Sam Tooley: Turning Struggle Into Strength

This blog is written by Sam Tooley (@coach.samtooley) who is:

  • head track coach at St. Joseph’s in Metuchen, NJ
  • owner of Alpha Performance Studio in Westfield NJ
  • founder (soon to be) of Alpha Fit Club in Midland Park, NJ

I’m grateful to be able to call Sam a friend and I’m honored to share his story with you all; it is truly inspirational. After this sentence, my voice will drop to the floor and Sam’s voice will rise up so here we go.

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[Sam’s voice]

If moments are monumental enough they can be frozen in time forever. They become permanently engrained in your mind. They can be revisited and vividly relived time and time again. If you have enough of them, frame by frame they can begin to paint a picture, they can begin to shape a story. But how that story is told is your choice. Identical circumstances can be interpreted in completely contrasting ways. Each moment we experience is shaped by our perspective. Each moment can serve a greater purpose. I’ve had a number of these life altering moments over the last few years. I remember them as I remember them. And have chosen to use them in what I hope will serve a greater purpose.

‘how that story is told is your choice’

I was not, as I am. That sounds deep and thoughtful. But really it’s the best way I can describe the transformation I have gone through and continue to go through. We are always evolving. However my evolution seems to have begun almost three years ago. I found myself sitting in a room listening to a young girl speak. She was brave enough to stand in front of a group of people she had never met before and tell her story. By her sharing her truth – she changed my life.

Hearing her words turned

my world upside down.

My foot went from tapping, to feeling a knot the size of a watermelon in my stomach. I went outside to catch my breath and to calm down. What she had said had resonated with me on a deep level. A place I didn’t like to often visit. It was as if she had been able to articulate what had been going through my mind for years but I could not put words to. I didn’t understand. I had felt so lost, so alone, so ‘off’. I had lost all hope. I felt as though I had fallen. I felt as though I was withering away to nothing. I felt as though people could see right through me. I was depressed and dealing with an immense amount of never ending and self inflicted anxiety.

‘I felt as though people could see right through me’

My only resolution was to drown my sorrows in alcohol and drugs in search for some sort of normalcy. The only time I felt like myself, or a sliver of whatever that meant, was when I was numb to the world. I wanted to fast forward through my days. I didn’t want to remember. I didn’t want to feel. I didn’t want to live. And then I heard this girl speak my language. She got it. I wasn’t alone. And I didn’t have to live this way. It turned out what I had thought was the solution to my problems was only enhancing them. But there was work to be done. My quick fix solution of relying on drugs and alcohol wasn’t the real problem. My mind was. How I saw the world was. How I refused to take responsibility for my actions and the consequences was. But something clicked and I saw the light.

‘I wanted to fast forward through my days’

 

On December 22nd, 2015 I had my last drink.

I checked myself into rehab.

I changed my life.

 

I spent 30 days living with a group of men who had lost everything, most of whom were much older than I. And most were looking back at a life they had felt they had wasted and at consequences they could not change. I spent that month reflecting and began to remember who I was and who I wanted to be. I felt like I had always known. But this was the first time in a long time I actually began to believe it was possible. It was a surreal experience. Many mornings I would wake up and wonder what I was doing, if it was the right choice, how I ended up here, and all that accompanied waking up in rehab. But slowly I began to reshape and rewire the way I saw the world. I was taking action. And for the first time in as long as I could remember – I knew in my gut it was right. From that moment on I began to listen to my gut more often. I started to understand that that feeling in my gut was my conscious. And when your conscious is clear, you can sleep well knowing you’re on the right path. My motto then became to do the next right thing.

‘many mornings I would wake up and wonder what I was doing’

Months later I found myself home. I needed to be surrounded by my family but also apart of something where I felt I had a purpose. That’s where my coaching journey began. Running had served as my saving grace growing up. I had played every sport under the sun but never excelled at any of them. I could get to the ball first, would never quit and never tire. I was relentless, feisty, tenacious, etc. – the adjectives could go on and on, but really they would just paint the picture of a scrawny kid who just didn’t have ‘it’. Until I found running. Thanks to some amazing coaches and an infectious culture, I was hooked. I quickly put two and two together – the harder you worked, the faster you got – and no one was going to out work me.

My ability to work my ass off was within my control, while most other things in life were not. Running was fair and I liked that.

