Angels Camp native Matt Airola has been running his way to the top ever since joining American River College two years ago.
The 21-year-old former Bret Harte Bullfrog was recently crowned the state junior college cross country champion and accepted a full-ride scholarship to the University of Alabama.
Airola, a sophomore, ran to a first-place finish in a time of 20:10.68 at the 2012 California Community College Cross Country Championships on Nov. 17 at Woodward Park in Fresno.
His time was seven seconds ahead of the second place finisher and helped push American River to the top of the team standings with an average time of 20:42.
"We kind of figured we were going to win State because we were ranked number one as a team, but I don't really know if I was predicted to win as an individual," Airola said. "I just had it in my head that I was going to win. I knew if I was within reach of the first-place runner with a mile left then I could beat him."
Airola has shown consistent improvement over his two years at American River, which have seen him earn All-American honors five times.
However, his journey to this point has been anything but a cakewalk.
Over the years, Airola's battled not only tough competition but also personal hardship to get where he is today.
"I just can't wait to see what he does at the next level," said his father, Mike Airola.
Growing up on his family's cattle ranch in Angels Camp, Airola acquired an appreciation for athletics and the outdoors early in his life.
Basketball was always Airola's sport of choice throughout his childhood until his older cousin, Travis, started experiencing success on the track. It wasn't until fifth grade at the urging of his mother that Airola gave cross country a try and found out the talent apparently ran in the family.
"I was always in the top five every time," he said of those early races.
By the time Airola was in high school, he was leaving most of the Calaveras County competition in the dust. He set school records in both the 800 and 1,500 meter races while pulling double-duty on the cross country team.
He was nearly de-railed when tragedy struck the Airola family during Matt's junior year. His mother, Liz, was diagnosed with melanoma cancer, and her fight understandably took Airola's attention from sports.
"I actually quit track halfway through my junior year because I was just so burnt-out over the whole thing," he said. "I've been playing sports consecutively since fifth grade, so I just wanted a break. Senior year I did cross country and basketball but not track, so I never really had any scholarship offers from running."
Airola's mother passed away the summer after he graduated from Bret Harte. At that time, he was helping his father, Mike, tend the family ranch.
"That kind of inspired him to run harder," Mike Airola said of Liz's death. "She wasn't able to go to his graduation in June because she was so ill, and I think that kind of pushed him a little more."
Airola started researching various junior colleges in the Central Valley before settling on American River, a community college in Sacramento with a top-ranked track and field program, with some advice from family friend Kamy Crawford.
"My son, who is a lot older, lives down there, so Matt moved in with him," said Crawford, who traveled to Fresno to see Airola run in the State Meet earlier this month. "It was good to get him out and get him going."
American River head coach Rick Anderson said Airola's 4:22 mile time out of high school was impressive, but not out of the ordinary for runners at the college.
"He definitely wasn't out of our league," Anderson said. "He's just one of those guys that has a lot of natural ability and when put into our system everything just lined up and worked out really well."
In 2011, American River won the team cross country title and Airola placed seventh in the state community college championships. He led his team to a 2012 state track title when he claimed first in the 1,500 meter with a time of 3:45 and second in the 800 meter.
Anderson attributed Airola's improvement to both natural strength and his dedication to training, which includes running an average of 60 to 70 miles each week.
"He's just so tough," Anderson said. "Even after the 1,500 at the state meet last year, he knew that he had the 800 coming up, so we had the chiropractor stretch him out and within minutes he said he felt good enough to attack the next race. When he lines up, he doesn't think there is any chance of someone beating him."
Airola credited Anderson's coaching style with helping develop him into the runner he is today.
"I always knew I had talent to run, but I guess it was the determination and self discipline that I needed," he said. "(Anderson) was strict enough but also made it fun to where it was worth waking up every morning to be there."
Meanwhile, Airola's times were attracting the attention of Divison I NCAA recruiters as well.
He visited a variety of universities, including Texas Christian, Arizona State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State before Alabama coaches met with Anderson to discuss offering a scholarship to a separate American River sprinter.
"When I asked if they wanted to talk to Matt, both coaches just looked at each other because they thought he had been taken," Anderson said. "They offered him a full-ride on the spot after talking to him."
Airola had several conversations with Anderson before committing to Alabama in October, where he says the coaching and structure of the program is more akin to American River's than the other schools he visited.
As a mid-year enrollee, Airola could not sign a national letter of intent, so the agreement is currently only verbal, with his first semester scheduled to begin in January.
Alabama track and field head coach Dan Waters could not comment on the situation due to NCAA rules that prohibit coaches from talking about unsigned recruits in the media before they are enrolled.
"All I can tell you is we're excited about the prospect of him coming," he said.
Airola's plans for the future involve pursuing a masters degree in sports management, but first he wants to tackle the 1,500 meter national championships with an eye on possible Olympic-sized goals down the stretch.
Racing against Divison I competition doesn't have him as nervous as the more than 2,000-mile move across the United States to join the Crimson Tide.
"I love California and don't really want to leave the people that are in my life right now, but they're supportive and will be here when I get back," he said.
Like it has throughout his career, Airola said the wisdom his mother instilled him and the courage she displayed in her battle with cancer will be what he draws from for strength to conquer any hurdles that stand in his way.
"She was pretty much everything to me," he said. "I think about all the little things she said while I was growing up and constantly wonder what she would do. What she went through was so much worse than just running the last lap. It just reminds me to stay humble and that pain is only temporary."