Marathoner Zoila Gomez inspires Adams State graduates

(12-17-2012)

Commencement organizers are often concerned with limiting the speakers to 5 or 10 minutes, to more quickly get to the main event: awarding degrees.

But the audience hung onto every inspiring word of Zoila Gomez, Adams State Class of 2004, who spoke from the podium for over 20 minutes about her journey from a small Mexican mining town, to the ranks of the world's top marathon runners. She was rewarded with a standing ovation.

Adams State University then launched 155 graduates onto the next phase of their lives at fall commencement, Dec. 15. Mary Griffin, vice chair of the Adams State Board of Trustees, reviewed several achievements of the past year, not the least of which was becoming a university.

Introducing Gomez, Adam State President David Svaldi said, "Today's speaker epitomizes many values of Adams State University: hard work, perseverance, self-discipline, and faith. She epitomizes the tradition of success established by our distance runners. She also lives the philosophy of 'paying it forward' and is an exemplary role model and mentor to youth in our community. Hers is a classic Adams State Great Story."

As Gomez put it, "My story, like so many American stories, is an immigrant story. I came to this country for a better life and for the chance to help my family."

The second youngest of 16 children whose father died when she was six, Gomez immigrated to California in 1996, when she was 16. Her main objectives at the time were to learn English and to enter college. But another path was revealed to her when she ran - and won - her first 5K.

She recalled the empowerment running conferred. "I couldn't express myself in English, and, in many ways, my performance on the track or cross-country course became my way of compensating for this linguistic shortcoming. . . . It really is fair to say that my experiences as a high school cross- country and track team member served as an access point, a window into the American culture."

When her Costa Mesa High School team won its first cross-country team title, "this was one of my first lessons regarding the fact that running is not just about the times you run, the places you go, the titles or awards you win, it is about the all the vivid memories and the true friendships you make. Which leads me to one of my most favorite quotes nowadays: 'Success is a journey, not a destination.'"

Adams State was an important stop on her journey, one where she learned adversity has its own lessons. "During my junior year . . . I got injured. I remember clearly one day when I sat on the floor of Coach Martin's office. I leaned against his desk. I cried for a good while. I told him, I'm sorry coach. I feel so bad. You gave me a scholarship so I could run for Adams State, but I'm not giving back, I'm not even running," Gomez said. "Coach Martin put his hand on my shoulder. He let me cry. He knew I needed to release the tension I was feeling, the frustration, but when I looked into his face through the blurred vision of my tears, I saw a person who believed in me. I saw a person who considered me to be a valuable asset to the team. I saw person who believed I was going to overcome this period of difficulty, that I in time would continue to succeed."

Martin's intuition was right on target. Gomez's stellar collegiate running resume was crowned by the 2004 NCAA Division II Athlete of the Year designation, presented at the Collegiate Women Sports Awards. Gomez had another great success in 2004: she became her family's first college graduate.

The following year, Gomez earned her U.S. citizenship and finished second among American women in the 2005 New York City Marathon, her first. She finished fourth in the 2008 Olympic marathon trials and represented the United States in three World Championships - Japan in 2007, Berlin in 2009, and Korea in 2011.

But she cautioned, "Things could have turned out differently for me. . . . One of the reasons I was able to keep going was because of mentors and coaches like Dave Fier (Orange Coast College) and Damon Martin. I would not be standing here today if it were not for these two men and other people like them."

She emphasized her main point regarding success, "We need to stop fixating simply on ability and stop treating success like it is inevitable. It is, instead, a unique combination of ability, obsession, a supportive social network of loved ones, unique opportunity, and work ethic. Let me say that last one again, work ethic. In the case of distance running, we are talking about mileage, and there is no shortcut to mileage. . . . This goes for other aspects of life. With academics, you either concentrated during the lecture and took notes, you either studied diligently and learned and understood the material, or you did not."

In conclusion, Gomez said, "I have always believed that it is important to run for something greater than myself. I became a runner somewhat on accident, but once I got into the sport, I became obsessed. . . . I found the energy and stamina I needed to keep going, to carry on, to keep running, despite injury, despite setback, when I realized that my efforts, both as a runner and as a college graduate, could help others. I believe we are here on this earth to help others, to find our abilities and actualize our potential, and we only truly succeed when we help others."

Watch Zoila's commencement speech.

By Julie Waechter