“It really hasn’t changed much,” said Olympian Sarah Groff when walking back into the hallways of the Cooperstown Middle/High School.
Groff was back at her alma mater Friday to speak to fifth- through 12th-graders. The triathlete just missed the podium at the London Games, and was now back in her childhood neighborhood trying to get one message across to students: “Yes, even small-town kids can achieve whatever they set their minds to.”
Groff said it does not take a child prodigy to be really good at something. It takes a lot of hard work, patience and determination no matter what goal one is trying to achieve, she said.
“It is a real pleasure to be in front of you guys today,” Groff said. “I would have loved to have had someone come here and talk to me and say ‘hey, you know you don’t think you can go from being an average kid in Cooperstown to going to the Olympics, well, yes you can.’”
Becoming an Olympian was not a childhood dream for Groff, she admits. She said it was something she started reaching for along the way. It was never about dreaming about the Olympic rings as a child, she continued.
“What I want you to realize is, if you set your sights on something, and you may have to sacrifice a little bit along the way, I definitely did, you can achieve your dreams.”
Her dream, she said, was to just get to the Olympics. “I was able to achieve that and more,” she said.
It is not the destination but the journey, according to Groff, who finished fourth in London — just 12 seconds away from the gold medal. She said her journey really began in Cooperstown where she participated in different things, but was never “outstanding” at any one particular thing. She did break a record for swimming the length of Otsego Lake at the age of 13, however.
Groff said she was a bit of a nerd growing up. She said she never wanted to eat lunch in the cafeteria and sometimes she and some friends would eat outside on the grass.
“I was the kind of kid who ate a handful of grass as a dare for a dollar,” she said. “That was the kind of person I was. It’s not like I was this super focused, athletic-driven kid who was just all about an Olympic dream. I had diverse interests shall we say.”
The soon-to-be-31-year-old competed in cross country, swimming and track in high school. She also sang in the choir, played French horn and enjoyed science.
Secondary Principal Michael Cring was her gym teacher, she recalled.
“I wish I could say that he taught me everything I knew, but one of my lowest grades ever at Cooperstown High School was in gym class. I think I even got in a little bit of trouble for being a little lazy. Hopefully I have redeemed myself with Mr. Cring,” she said.
Groff, who lives in Hanover, N.H., attended CCS through her sophomore year and finished school at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. She went to Middlebury College in Vermont where she was a Division III All-American in the freestyle. She double majored in conservation biology and studio art.
With graduation coming around the corner, Groff said she decided to pursue her triathlon interests.
“I had done a few of them, but I had not done anything too great. It was not like I was winning” she said. “I just thought it would be cool to take one thing and try to be really good at it. Well it turns out that one thing is really three things. I wanted to take that one aspect of something I had interest in and see how far I could get.”
It could have not panned out, according to Groff. She said it was a big risk, but one she was willing to take largely because she felt her parents would support her in whatever she wanted to do as long as she took a logical approach to it.
Groff said she gave herself a two-year limit.
“I said if I’m just no good and there is no hope for me, then I’m going to get a real job,” she said. “I still don’t have a real job. I like to say my job now is being the world’s biggest kid because I take naps, I have snack time and I get lots of exercise and get to wear really comfy clothing and that describes my 4-year-old nephew. It is a pretty awesome life, I’m not going to lie.”
There have been some really tough times along the way, Groff admits.
“But in the back of my mind, I was not going to give up,” she said. “My family was like, Sarah what are you doing to yourself? You are miserable.”
However, Groff said she would tell them she was not unhappy because she was pursuing something that she loved.
“I get to do this. I get to make myself miserable,” she explained. “It was kind of awesome that I get to make myself miserable. I got to do what I loved and I knew in the back of my mind that I had this goal and needed to be something a little bit more.”
The hardest part of the journey was fracturing her pelvis before the Olympic tryouts, according to Groff.
“I learned the hard way that you can’t train through it,” she said. “If you guys ever get injured, just don’t push through it. It is just a bad idea.”
Patience is something people acquire over time, according to Groff, who highly recommends it as a key to success.
“Patience and hard work over time equals results,” she said. “I am absolutely living proof of that.”
Consistency and years of hard work pay off, she added.
“I know that the idea of years of hard work when pursuing a goal seems staggering, but if you love what you do, the time goes by quickly. Honestly, I feel like it was just yesterday I was hanging out in those seats with you trying to keep my eyes open listening to somebody come on stage.”
Groff said she never had the chance to have someone who grew up in Cooperstown stand on stage and say, “Hey you know what? You guys can do it too.”
So what is in Groff’s future? She said she has four or five years to improve and become an even better triathlete.
“I know I have room to grow when it comes to running,” she said. “I hope to get back to the Olympics and make it on the podium next time. I will have bigger expectations.”