Zach DeCarmine Keeps Pushing On

On Saturday, Zach DeCarmine walked across the stage to receive his diploma as a graduate of State College Area High School.

Rather, he was supposed to.

But this is 2020. A year which will be remembered for, among other things, a complete and total derailment of the day-to-day lives of billions, courtesy of an unforeseen and unseen foe.

State College's graduating class of 2020 will forever be immortalized as the class of COVID-19. The class with an in-person graduation ceremony replaced with a virtual graduation, set in front of a green screen image of the school, on YouTube.

Setting aside the virus's most direct and tragic impacts--those inflicted on victims and their families-- this year's high school seniors have been one of the groups most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, losing a spring of celebratory ritual that had been enjoyed annually for countless years by countless others: friends, siblings, parents, grandparents.

Ironically, in a pandemic response that has been broadly and increasingly characterized by angst and anxiety, those same high schoolers have also been some of the most resilient.

In that virtual ceremony, DeCarmine provided a written message which displayed during his 14 seconds on-screen: 

"Thank you SCASD for everything- the memories, people I've met, and goals I have achieved. I am excited to see what the future holds!"

The message was straightforward and emblematic of the mentality his generation has adopted over the last few months: Grateful, undeterred, and optimistic.

It was particularly emblematic of DeCarmine.

As it happens, Zach DeCarmine clears hurdles for a living. Yes, literally, of course--he's won indoor and outdoor team, as well as a 4x800 relay indoor state championship for the Little Lions; he owns a state medal in the 300-meter hurdles and a bevy of Mid-Penn and District 6 golds; and he clocked a blazing 53.95 in the 400-meter hurdles as a sophomore to set a school record and take bronze at the USATF Youth Outdoor Championships.

On the track, DeCarmine is plenty accomplished. But that's just a tiny piece of his story. Far more importantly, his positive attitude, refusal to give up on his dreams, and rare ability to look beyond hurdles in a metaphorical sense have forged him into a beacon of inspiration for his family, coaches, and teammates alike.


"I get to come up to her, talk to her, she gives me a big's the reason I run."

For DeCarmine, the inspiration to compete starts with a tight-knit family. He isn't short of role models to look up to, with his loving and supportive mom and stepdad following him every step of the way. Older sister Georgianna is a professional photographer who has captured many of Zach's favorite moments on and off the track, while older brother Nick is a student at Lock Haven.

"All the love my parents have given me, it's really quite evident they want me to be the best person I can be on and off the track," DeCarmine said. "My parents, they've given me everything in the world.

"But Emma's definitely the heart to everything."

The entire family--and Zach in particular--draw their greatest strength from the household's youngest member, Emma; Zach's 13-year old sister has Down Syndrome.

"People always get asked throughout their career, 'Why do you run?' And I think about it, and for me it's always because of my sister," DeCarmine said. "She gives me the heart, the passion, the determination to run. I know that even though she doesn't always understand everything, she always gives me that love in her eyes."

Because Zach was so young when Emma came along, he doesn't remember adapting his life to meet the demands of the care she needed. But his parents handled it with grace, setting an example for their children to follow. 

"I never felt a difference-she's always just been my sister," DeCarmine said, reminiscing about Emma's joy during trips to the family's favorite vacation spot, Disney World. "I know she's slower, she needs to take more time with work, and sometimes you have to take a different approach with how we do stuff-like, she has sensitive hearing. It's been harder at times, but I'd never trade it for anything. 

"It's grown us all, all the people in our house, and it's really made us stronger and more in tune with other people's lives and putting ourselves in their shoes."


"How I see myself is just a team player. I'll do whatever my coaches say, I'll never make an excuse, I'm just 110 percent committed."

Like most kids in a town of abundant extracurricular opportunities like State College, DeCarmine grew up playing, and excelling at, a number of sports including baseball, basketball and football. But a couple of key moments steered him toward the sport that he would ultimately fall in love with, and the one that would ultimately allow him to fulfill his lifelong dream of playing a Division I sport.

"Ever since I was young, I wanted to earn a scholarship and play Division I sports," DeCarmine said.  "I wanted to be like 'Look, mom, after all this stuff we've been through, good and bad, we made it.'"

His focus first started to broaden in eighth grade, when DeCarmine wasn't selected for his school's basketball team.

"I was like, 'What?' I was so confused, like, how did I not make the basketball team?" DeCarmine jokingly wondered. " I mean I wasn't 6 foot whatever, but no one is in middle school.

