by Moira Cullings
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It’s been 67 years since Tom Rupp and his University of Kansas teammates won the cross-country national championship in 1953.
But the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) coach still carries with him the values he gained from running, instilling them now in a new generation of runners at Corpus Christi Parish in Lawrence.
“It’s very important to me to see the kids do so well and have the success,” he said. “But even if they don’t win, they competed tough.”
Two of Rupp’s former CYO athletes and one of their regular competitors are now accomplished high school cross-country runners who are making a difference on their school teams.
As the young men look forward to competing in their respective state championship class meets on Oct. 31, the love for their sport is palpable.
Jack Keathley-Helms started running cross-country in third grade at Corpus Christi and is now a junior at Lawrence Free State High School.
Thanks to the strong leadership of a few coaches during CYO, including Rupp, who also served as his confirmation sponsor, Keathley-Helms felt prepared going into high school cross-country.
“I have two senior teammates at Free State who started running in seventh grade,” he said. “I started four years ahead of them, so I have all this extra competing experience.”
The cross-country program at Corpus Christi now has around 35 athletes, but when Keathley-Helms was starting out, there were only a handful.
It inspired him to get to know athletes from across the archdiocese after their meets.
“I met a bunch of people that I probably wouldn’t have met if I hadn’t done CYO,” he said. “I still talk to quite a few of them to this day.”
One of his teammates growing up was Tanner Newkirk, a junior at Hayden High School in Topeka.
The pair were equally competitive.
“We really pushed each other and made each other be the best that we could be,” said Newkirk. “I don’t think I’d be as good as I was back then even now without him.”
“It was nice to have a friend who wants to compete as much as you,” he said. “We always wanted to beat each other.”
Although they go to different schools and compete in different classes, the boys are still friends and continue to check in on one another’s successes.
“Every Saturday, Tanner and I after our races will ask, ‘How’d your race go?’ We constantly congratulate each other,” said Keathley-Helms.
If they’re anything like Rupp, their friendship has the potential to last a lifetime.
“I had great camaraderie with my teammates,” said Rupp. “We still get together — those of us who are left.
“You develop lifelong friendships.”
The Kansas Catholic cross-country world is small.
Because of CYO, athletes might compete annually from the time they are 10 years old until they are 18.
Ashton Higgerson, a junior at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park, is one runner who regularly challenged Keathley-Helms growing up and continues to do so today.
“There’s one specific race [I remember],” said Keathley-Helms. “It was the fifth-grade city meet for cross-country. We were racing a mile back then.
“I was cruising to the finish, thought I had the win in the bag, and then I hear someone screaming at me that someone was running behind me.
“I look behind me, and Ashton’s just cooking it toward me,” he said. “I had to sprint to the finish, and it was a battle to the end.”
Both boys are grateful for the competitive spirit that’s lasted over the years.
“I have had a great experience with cross-country through middle school and high school,” said Higgerson, who competed in CYO through St. Ann Parish in Prairie Village.
“My teammates are pushing me every day,” he added. “Whenever the work is easy and when it is hard, they always push me.”
If COVID-19 has taught the runners anything this season, it’s to appreciate the opportunity to race.
“I always took it for granted that we’re just able every year to go out and have these sports,” said Keathley-Helms.
“With COVID coming in and taking stuff away,” he continued, “it really makes you take a step back and realize this is important and this can be taken from you.
“I have to go out and give it everything I have because it could be the last time I ever get to do this.”
Additional precautions this season included wearing masks before and after practices and meets, which Higgerson said are worth it.
“Taking all these safety measures is not always easy or fun,” he said, “but it is way better than not getting to run at all.”
Higgerson, Keathley-Helms and Newkirk all said they’ve been able to lean on their faith when challenges arise during any given season, especially one in a year filled with unknowns.
“When running is tough and it is hard to find the motivation, I always have my faith to turn to,” said Higgerson.
“I always know that good or bad race, I’ll have God with me,” he said. “He’s going to help me go through the race.”
To learn more about CYO, visit its website at: cyojwa.org.