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Letters About Literature National Winners 2008

Honorable Mentions, Level 3: Courtney Hartnett

Dear Ms. Hillenbrand:

When I first picked up Seabiscuit: An American Legend, I was thirteen years old. As an avid equestrian with an interest in horse racing, I thought your book might prove an entertaining summer read. I perched on the edge of the couch one sweltering August afternoon, book in hand, intending to read for perhaps twenty minutes or so. When I next looked at the clock, four hours had gone by.

As it later turned out, the story of Seabiscuit and the people in his life not only kept me fascinated for a summer, but also inspired me to get through my own trying times.

As a freshman in high school, I was excited to be a member of the varsity field hockey team. I had barely accustomed myself to my new schedule, coaches, and teammates when a mysterious leg injury turned out to be a stress fracture. What should have been a quick heal ended up as a problematic ordeal: the fracture took nine months to heal and required an ultrasonic bone stimulator to prevent it from becoming a non-union. After extensive physical therapy and three months of buildup training, I was fully sound. I was able to run again, and grateful I had the chance.

Perhaps the break would have been forgotten by now had the situation not repeated itself less than two years later. While going through an easy track practice in spring of my sophomore year, the opposite leg swelled: a day later, I was diagnosed with another fracture, this one slanting diagonally up the tibia shaft in a sickening black lightning bolt. My doctors looked at the picture grimly. It would heal, but I might not run again.

Though the first injury had been tough to get through, this one was worse. Knowing others has been through greater turmoil, I looked for inspiration. I found it: I remembered Seabiscuit's story. I remembered Red Pollard and the horrific injuries he bravely endured. I remembered Charles Howard and the heartbreaking losses he suffered before finding Seabiscuit. I remembered Seabiscuit himself, the stout little horse whose career was spotted with myriad injuries, each ending in triumph. I had hope.

Sometimes, though, that hope was hard to hold onto. When I wanted to give up on running entirely, I remembered Seabiscuit's devastating ruptured ligament that just might have ended his stellar career. His trainer, his fans, his jockey, and his owner never gave up on Seabiscuit. Why should I give up on myself? I diligently worked at my physical therapy exercises, and eventually, the fracture healed. The ordeal was not over yet. As any athlete or trainer knows, one cannot go immediately from a healed injury to regular training. There must be a gradual buildup. It was frustratingly gradual. Any time I had even the slightest twinge of pain, I had to rest, ice, and wait a day or so before beginning again. Though fed up with the snail pace of buildup, I knew it was for the best. Seabiscuit had to build up gradually, too.

Although I was a member of the cross-country team, I could not run in races right away. In the beginning of the season and again in the middle, leg pains halted progress. As my orthopedist had ordered, I stopped, iced, and backed off my racing schedule. This was downright maddening. My anger at not being able to run was intensified by rumors floating among several slower team members. Despite my many doctor's notes and progress updates, they believed that my injuries weren't real, that I didn't deserve to be a team member because my training schedule, for the moment, had to be different from theirs. Though hurt by this, I remembered that Seabiscuit had to scratch from several races because of injuries. His trainer was accused of fabricating injuries as an excuse to not run Seabiscuit in tough competition, but he always ignored angry race fans and did right by his horse.

By the end of season district championship, my legs were fine and I was ready to run. I was anxious to prove myself a deserving team member. I did: I ran the race of my life, achieving a personal best time, soundly defeated all who had perpetuated the rumors about my injuries, and came within 2 tenths of a second of All-District honors. I felt triumphant. Maybe, I thought, maybe this is how Red Pollard felt, a healed man on a healed horse, as the two crossed under the wire at Santa Anita one March day in 1940.


Courtney Hartnett