"But not making that team was one of the biggest blessings because that's what got me into track."

In the ensuing months DeCarmine picked up track as he moved up to ninth grade at tiny St. Joseph's Catholic Academy in Boalsburg. Immediately, he found his potential calling in the hurdles. Still, DeCarmine kept up with football and baseball--until another untimely event sealed the deal.

DeCarmine had made a deal with his mom where if he got hurt he'd quit football, and he broke his arm in St. Joes' final game. With his abilities to throw a baseball and swing a bat impeded, the fates seemed to make their position clear. DeCarmine consented, although he recognized he'd need more resources to reach his potential.

"St. Joe's didn't have a track, didn't have hurdles, so I sat down and made a decision to go back to State College, a place with the best coaches, the best facilities in Pennsylvania," DeCarmine said.

"I decided it was time to go to State High, and the rest is history."

It didn't take long for DeCarmine to establish himself as a key member of State College's deep and potent track and field squad. He brought home Mid-Penn and District 6 gold in the 300 hurdles, and pushed on to further success nationally in the 400s. In the process, he elevated his profile within the team from a newcomer to a leader by example.

Interview Above: State College Boys After Indoor State Title

"He's not afraid to try the things that are out of his comfort zone,"said State College Head Coach Artie Gilkes. "Sometimes all we have to do is say a couple of words and 20 minutes later he's talked himself into whatever the plan is. He trusts his coaches and we trust him."

Sometimes, the plan entailed stepping up to the 800, where DeCarmine is no slouch. He's consistently dipped below 2 minutes, fueling and complimenting his ability to push through at the end of a grueling hurdle race.

"I'll never turn down a mission or a challenge from anyone," DeCarmine said. "At a school like St. Joe's you pretty much needed to be able to do everything since you just don't have enough kids. I didn't always practice with the distance team, but they counted on me and knew I could get the job done.

"I'll be honest, [the 800] is not my favorite race, but if we're going after team titles and stuff like that you can bet I'm 100 percent in."

"Other kids on the team see Zach asked to do something and he does it," Gilkes said, noting that the conversations aren't always initially cordial. "The kids on the team see him respond and see every coach put an arm around him with pride and realize that it takes that little bit more to get where you want to get."

Fueled in large part by his desire for team success, DeCarmine also relishes the collaborative nature of relays. 

"We definitely push the relays at State High, and Zach eats that up, Gilkes said. "With the stick in his hand he can run just about anything. He's run on every leg of every relay we field."

That relay prowess culminated at the PTFCA Indoor State Championships in February, as DeCarmine teamed up with Sean Adams, Bennett Norton, and Henry Ballard to run 7:52.50 and blitz the field by over three seconds. It was a comfortable position on the podium for a school with no shortage of historical middle distance success. That time was the sixth fastest time in the country this past winter.

"State College is known as 800 high, that's our heart and soul," DeCarmine said, citing Adams, Norton and Ballard's willingness to step up and become the next generation. "That history is real cool, it's rich, and I don't think it'll ever end."


"Growing up in State College, you learn how TEK was about to be one of the best Penn State athletes of all time."

Before he even got into track, the State College track community had unknowingly started forming a positive influence on DeCarmine's life.

As a boy, DeCarmine took notice of a man in a wheelchair in the back of church at Our Lady of Victory. Every Sunday the man came to participate in fellowship, smiling and chatting at will despite his condition.

In time, DeCarmine learned who that man was: Former Penn State decathlete and current State College coach Tom Kleban, whose life forever changed in 1989 when he suffered a spinal injury diving into a pool. In an instant Kleban's daily battle transformed from one of supremacy in ten track and field events into one for survival. Since the accident Kleban has been paralyzed from the chest down, with limited mobility in his arms.

Many in town, including DeCarmine, grew up knowing Kleban's story. But most outside of the team would underestimate his ability as a motivator, coach, and friend. As he tells it, DeCarmine's life was forever changed upon getting to know "TEK" firsthand.

"I've never met someone who had gone through so much adversity, and yet stayed so positive, stayed true to their faith," DeCarmine said. "I don't think there's anyone else in the world who could've handled it like TEK did. He's inspiring to all of us, every kid on the team."

TEK's influence on the program is far from symbolic, though. He simply gets track and field, and he has a special knack for preparing his athletes for competition through workouts and drills honed to the individual--despite not being able to physically demonstrate them. In fact, his unique lived experience may be what gives him an edge as a coach.

