Lincoln track star gets back on track, wins three city championships
After showing a ton of promise as a top-flight track and field performer during both his freshman and sophomore years, Michael Woodhouse suffered a setback last year. As a junior at Lincoln High School, Woodhouse didn’t continue the natural progression and improvement that comes with maturity. In fact, Woodhouse took a step backwards.
"It was a down year for me," Woodhouse said. "I just wasn’t performing up to my capabilities. I forgot the steps that I learned and I didn’t train as hard. I was doing other things and not concentrating on track. I didn’t make track my number one priority."
It also hurt Woodhouse that his former track coach, Sal Rizzo, left his position as Lincoln’s track coach due in a misunderstanding involving members of his coaching staff. Without Rizzo giving Woodhouse the daily proper guidance, Woodhouse became just another runner, headed toward becoming just another statistic.
But after Rizzo received clearance to return to his position after a two-year hiatus, Woodhouse somehow mustered the enthusiasm back for the sport. It’s not the easiest thing, being a distance runner in a school known for its sprinters – and nothing else.
"When I took the job a few years ago, people told me that I shouldn’t worry, that I could never find a distance runner," Rizzo said. "Most of the kids only know 100 meters and 200 meters. I don’t even bother to call it cross-country, because that sort of scares them. I just call everything track."
Rizzo took a special liking to Woodhouse when the youngster was a freshman.
"I could see when he was a freshman that he had the potential to become something pretty good," Rizzo said. "He never ran distances before and never wanted to run them. I told him he was going to be a great distance runner as long as he was willing to learn and train."
"I never ran at all before high school," Woodhouse explained. "I liked the challenge of it, so I decided to give it a try. Running distances is a big responsibility and everyone is afraid of it at first. I knew I just had to get rid of that fear and just go out and do the best I can. After a while, the fear went away. And I knew the harder I trained, the better I became."
When it was learned that Rizzo had a chance to reclaim his job, the coach was hesitant.
"I wasn’t going to coach anymore," Rizzo said. "But Michael’s such a great kid that I came back strictly for him."
"Without Coach Rizzo, I wouldn’t be half the runner I am," Woodhouse said. "I wouldn’t be anywhere. I would still be running, but I wouldn’t be as good. He’s helped me out a lot and got me back on the right training program."
During last summer, Woodhouse and Rizzo got right back to work to try salvaging the teen’s final competitive year. Not all was lost.
"He never once complained," Rizzo said. "If you tell Michael that we’re running 100 miles today, he’d say, ‘Is that all, Coach?’ He’s that kind of kid. And he started to believe that he could be good. That was a big hurdle. I saw him run in workouts, and the way he was running and I could tell that he didn’t believe in himself."
There were many sessions in the hot summer sun. Woodhouse ran three miles at daybreak and then three miles at dusk, trying his best to avoid the heat and humidity.
"We would go for little jogs," Rizzo said. "After a while, I could see that he was starting to believe in himself again."
The confidence didn’t return overnight competitively. When the cross-country season began in the fall, Woodhouse wasn’t sure he could keep up with the big boys.
"The first race didn’t go so well," Woodhouse said. "But as the season went on, I could see that all the hard work and training in the summer was going to pay off."
But Rizzo somehow managed to instill the confidence in his young pupil and the results were breathtaking.
Woodhouse enjoyed a fine cross-country season, finishing a surprising fourth in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV state sectionals at Garret Mountain Park in West Paterson last October. He also finished third in the HCIAA and HCTCA meets and was the runnerup in the Jersey City championships.
Woodhouse has continued his fine running during the indoor season. Last week, at the Jersey City championships, Woodhouse completed the unthinkable, capturing a very difficult triple – winning the 880-yard run, the one-mile and the two-mile runs. Woodhouse became the first to accomplish the triple in the Jersey City meet since Snyder’s Isidro Pimentel, a former Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week, turned the trick in 1996.
Woodhouse won the 880-yard run in 2:17.5, the one-mile in 4:58.6 and the two-mile in 10:39.3. Considering that the meet was held in the bubble at St. Peter’s College’s Yanitelli Center, which is generally used strictly for tennis, the times were very impressive.
For his efforts, Woodhouse has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
"I just wanted to maintain what I did during cross-country season into the indoor season," Woodhouse said. "I don’t worry about running three events. I just worry about running one. It’s not easy, but you take one and then go on to the next. I don’t worry about getting tired. To me, it’s fun running all three."
Woodhouse will next look to turn the improbable triple when the HCIAA indoor championships are held at the 168th Street Armory in New York.
"That’s going to be the real test," Woodhouse said. "I was just glad I could compete in the city meet."
Woodhouse is glad that he was able to make the most of his final year. He still has a promising outdoor season ahead in the spring, as well as the possibility of competing in college. He may pursue a military career as well.
"I’m going to talk to the Army recruiter and see what they have to offer," said Woodhouse, who had a meeting with the recruiter set for later this week. "I’m just glad I didn’t give up. It could have been very easy for me to quit, but I know now that hard work and training pays off."
Rizzo can’t say enough about Woodhouse.
"He’s very dedicated and I can’t remember him ever missing a practice," Rizzo said. "I’ve had to yell at him to take a day off. It’s a coach’s dream to have Michael Woodhouse. He really hasn’t reached where he can go. He could become a great college runner as well."
"I didn’t think I could ever become a good distance runner," Woodhouse said. "Coach Rizzo is the one who pushed me. I owe a lot to him."
It appears that it’s a mutual admiration society these days with the Lincoln track program.