Inspiring Okeechobee: A. J. Mayernik keeps Okeechobee running

OKEECHOBEE — Before A.J. Mayernik arrived in Okeechobee in July of 2006, I never really saw anyone out for a “run.” Since he came to Okeechobee, A.J. has gotten many young students to run, and run, and run.

Okeechobee now is known for its cross country team and distance runners during track and field season, all because A.J. wanted to share his love of running with our kids.

On April 17, A.J. Mayernik ran in the first wave of runners in the 121st running of the Boston Marathon. The first wave of runners are considered among the elite runners in the 30,000 plus runners assembled for this iconic race. A.J. finished 1027th, and bested his own father’s self-proclaimed “Mayernik Marathon Record” of 2:57:56, by running the marathon in 2:56:24. I cannot imagine running 26 miles, much less in under three hours!

Call the paramedics now!

Just a bit about A.J. though that makes this story inspiring as told by mom, Lynne and dad, Jerry: “At the age of three, little A.J. had already made it known that he wanted to be a teacher and a runner. Dad was both, and A.J. wanted to grow up to be just like his father. Who sets goals at three and achieves them? Well, A.J. did and stuck with his dream until he fulfilled both.

It was not an easy path to take.”

A.J. was born seven weeks premature, after his parents had experienced the loss of five previous children through miscarriage. Dad Jerry continues, “A.J. was carried the longest and had the best chance at survival. His hospital pediatrician sat down with [us] the worried parents and spelled out the facts.

His chances of survival were small and, even if he survived, he would probably have health problems throughout his life. Dr. Zane warned, ‘Don’t expect your son to be a distance runner. The lungs are the last organs to develop, and he might struggle with breathing issues.’ After nearly dying on his fifth day after birth from a massive infection, A.J. persisted, a persistence he displays to this day. Not only were [we] his parents treated to a strong, healthy son, we also reveled in his ability to choose a path and succeed despite long odds.” Today, mom and dad still make sure to attend each race, and are “still basking in the glow of his astounding perseverance.”

Wife, Regina Mayernik, notes, “I have been with A.J. for 15 years. We dated for 9 years and have been married for 6 years (this July). I can’t imagine what life would be like without this man in my life. He has motivated me, encouraged me, supported me and loved me with all of his heart. We have an amazing daughter that is such a free spirit like he is and I hope she can be as strong and loving as A.J. is. Not only has he been an inspiration to our family but I have seen the compassion he has for his students and athletes.”

A.J. and wife, Regina Mayernik, at the Boston Marathon in 2017.

Regina continues, “He will come home after working hard all day and be concerned about a student and how he can help them achieve a goal or grade.

He thinks outside the box on how he can help his students grasp concepts by building roller coaster to rapping in class. Not only does he have a passion for science but for running as well. The dedication A.J. has for coaching cross country and being there for his athletes is contagious. This group of athletes become more than students and competitors. They become a family that supports each other and works together to get to their goals.” While A.J. and Regina were in Boston, they know there were athletes, teachers and others in Okeechobee tracking his progress, to which Regina notes it was just overwhelming to have so much encouragement.

The story would ordinarily end there, but A.J. has a group of students who work hard to mimic his running behaviors and parents that cannot thank coach enough for his efforts. Several of them were glad to contribute their thoughts about Coach Mayernik.

Cross Country parent, Tracy Sills, had this to say about why A.J. inspires her, “When my son decided to join the cross country team at the beginning of his junior year, I was excited for him. He had always been involved in sports and had been on the track team, but he had little experience or training on the area of long distance running. His decision to join cross country turned out to be one of the best decisions of his high school career. He was immediately brought into the cross country ‘family’ and found a place among the group.

He fell in love with the sport and continued to thrive and excel for the next two years. Much of this is due to the influence of Coach Mayernik. Coach is a leader and a role model for the athletes. He often goes on runs with the kids and always offers encouragement and advice. He unselfishly gives up many hours after school each week for practices, and then more time on the weekends to travel to races so the kids have many opportunities to compete and improve. He teaches the kids about eating healthier and making good choices with their food and beverage intake. Not only are they learning and growing as athletes, they are learning lessons that will help them in all areas of their lives. Coach Mayernik inspires the kids to want to push harder to improve and to achieve.”

Hunter Sills, graduating in May said of A.J., “Coach Mayernik has been an inspiration to our team and to me personally. His unrelenting support every practice and every race is what keeps a lot of us going. He’s always there to talk to us and to remind us of what we’re a part of. It’s not just us, but the team as a whole. He gives the team the opportunity to do incredible things and we have. He always finds something good to tell us about our race even after a bad one, and gives us the constructive criticism that we need to improve. Nonetheless Mr. Mayernik has given us the drive to make a name for our school and for ourselves. Records can be broken but memories last forever.”

Graduating senior, Gerardo Saucedo noted that Coach Mayernik is not only a coach but a mentor to him. Gerardo said, “You have showed us how to be confident and taught us not to give up. You give us motivation when you run with us and push us to work harder. Thank you for everything you have done for us, like making us men. Gracias.”

Coach Mayernik, while you did not inspire me to take up long distance running this week, you do inspire me and our community. Thank you for pouring yourself and the love of running into our children and getting them off the couch.

Leah Suarez is a freelance writer.

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