Chasing Dreams: CFHS alum defies all odds to reach top

By: Allie Tabier

Sam Ahrenholz lay paralyzed in disbelief. His dreams were crushed beneath him, his mind flashing back to just 15 seconds ago when he was running for the opportunity to change his entire future. The opportunity of a lifetime.

Just seconds earlier, a cloud of smoke dissipated into the warm luminizing air as the trigger of the 2014 Iowa High School State Track Meet starting pistol was released. The shot echoed throughout the stadium, transforming the runners of the open 800-meter race into a trance of surreality.

Erupting from the blocks, the runners’ spikes penetrated deep into the synthetic surface of the blue oval track, thrusting them towards an eager victory and a chance to prove their ability as some of the most talented athletes in the state.

Ahrenholz, a CFHS senior at the time, was among the runners. Spectators and college scouts looked out as the steady rhythm of his pumping legs flew Ahrenholz into the lead within the first 200 meters.

But suddenly an opponent approached Ahrenholz on his right side, catching him off guard. As Ahrenholz crossed his right foot over, his spikes caught the metal inside curb of the track, and he crumbled to his defeat, finishing dead last.

“My track career felt like it was over. I knew there was no chance of running for an Iowa school,” Ahrenholz said.

But the pressure was still on for his next race. A silence swept over the stadium and nerves were settling in. He gathered with his relay mates and prayed for success.

The team crushed its competition. With a first place finish and record-breaking times in the 4×400, Ahrenholz experienced a transcendent feeling that day, completely forgetting the fall.

“That win took everything else. Nothing could compare to celebrating with my best friends and coach that day,” said Ahrenholz reflecting on the win.

Feeling on top of the world after his last ever high school meet, Ahrenholz piled into the van with his teammates, ready to return home with a state champion title, but the high only lasted for so long.

As they were driving back, his coach, Dirk Homewood, received a call from the University of Iowa informing him that they were no longer interested in offering Ahrenholz a scholarship. Not a single Division I school was interested in him.

“God works in mysterious ways,” Homewood said. “Everything happens for a reason.”

But a heartbroken Ahrenholz accepted the defeat and the ending of his track career.

His dream of being an athlete began when he was no more than five years old. But ever since quarterback Tim Tebow stepped onto the field for the University of Florida Gators in 2006, a greater spark of motivation ignited inside him.

“I completely idolized Tebow. From that point on, I was a diehard Gator fan,” Ahrenholz said.

He became obsessed with analyzing Tebow’s every move. After reading his book and researching his workouts, Ahrenholz was dedicated to replicating his success.

Just as Tebow did, Ahrenholz woke up at 4:30 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to do 400 sit ups and 400 pushups before weight lifting.

He wanted to replicate everything Tebow did, including being a Florida Gator. “I told everyone I was going to be an athlete at Florida, but they all said it would never happen — that I didn’t have the athletic ability.”

In addition to his playing skills, Tebow received considerable press attention for his public displays of Christianity, both on and off the field. He quickly became the most loved and most hated football player in America, but Ahrenholz, who shares a mutual faith, ate it up. “I loved it. He was a fantastic leader, both spiritual and physical. He started a fire inside me, inspiring me in my sports and faith.”

His obsession with the Gators was everywhere. His sophomore year, in an exhibition race, Ahrenholz gave his best effort, but he was far from the state champion runner he would soon become. As he crossed the finish line in last place, he clamped his hands together in a signature “Gator Chomp.” Homewood wasn’t happy but talked it out with Ahrenholz, who learned his lesson.

After receiving no DI recognition, Ahrenholz decided to switch gears and develop his skills elsewhere.

He enrolled in Iowa State University with the intention of being accepted into their School of Architecture. Everyone around him was thrilled. “He was focused on his learning and what he wanted. I don’t think the transition was hard for him. God always has a perfect plan. Sam had the patience and faith to believe that,” said Beth Harris, Ahrenholz’s mother.

But he wasn’t content. His most substantial goals were still fixed on the track.

“Everyone told me not to run, join a fraternity, don’t waste your time,” Ahrenholz said. “No one truly believed in me.”

While everyone around him gave up on his athletic dreams, there was only one person who saw his true potential: his beloved high school coach and role model.

“I knew Sam had the mental and physical abilities. If he wanted to be an athlete, he could. The only one that could help him accomplish his goals was himself,” Homewood said.

He told Ahrenholz exactly what to do. Even 90 miles away, Homewood continued to  impact his life every day. “Homewood had always told me to use my failures as motivation, and I did. I knew I was fast, I had faith and I improved for a reason.”

Ahrenholz started to work behind the scenes. He woke up at ISU to lift every other day from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. and ran his workouts from 10 p.m. to midnight every day. Ahrenholz was consumed by working hard, but this dedication was no surprise. With no days off since he started pursuing his dream years ago, his determination held constant.

In the summer of 2015, Homewood put Ahrenholz in a USA Track and Field meet. He was set at the starting line once again in an open 800-meter race. He wasn’t running for anyone — just half for his love of the sport and half for one last attempt to be noticed in a chance to achieve his dreams.

The starting pistol’s bite echoed in the back of his head as he ran one last time. Hours of work pushed him to the finish line, and with a first place finished, he felt fulfilled.

As Ahrenholz mosied to the list of reported times while on the phone with Homewood, he saw his time, and he knew he was finally going to catch his break.

A 1:52.7 second race. Unheard of by those he was running with.

On his ride home from the meet in Ames, ISU called and offered him a spot on the team. He was also accepted into architecture school before his sophomore year started at Iowa State. It seemed like his life was finally falling into place.

Ahrenholz sat in his first class of the semester when he felt his phone buzz in his pocket. As he walked out to his next class, he checked his email.

He couldn’t believe what he was reading. He skipped his next class.

One week later, he was no longer enrolled at Iowa State. He lived at home with his parents and started a part time job earning minimum wage.

The whispers could be heard throughout his hometown. He had just begun to live out his dream as a D1 athlete, on top of getting accepted into the prestigious architecture school. Now Ahrenholz sat at home in the same bed he grew up in. The same bed where he would spend nights dreaming of opportunities.

sam 2People talked behind his back, assuming he was depressed, or they were angry he was wasting such a fortunate opportunity.

But Ahrenholz was far from depressed.

The email he received on the opening days of the semester was from the University of Florida. The track and field coach messaged Ahrenholz after noticing his times. Ahrenholz was being offered a scholarship to come down and run as a Gator.

“At this point everything came together. It started to make sense why everything happened the way it did. It was truly a miracle from God,” Ahrenholz said.

“We’re incredibly proud of him — the faith and courage that he’s shown throughout all the adversity he’s faced. We know that no matter what happens, it’s all about God’s plan. I’m at peace knowing he’ll continue to pursue his dreams while finding a place where he can shine for others,” said Harris with tears in her eyes.

In just two years, Ahrenholz went from falling at the state track meet and not receiving interest from a single Division I school to being offered a scholarship to his dream school, which also happens to be the defending national track and field champions.

Ahrenholz is now counting down his last week, after which he’ll be packing his bags, loading the car and driving off to fulfill his dreams in the new and exciting chapter of his life. The dreams where Gator Chomping is now encouraged, embraced and applauded.

“God’s plan really is just amazing to look back on,” Ahrenholz said. “A key thing I’ve learned is to enjoy life and the  journey of chasing a dream. Just enjoy it. It’s simple. It sounds cliche, but sometimes the cliche things are true. It’s the about journey not the destination.”

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