"Obviously you look at TEK and you might see a guy in a wheelchair, but I see my friend who has been required to think through things differently and is open to abstract thought about competing and training," Gilkes, who got to know Kleban during his own days on the PSU track team, said--noting that he would often spend an hour talking track with TEK over the phone on a Sunday night before doing the same with DeCarmine immediately after. "With TEK there's always a set of eyes to see what might not be obvious.

"A lot of people in general are set in their ways--they know something has worked in the past so they're stuck in that way of thinking." Gilkes continued. "TEK always wants feedback so he doesn't get stuck in a dogmatic process."

DeCarmine echoed his head coach's sentiments.

"I know [TEK] would die, he would do anything to get back on that track, and yet he still comes back to coach and give what he can-his smarts, his understanding of track and field, to inspire kids like me," DeCarmine said. "He gives you that extra motivation, that extra fire for that last 400, just because you know how he's giving everything he can."

"I've never had a coach who believes in me like he does," DeCarmine continued. "I'm truly blessed to have him in my life because without TEK I would not be where I am.

"He is the reason I will accomplish my dreams and if I can make him proud, there's nothing comparable to that."


May 25, 2019: Saturday at the PIAA track and field championships.

It was a day a year in the making for DeCarmine, since just missing the final as a sophomore. Though he'd spent a majority of the spring season battling sickness, he'd put himself where he needed to be, and he was ready to roll. It was time for a run at a state title.

"By the time states came around I was probably in the best shape I had been, so I almost had that pressure, because the whole season hadn't gone the way I wanted it to," DeCarmine said. "At states, I was like 'I want to make finals, I want to win, I want it all.'"

As he reached the very first hurdle, the dream was brought to a halt.

"I'm in the blocks and I'm trying to get into the right mindset, get fired up," DeCarmine said. " I'm 110 percent focused, but somehow, I get to the first hurdle and I go over with my left leg. I guess my steps were off, I hit the hurdle wrong, and I just fell."

In pain on the track surface, DeCarmine's thoughts turned immediately from an individual state title to the team. State College's vaunted squad--already holding individual state crowns from Lance Hamilton in the triple jump and Luke Knipe in the pole vault--was well-positioned to take the 3A team title, but needed one more point to guarantee victory. DeCarmine could still provide it.

"I don't exactly remember the fall, because I just got up as fast as I could," DeCarmine said. "I knew we needed 41 points to mathematically eliminate everyone else from the meet, and I knew I could still get one point just by finishing the race. So that was already playing in my head. One point, ten points-any point matters."

The first seven finishers crossed the line in rapid succession, led by gold medalist Godwin Kabanda of Northeast Philadelphia at 37.29.

DeCarmine arrived seventeen seconds later, battered but not broken, and in possession of the Little Lions' 41st team point. The state title was officially theirs.

"I hobbled all the way through the race and finished and I was happy to get that one point for the team, but personally, it still felt like mission failed," DeCarmine said. "But it was really cool to see my whole team pick me up, even opponents in that race--I finished so far behind everyone else but they came around to check on me."

As the sun dropped low in the sky a few hours later he joined his teammates for a victory lap, hobbling around Seth Grove Stadium, holding both the PIAA trophy and a newfound appreciation for track as a support network rather than simply a test of strength.

"It was a low moment for me, but definitely a learning experience and it made me hungrier for the next one."


"Ever since I fell in that final, I've had so much motivation to come back and so much to prove-I wanted that gold medal around my neck, but I knew the path wouldn't be easy. It carried me through."

DeCarmine had long since laid his personal goals out in front of him. Indoor and outdoor team titles--check. Relay title--check. Only the individual title remained.

But the pandemic had other ideas. Fresh off the indoor 4x800 title, the outdoor season got put on hold. There would be no state meet. No atonement for 2019. No gold medal.

Through it all, DeCarmine and his teammates remained undeterred.

"We just trained through it-if I'm not running, I'm lifting," DeCarmine said. "Everyone I know is still training for the next possible opportunity, and to me that perfectly describes State High."

In the meantime, Gilkes and the rest of the coaching staff continue to monitor the situation, with fingers crossed for some opportunities to complete. DeCarmine wants a shot at State College's 300-meter hurdle record, which currently sits 0.04 seconds below his personal best of 38.79.

