Photo Credit: Mary Ann Magnant/MileSplit
"I just raced my heart out." -- Ashton Schwartzman
By Cory Mull - MileSplit
VIRGINIA BEACH, VIRGINIA -- No one could have known exactly what Ashton Schwartzman was feeling during the final four laps of the championship boys 4x800 on Saturday at adidas Indoor Nationals.
In life, the expression of grief takes many forms. And everyone copes with tragedy in different ways.
But if they had, if every single person inside the Virginia Beach Sports Center on Saturday was aware of just how important that race was to Ashton -- to his IMG Academy teammates who were behind his every step -- surely there would have been a lot more tears.
For that moment was just so deeply incredible.
While the toughest hours of Ashton's life were passing him by, he had decided to race with all of his heart. Ultimately, that final anchor leg positioned IMG Academy for another win on Saturday, another U.S. No. 1 time of 7:51.92.
But of course, this was deeper than just a race.
"I knew the only way to get away from it was running," Ashton said afterward.
Just hours before lining up for the final track race of the night, Ashton's mother, Jennifer Schwartman, had learned the devastating and tragic news that her husband, Eric Pilsl, had died suddenly while in Wisconsin.
Perhaps in his final hours on earth, he was waiting to watch his stepson race.
Ashton, the former Wild Rose (WI) High School star athlete who had transferred to IMG Academy over the last year, coudn't believe it. From the moment he received the phone call from his mother just hours before the 4x800, to the texts he would ulimately send to his teammates and coaches, he later said he was left in a state of "shock."
Pilsl was someone Ashton said "made all my dreams come true." He was a stepfather who was deeply entrenched inside his life.
Even before arriving in Virginia Beach this weekend, his mother and stepfather had debated on just who was set to join Ashton for the final indoor track and field of the 2021 season. The pair ultimately decided it would be Jennifer, while Eric stayed back in Wisconsin.
No one could have imagined this outcome. Most of all Jennifer. Over the last nine years, Eric was everything in her life.
"He was the healthiest man I knew," she said.
Knowing each other over the last nine years, they had gotten married in Europe. To be away from him in his last moments? It was soul crushing to think about. And even late Saturday, she still couldn't believe the news. But she was also there for her son. And in that moment, the love she felt for him only deepened.
No one would have blamed the IMG Academy senior for whatever decision he had ultimately decided upon, whether it was to race or not to race.
Because sometimes in life, sports are the the last things we should ultimately think about.
Photo Credit: Bryan Deibel/MileSplit
- - -
But when Ashton received that call from his mother late Saturday, a hundred things went through his mind.
First, there were all the memories his family had built in those last nine years while Eric was inside his life, including the passion in track and field that he would build over the last few years, a drive that would ultimately take him to IMG Academy to pursue his greater dream.
Over the last year, Ashton had wanted to challenge himself and work to be the best. He moved to Bradenton, Florida. Eric and Jennifer supported him.
That November, a college scholarship came from the University of North Carolina. By January, the results were flowing: Ashton secured the No. 8 500 indoor meter time in history in 1:02.67. And while he finished second to Justin Braun, by a hair, it was a race that Ashton literally put his body on the line for -- the ensuing dive to the line actually prompted a collar bone break.
He thought next about his teammates and coaches.
"We got a text from Ashton," Cole Piotrowski said. "He said, 'You guys going all right?' Just to show (Ashton) he's more than a great athlete. He's a great human being.
"He didn't have to run that. We had two other guys waiting to sub in and run that leg. But for him to go out there and say, 'I want to anchor and I want to bring it home,' there's no prouder feeling."
Perhaps Ashton knew almost immediately what he would do. In some ways, maybe a step toward healing would be to race.
The first two members of the Ascenders had kept the team in the race, then Piotrowski started to pull away. His split of 1:53.61 put the team in firm control of the lead before the final anchor.
"When I started to pull away, I was just so happy. I knew what this meant for Ashton," Piowtrowski said. "I was just trying to give him the biggest lead so he could really just enjoy the moment. All splits were out the window. We were just trying to run."
Schwartzman, having qualified for the finals in the 400m on Friday, hadn't raced an 800m in almost half a year. But in this moment, all he could think about was the faith his team had in him.
He received the hand-off and absolutely rolled.
"Running is my passion," Ashton said following the race. "It's what I live for. I knew my stepfather would have wanted me to race. He didn't want me to worry about him. He wanted me to race for him."
But while the first two laps were easy, the next one started to hurt. The fourth was absolutely brutal.
Schwartzman could hear his teammates pulling for him on the very last lap. On the final turn of his final lap, he looked to his left and saw a rush of competitors chasing after him.
But Ashton had done enough early on to solidify a winning position.
He ran to the finish line unchallenged and then pointed his finger to the sky.
"We had to do it for Ashton," Carney said afterward. "This is his first 4x800 of the season. The first of many. And we had to do it for him. We just had to get that win for him when it hurt. He's going through a lot, but we had to push for him."
"It just showed us so much more than the sport itself," Piotrowski said.
Jennifer was the first to meet Ashton once he stepped off the track -- a pain that was manifested not just physically but deeply inside him. She embraced him and cried.
A beautiful moment followed. An entire team followed.
Ashton hugged his best friends. His coaches. He hugged parents. Then his mother again. He didn't say no.
As he kept walking, feelings rushed over him. Tears fell down his face. But Ashton also believed racing was the right decision for him. He had done what his stepfather would have wanted him to do.
"I feel like I learned today, running track goes so much farther beyond winning," Winters said. "You learn so many life lessons: Like brotherhood and family. I can't thank Ashton enough for running it today."
"We grew deeper as a team today," Isaac Carney added. "And we're just going to carry that through the rest of the season with that brotherhood."
Later, kneeling just feet away from the awards stand, Ashton still wasn't sure how to process his feelings.
He did know one thing, though.
"I just raced my heart out."