I suppose it's a natural human instinct to seek meaning in our pain, suffering and loss. As athletes we take for granted that our suffering will be "productive", eventually making us stronger, smarter and more resilient. At times such as now though, I feel like this search is nothing but a fool's errand and the words of Macbeth keep ringing in my ears:
"Out, out brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." - William Shakespeare
Last Saturday night, I put my daughter to bed. I read her 2 stories, sang her 2 songs, then picked out 2 stuffed animals for her. This is the normal bedtime routine and if all goes well it takes about 40 minutes. I kissed her on the head, told her I loved her, then walked downstairs. My daughter is only 3 and I still carry the conceit of a younger parent; the notion that some day I will worry less every time I leave her... that I will feel she is completely safe in this world.
I had to leave early the following morning for a race and I was scurrying around trying to pack. My wife looked at me and told me to sit down because she had to tell me something she had just seen.
"Zach Houlik died. His mom just posted it on Facebook"
That couldn't be right. Zach is only 22 years old. That's not supposed to happen. In some weird and selfish way I imagined that he might speak at my funeral, that he would stand up and tell everyone what a great coach and mentor I was and that he never could have been the successful businessman/entrepreneur/leader he had become without me. Or at least that's how I imagined it...
I met Zach Houlik in 2011. I had just become involved with the Young Medalists Cycling Team and was preparing to take over the program from May Britt Valand/Hartwell, who was moving back to Norway. I remember being told early on that I should keep my eye out for the 15-16 year old riders coming up in the ranks: Greg Ratzell, Dakota Schaeffer, Will Pestcoe and Zach Houlik.
To a certain degree, Zach's accomplishments were overshadowed by the results of his teammates, but he had some impressive results in his own right. He won the Chris Hind's Memorial Criterium, the Lower Providence Criterium, the Bighamton Circuit Race, and the Nockamixon TT. He was second at Steel City Showdown and the Tour de Syracuse Criterium. He was 4th in the Points Race and part of the 3rd place Team Pursuit Squad at the 2012 Track Natz. More importantly, he was a consummate team player. He would turn himself inside out to help his teammates in any way he could. He also provided some much needed levity, always finding a way to smile and laugh when so many of us (including myself) were overly serious.
One time, at our West Virginia training camp, I remember someone making beets for dinner. I mentioned the fact that there was some evidence that beets and beet juice could be performance enhancing. Zach ate this up, quite literally. Now, for those who didn't know him, it's important to understand that Zach was never in his life referred to as a "climber". His strength was more in the ability to put forth one tremendous effort, usually 10-60 seconds long. With that as well as being a larger rider (at least by cycling standards), his abilities were much more suited to flat roads and velodromes. For that one day though, in the mountains of West Virginia, when we probably rode 60 miles and climbed 6,000 feet of elevation, he was the best climber at the camp. I don't know if it was the beets, or something in the water, or maybe the placebo effect, but I've never seen anything like it.
In the summer of 2013, Zach did an internship with me, coming down from the Lehigh Valley to Philadelphia 3 days a week to sit in my small office, help me with clerical stuff and learn about the coaching business. On his first day, I handed him about 20 books to read: everything from a textbook on Exercise Physiology to "Joe Friel's Cyclist's Training Bible" to Eddy B's book to the CONI manual to "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People". I was never sure if he read them or not, but every once in a while, out of the blue, he would ask me what my thoughts were on the Italian bike fitting system or what the "Atom Bottle" was. He helped me get organized, helped me start a national database of group rides and he acted as my assistant coach for our Young Medalist team practices. Generally speaking, he would work with the younger kids while I would work with the older kids. Today, 5 years later, those younger kids are the older kids and they all remember a coach who was funny, energetic, patient and helpful. Zach helped them learn the most important lesson early on: that cycling can be something really FUN.
In 2015, Zach came with us to the Tour de l'Abitibi as a soigneur. The truth is that he really wanted to come as our mechanic, and felt slighted that I hadn't offered that. He did a fine job as soigneur and did everything I asked, but it was clear that he resented what he considered to be his "lower status". After the race, I sent him a long, strongly worded email telling him that he had squandered an opportunity to learn and he had let his frustration get the better of him. After I sent it though, I wondered if I had made a mistake. I thought back to how immature I was at 19 years old and I wondered if I would have been receptive to such criticism. Probably not.
To my surprise though, I received a response from Zach a couple weeks later telling me that he had read over my email 30 times and tried his best to absorb everything. What impressed me most was that he didn't cede his ground. He was still frustrated, he just realized that it was possible to deal with that frustration in a productive way. Zach wore his emotions on his sleeve sometimes and it's easy to confuse that with immaturity but the truth is it's just youth. Not only that but it is a beautiful and wonderful quality of youth. Zach was naturally ambitious, hard working and caring. If he was occasionally naive or short sighted, these things can be forgiven because deep down I knew that he would grow up and be just fine. Better than fine in fact. His best days were ahead of him and I was excited to see what that might look like.
In the Quaker religion, we refer to that of God within us all as "the light". Today I find myself unable to shake this feeling that our world just got darker, and I grieve for the loss that his family, friends and all that knew Zach have suffered. I struggle unsuccessfully to find some sort of greater meaning in his death. Perhaps we should all live each day to the fullest because life is fragile and it can be taken away in an instant. Perhaps we should always try to tell the ones we love how much we care about them, because we never know when we won't get another chance to say it. To be honest though, these notions seem so banal and I am left with the unbearable conclusion that there was no greater meaning in Zach's death. No lesson to be learned.
In his life, however, there was meaning and there was purpose. Though I cannot escape the tragedy that the world has been robbed of him, I am thankful for the time we had together on this earth. I am thankful for his energy, his inquisitiveness, his compassion, and his smile. Rest in Peace Z. You will not soon be forgotten.