said. "Then this gigantic kid stops and says, 'Can I help you?' He's carrying me and he's just trying to keep me calm. He kept saying, 'You're going to be OK.'"

Mark has moved a couple times in his young life, from suburban St. Louis to the Virginia suburbs of D.C. and most recently to suburban Minneapolis. Cross-country has helped him make friends in his new school, where he is known for his serious devotion to the St. Louis Cardinals, your World Series champions. I asked Mark whom he would nominate for Sportsman of the Year. He thought about Tony La Russa, the Cardinals manager, now retired, or the team's 6-foot, 6-inch right-hander Chris Carpenter, who got two of the St. Louis World Series wins.

But in the end Mark said Josh is his nominee, and I'm pleased to agree with him. "Josh is totally deserving of it," Mark said. "He could have kept running like everybody else, but what he did was the definition of sportsmanship. Being a team player. Selflessness." In Josh, Mark has made another friend through cross-country. They're friends on Facebook and they've gone to a Minnesota Wild hockey game together.

Josh's main sport is wrestling -- he wrestles in the winter as a 189-pounder, and he took up cross-country chiefly to get his speed up for the running requirement at West Point, which he hopes to attend. West Point requires its male graduates to run two miles in 16:36, and Josh ran his 5K cross-country meets this year -- 3.1 miles -- in about 19 minutes. That's not anything like an elite schoolboy time, but plenty fast for West Point.

Of course, the thing that really suggests Josh would be an excellent candidate for West Point is the act he committed at the Applejack Invitational.

Josh said he was rounding a corner in a crowded pack, less than a mile into the race, when he heard a fellow competitor shout in pain. "I saw Mark and picked him up," Josh said. "It never occurred to me not to." Josh carried Mark in his arms, in front of his chest, about a half-mile to Mark's coach, who got him immediate medical care.

When Josh was done with his good deed, he ran back to where he left off and resumed the race. At that point, he was dead last. But the race does not always go to the swiftest -- not the figurative races, anyway.

Josh doesn't think he did anything remarkable, but he's not complaining about the attention he's receiving. "I'm getting some nods from kids in the hallways, 'Good job,' stuff like that," he said. There could be, he said, a girl or two who has taken notice of him who didn't before. The life of a real-world hero isn't all bad. Still, Josh said, all he did was help a kid in need. You get the feeling he'd do the same thing again.

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