 

samruncover.png

 

While I had finally found something I could call my own in high school, running served as more than that. It was my outlet. As a society we have fallen into the trap of making assumptions. We see people as they want us to see them – not for who they truly are. The pictures on social media, the way they carry themselves day to day, it all lends itself to the image we have of them and the life we believe they live. From the outside looking in, in high school I had it all – the popular friend group, the beautiful girlfriend, the picture perfect family. I played the part. I walked the halls with a big smile. But I was broken. My home, my family, was slowly deteriorating. I felt as though I had the weight of the world on my shoulders. I wanted to be Superman. I wanted to take care of everyone. I wanted to piece everything back together. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to measure up. I wanted everyone to see strong, smiling Sam. But when I got to track I could finally put down the mask. I could put my head down and get to work. I would run angry. I would push myself to my limits. And I would count down the minutes once practice would end until I could do it again. I didn’t like to run easy. I just wanted to hurt.

‘I felt as though I had the weight of the world on my shoulders. I wanted to be Superman.’

The reprieve I found in running was special. And the positive lessons I learned from the day in day out grind of it all, coupled with the support I had from my coaches to become the best person I could, is something I will never forget. It lives on inside of me. And was something I felt like I needed to get back to.

Each and everyday I was at practice I began to remember a little more of what it was all about. The work, the mindset, the mentality, the competition, the brotherhood – it all played a part. And it all felt right. Practice quickly became the highlight of my day. And the team quickly became a huge part of my life once again.

As I sit here typing, I struggle to find the words that adequately describe the feelings that couple the loss of a loved one. Words do it no justice. I have become very good at not allowing myself to feel. When something hurts to touch, we learn the lesson to keep our hands off quickly. Whether that’s a hot stove or a painful memory. And when you’ve experienced trauma – that becomes a skill. Perhaps not one that’s of true long lasting benefit but one that is a quick solution to deep pain. Running and hiding from our feelings isn’t what I am recommending or suggesting. But sometimes all you want is to stop hurting. And losing someone so close to you is a hurt I would not wish upon anyone.

Over the course of the last year and a half I lost my two best friends; my Dad & my little brother (Jake). My Dad passed after complications from a procedure on his neck, and Jake in a home fire and what I can only describe as a living nightmare – one I was lucky enough to escape along with my Mom.

‘Over the course of the last year and a half I lost my two best friends.’

 

 

No loss is created equal. Both stung deep and continue to to this day. Years and months later I still have no answer to ‘why’. I still have no rational explanation to the saying that ‘everything happens for a reason’. You’re just left with questions that have no answers. You’re just left with a choice to make.

The below was taken from the eulogy I gave at Jake’s service. Something I revisit often.

‘Losing a loved one is never easy. Young or old, sudden or expected – love is love and losing someone hurts. I have learned a lot over the last year. Pain has a way of teaching us. Loss has a way of making us rise to the occasion. If you have the strength to overcome, suffering will bring it out of you. These are all the choices we are now faced with. The power of memories is real. Some evoke such emotion that it is almost tangible. This is not a time to fold. This is not a time to quit. This is not a time to give up.’ 

I was lucky enough to have the support of an incredible friends and family, a town that has welcomed me back and then some, and life experiences that help laid the foundation of knowing how to handle life when it throws you some monumental curve balls. I truly believe that without having gone through the inner turmoil I had, and coming out the other side with a renewed perspective I would not have been able to deal with the losses of my Dad and Jake as I have.

All of our life experiences play a part in shaping who we become. We have little control over the experiences themselves. But the meaning we derive from each is within our grasp. We are the authors of our lives. Each chapter of our stories is up for interpretation. We have the opportunity to determine the outcome. We have the ability to shape our perspective. We have the chance to shape our future. And while all that I have described above could easily have led to my demise. I made my choice.

They will not.

They will serve as fuel to the fire. Each and every instance of struggle has fostered a new strength, a new resolve, a new level of determination. Those losses have become my biggest motivations. They have served to push me past my limits in a new way. They’ve brought back that relentless, tenacious, scrawny kid who would never give up into existence.

So no matter what you have going on in your life, no matter how bad you think you have it – recognize the fact that you aren’t alone and that you do have a choice.

The question then becomes, what do you choose?

___________________________________________________

[Joe’s voice]

It’s me again.

I’m not sure about you, but each time I read Sam’s words I get the chills. I am beyond honored to be able to share Sam’s story with you. Whether he knows it or not, he’s changed the way that I see the world; he is someone who I look up to.

This blog isn’t my show, it’s Sam’s, and for that reason, it’s quote time (ala Sam).

‘do the next right thing’

As you can tell from his writing and his story, Sam is an incredible person with a passion for motivating others. Sam pushes the limits of what it means to work hard. He puts out consistent, inspiring and encouraging content on his Instagram page (@coach.samtooley) and I’d recommend checking it out! If you’re in Westfield, NJ area I also suggest checking out Alpha Performance Studio (@alphaperformance.studio).

 

Thanks for reading!

Joe Rinaldi, SPT

IG: @joerinaldi.spt

 

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If you haven’t figured it out yet, Sam’s an absolute animal.

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