"It sucks that stuff happened, and when it happened it was hard, but time goes on and you just need to use that as motivation," DeCarmine said. " I know I wasn't planning on stopping running after high school, so I know there's a bigger picture.

"One goal that I wasn't able to hit, I'm not going to let that define me, my team or the rich history of State College."


"I can't believe Coronavirus...not only did it take away the present, but it was like 'You know what? We're going to take away the future.'"

On the evening of May 18, DeCarmine finished up his daily workout and called his future coach at Central Michigan University, Michael Schober. Schober, a former Kent State decathlete and budding college coach, had put down roots in Mount Pleasant, buying a home and preparing to start his family. Schober had partially invested his future in DeCarmine as well, making the Pennsylvanian his first recruit. The pair spoke excitedly about CMU's new indoor track and turning Zach into an All-American together, among other things.

DeCarmine was so fired up, he called TEK to let him know how excited he was for the future.

The following morning, DeCarmine woke up to an email asking him to join a Zoom call with the CMU track team at 9:30. Although he initially shrugged it off, future Chippewa teammate Parker Aerts got in touch and suggested Zach join, because he had a bad feeling.

Above: DeCarmine winning the 300m hurdles at the Ship Invite in his PR of 38.79

"I get on the call, and Michael Alford (AD) just starts crying," DeCarmine recalled. "I'm like, 'What is going on?' and he announced that we've decided to cut mens' indoor and outdoor track and field. They put on the head coach, Jenny Swieton, and she's just bawling, can't hold it together."

DeCarmine jumped off the call and immediately reached out to his future mentor.

"So I call coach Schober, I chose CMU mainly because of him, and ask him if it's true. After about 10 seconds, he said yes-he found out about 20 minutes before we did," DeCarmine said. "He had just bought a house, he was trying to start a family in Mount Pleasant, his whole life just got absolutely wrecked. 

DeCarmine had committed to Central Michigan early, in part, to secure a stable financial situation for himself and his family. Although CMU pledged to honor the scholarships they had already promised, DeCarmine wasn't ready for his track and field career to be over. Suddenly, the hurdler was a week shy of his high school graduation without a college home.

"I don't blame any of the coaches at all, I just feel bad for everyone at CMU," DeCarmine said. "I know some of the kids won't be able to run track anymore because of the money situation needing that scholarship."

"No person won in this."

After spending a few days in the NCAA transfer portal before learning it wasn't necessary because of the circumstances surrounding his departure, DeCarmine took matters into his own hands. He started reaching out to other college coaches with whom he had built relationships. He focused on schools he had visited previously such as Penn State, Pitt, and Indiana--all of which were far less likely to cut programs given their Power 5 status.

"I accomplished my dream that I always wanted since I was little-I just didn't get to live it," DeCarmine said in the days following the bad news. "But depending on how this all plays out, no matter what my circumstance is, I know I can still live my dream and achieve my dream, just somewhere else. No matter where I go, I'm going to be happy."


On June 2, DeCarmine learned that he wouldn't be graduating without knowing his future home. The impression he made at Pitt during his official visit last fall paid off with coaches Alonzo Webb and Keith Roberts. Understanding the situation, the pair not only welcomed Zach into their program, but carved out some money for a partial scholarship.

DeCarmine's dream wasn't dead after all.

"With it being the end of the year and a Power 5 school, it feels like even more of an accomplishment," DeCarmine said via text after issuing his commitment. "With CMU and Pitt both offering, and I accepted both at different times, it almost seems like I got a 'double dream' accomplished."

"You can't look at Zach without seeing how all these aspects are indicative of his commitment level--that when things go off plan he is ready to adapt to a new set of circumstances," Gilkes said. "Like when he hit that first hurdle at states and got up to finish and win a medal and a valuable team point. Or when his college plans got upended he was ready to adapt to a new set of circumstances and make that work. 

"The level of commitment to his craft, team and coaches is very inspiring."

Despite his excitement and relief to find a new home, the path DeCarmine had long since decided to follow will weigh on his mind for a long time. He vows to remain in touch with Schober, seeing his would-be coach as an extended family member given his willingness to help Zach reach greater heights.

"It just really hits different when you think that I had this whole other life that could've happened, and I'll never know," DeCarmine said. "One phone call, and my whole life outcome changed."

DeCarmine paused, his mind already searching for a path over the next hurdle.

"But I think at the end of the day everything happens for a reason, and it will be a blessing in disguise."