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Noah's career arc: After trying years, Pawling track star ends 'on a high note'

When the team prepared for difficult cross country meets, its coach would sometimes mention in passing a famous quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt: “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.”

That resonated so much with Noah Brightman, he essentially adopted it as his credo.

“You don’t get better when everything comes easy,” said the Pawling High School track and field standout, who won a state championship two weeks ago and starred in a national tournament last weekend. “Things will get tricky at times, but that’s when you’ll improve. You have to embrace the challenges.”

Noah’s career arc included two years of turbulent tides, navigating the challenges brought by nature, before ending the journey triumphantly.

Brightman won the boys small-schools 800 meters state championship earlier this month and, last Sunday, he ran the race in 1:54.65 to place second in the New Balance Outdoor Nationals in Philadelphia. The senior finished 0.07 seconds out of first place in the rising stars division.

“It feels great, especially to bring it back to such a small town and school,” he said. “We don’t have many state champions here, so it was a big deal to us. I wanted to end on a high note, and I accomplished that.”It was in the period leading up to that when his skills were sharpened and his resolve tested, which helped him become a master sailor.In the spring of 2020, Brightman discussed with coach Adam Muroski his ambitions for the upcoming season, and how his sights were set on a state title. A lofty goal, to be sure, but it wasn’t far-fetched, considering he competed and medaled in the state tournament as part of a relay the previous year as a freshman. He also set the school record in the 800 meters and narrowly missed qualifying for states in that event.The future was bright, and it appeared he would coast. Alas, there were rough seas ahead.

COVID-19 nixed his plans as scholastic sports were cancelled that spring. Section 1 did resume athletics in the fall, allowing low-risk sports to return on a limited basis. But Pawling was among a handful of schools that declined and, citing health concerns, delayed sports until 2021.

“We went six months without seeing him that year,” Muroski said of Brightman and the coaching staff. “During the fall, I’d meet with him privately and we’d come up with workouts and a plan for the week. He’d show up every time and execute everything, not knowing if the work would be for anything.”

Brightman often would go for long runs, accompanied by his younger brothers, riding alongside him on their bicycles. In addition to holding himself to a high standard, their presence was a source of encouragement.The captain and his crew.The Pawling roster was reshaped after losing two graduating classes after 2019, and Muroski said Brightman was notably more mature and focused, quickly emerging as a leader when the team reconvened in 2021. He no longer was the awestruck freshman looking up to the established members of the team; he was the “veteran” who already had earned some stripes. He was in position by then to give instructions and help keep everyone in line.

Transitioning into that role came almost naturally to him, Brightman said, as he’s the eldest of five children.

It helps, too, that he comes from an athletic family. His brothers Seth and Caleb are high school athletes, sister Sascha is a middle-school hockey player and Illana is a dancer. Their dad is an avid runner who once held the 400 meters record at Saratoga Springs High School. “The talent is obvious and he’s got incredible range, but what really stands out is how self-driven he is,” Muroski said. “With Noah, you never had to tell him what he was supposed to be doing. To be a champion, you need talent and those intangibles.”

The qualities were exhibited in the 2021 outdoor season and Brightman was the top-ranked Division II 800 meters runner in the state, based on his time. But, with the state tournament still cancelled amid the pandemic, there would be nothing tangible to gain.

“It was frustrating,” he admitted. “I’ve always wanted to be the best and as a junior I’m No. 1, technically, but there’s no way for me to prove it.”

That made him “hungry” as his senior year began, when he excelled in cross country. And he was even hungrier this spring, intent on securing the state title he promised himself two years earlier. 

Brightman won the 800 at the Loucks Games, won the event at the Section 1 Class C tournament in a meet-record 1:56.43, won the state qualifying race, then went on to win the state championship.

“It’s a huge accomplishment; we were jumping up and down,” Muroski said. “You can be talented and have great training, but at the state level, so does everyone else. It comes down to who does the best on that day. We knew it was a possibility for him, but it was still thrilling to see it happen.”

The celebration, Brightman said, included an Oreo ice cream cake at home and a torrent of congratulatory phone calls. That, and his friends referring to him as “State Champ” in the hallways at school.

“After having success as a freshman, I expected to keep it rolling through high school,” he said. “Not having those two years really pushed me to make the most of senior year.”

When former teammate Alex Petruso went on to Bryant University, Brightman was amazed that an athlete from his school could compete at the Division I level. That became a dream for him, and eventually a realistic goal. He now is headed to Buffalo and is the only athlete in his graduating class with a Division I commitment.

Youngsters in the program, Muroski said, view Brightman as “their hero,” a superstar who has set the new standard for Pawling. The school recently broke ground for the first-time installation of a track, which is expected to be ready by next spring, as the program continues to grow.

“When the kids saw Noah win states and then go on to get second at nationals, it made them believe that it’s possible for kids from Pawling to be that good at that level,” Muroski said. “It makes them feel like they can do it.”

There’s another old saying related to aquatics — something about a rising tide and its effect on all boats.

Stephen Haynes: [email protected]; 845-437-4826; Twitter: @StephenHaynes4