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A step at a time: Daniel Boone’s Ben Varghese proved he had the heart of a champion before he ever received a medal

Daniel Boones’ Ben Varghese has overcome more than just the mental pain that can be associated with a taxing foot race, he was able to push past a tragic event that almost made running impossible.
Daniel Boones’ Ben Varghese has overcome more than just the mental pain that can be associated with a taxing foot race, he was able to push past a tragic event that almost made running impossible.

By COLLIN BROOKS

Staff Writer

[email protected]

Champions rarely have scars that help to tell their story.

But Daniel Boone’s Ben Varghese is a rare breed.

Spectators and coaches that have seen Varghese — the newly crowned TSSAA state champion in the 3200-meter — say his movements seem to make him glide like a gazelle.

But the motion isn’t natural, it’s necessary. And with each stride, the soon-to-be senior puts another foot in front of a tragedy that nearly made running impossible.

Like most 4-year-olds, Varghese was playing in the yard during a hot day, making the yard his latest imaginary map as his father mowed the lawn. The rambunctious youngster was running around and somehow ran into his father’s lawn mower.

While the details are a bit cloudy for Varghese, the injury that he suffered when close to 75 percent of his right ankle was severed, leaves a reminding tale.

“I just collided with him and my leg went under,” Varghese recalled, with his state championship medal just sitting inches beside him on a warm summer day at the track at Daniel Boone. “It cut the bone and the fibula and the tibia and I had to be airlifted to the Johnson City Medical City.”

That was just the beginning for Varghese. Doctors weren’t sure whether they would be able to save his ankle or if they would have to amputate it.

“The doctor told my dad, ‘I don’t know if I can save it, but I am going to do the best I can,’ ” Varghese said.

Luckily, the doctors were able to save it and with Varghese only having to wear a cast for a year — which forced him to miss prekindergarten.

Varghese still has trouble bending his ankle up all the way and he isn’t able to move some of his toes completely up and down. But as the state ring — which will soon be on his finger — reminds him and everyone, he didn’t let this stop him from completing a dream of his.

“This just means, never stop giving up on what you want to do in life,” Varghese said. “There might be obstacles that you might have to face, there are a lot of people in this world that have to face obstacles.

“But I think that my leg can be something that inspires people and the younger kids that don’t feel like they can do a sport, I am working out here with these guys — and I have what some would consider a disability in the range of motion — and I am working each day to get better and better.”

That type of attitude has helped Varghese push through 65-70 miles during a heavy week. And even during a 21-day “rest period” he will still tread 1.5 miles a day.

It’s his mental toughness that helped him overcome his injury and gain a state championship, according to his coach Ray Jones.

“Ben’s story is amazing, in the big scheme of things, he is lucky to be walking — he is lucky to have his leg,” he said.  “I think it is easier for him, because his tolerance of pain is a little bit different than other people… And when he has a mind set, he is going to do it.”

That pain level is lessened by a simple saying that Varghese tells himself.

“Pain is temporary and success is forever,” Varghese says through a smile.

His coach sits just on the other side of him with a smile just as grand, nodding his head in sort of an “I told you so moment.”

That same type of attitude had Varghese exploring different sports to play while he was growing up. But it was running that was presented to him as a wake up call by one of his sisters that ultimately captured his heart.

“My sister Annie — she is one of the biggest influence in my life, I love my sisters. They teach me lessons everyday — I was about to do Boone Blazer football and she woke me up at 7 a.m. and said ‘Ben, can you just do this sport for one week, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to do it anymore,’ so I agreed,” he said.

“And as soon as I started running, I instantly loved it. Something just clicked with it. I just get an adrenaline rush when I start running. Words can’t express the love I have for running. That I can walk more or less run, it’s just great.”

That type of attitude has made Varghese a great example for students that are younger than him. Which is why he constantly goes around and speaks to middle school students.

“I love doing it,” Varghese said of speaking to the students. “Telling other kids to never quit on yourself. You may not be able to tell, but there are some kids that may feel like they can do certain things, I want to tell them that I almost lost my ankle, but I am out here running. Doing these miles. And if I can do it, I believe that anybody else, no matter who you are, whatever situation you come from, you can do whatever you put your mind to.”

That is exactly what he has had to do. Varghese has never truly been a natural runner, he has had to learn the form that has made him a state champion.

“He floats when he runs, everyone that watches him, loves to watch him,” Jones said. “He barely touches the ground, because he sort of has no choice. He can’t slap his feet, because if he slaps them than he is really going to hurt himself.”

It wasn’t easy for Varghese to buy into it, but he said once he started to listening to his coaches, then it began to bare fruits.

“I just bought into what my coaches wanted me to do, I just bought into the work that they had for me and it helped me out so much,” Varghese said. “They led me to a state championship, so I can never doubt myself on that.”

Now, with a state championship in his belt, Varghese has higher ambitions.

“My senior year, I hope to not only go for a state championship but also a national championship too,” said Varghese through a sly but serious grin.

His coach simply gave him a fist pound after he finished, a modern day pat on the back.

“It’s a grinding sport, this sport is not for everybody, it is for someone that has a strong mind and can overcome all the problems,” Jones said. “I’ve seen a lot of cool things, but I don’t think I have seen anyone ever challenge themselves like he has. What he has done, to me, it’s amazing.”