Carmin Mazzotta’s sage perspective on the state of our reeling world is derived from nightmarish circumstance.
The 38-year-old Kamloops man was “basically cut in half,” he said, sliced open from stem to sternum in the fall of 2018 during an experimental surgery — retroperitoneal dissection — conducted in response to his second cancer diagnosis.
“There were some large lymph nodes in my abdomen,” said Mazzotta, a community planner for the City of Kamloops. “I ended up being part of this crazy clinical trial to avoid chemo and radiation. They move your intestines out of the way, remove all the other lymph nodes from your abdomen while trying to spare nerves and sew you back up.”
Mazzotta, who had a testicle removed after his first cancer diagnosis early in 2017, was hesitant to speak about his health issues, more interested in focusing on the now-defunct TRU WolfPack cross-country running program, of which he was head coach.
But lessons learned during his fight to survive may be applicable to readers on edge due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He decided to share them.
“You have to shut out the what-ifs,” said Mazzotta, whose wife, Candace, a health-care worker in the city, has been impacted profoundly by the virus crisis.
“Especially with COVID. There’s enough shit going on in the world right now that it’s all a bit surreal, but we’ve got to control what we can control. What’s the next step? Take it one day at a time. Stick to the game plan, do what [provincial health officer Dr.] Bonnie Henry tells you and do what you can control.”
Mazzotta is a former national and provincial champion track and-field athlete whose NCAA career with University of North Carolina Asheville was marred by injuries, some the result of overtraining and poor coaching, he said.
“I wanted to work with student-athletes and help them avoid some of the pitfalls I made and see if we could build something here,” said Mazzotta, who took the head coaching reins at TRU in 2015, succeeding Jack Miller.
Mazzotta informed WolfPack athletic director Curtis Atkinson last fall of his decision to step away from a job that had essentially been a labour of love, as payment was a small honoraria.
Athletes, who heard the news from their coach last November, lost a mentor who sacrificed time with his wife, family and friends to help them, while maintaining a city job and fighting cancer.
“He was literally in the hospital bed, checking in with us, checking in with athletes,” Atkinson said, noting the running community in Kamloops banded together to help with coaching duties while Mazzotta was under medical care.
“It was all about what he could do to make them better and to make sure they were staying on track.
"Leading up to that, he was always a very honest person, high character, very ethical, but then to see him live that and the character and courage he showed during that time, it blew me away. Carmin is really one of the most amazing people I’ve met and worked with.”
Former WolfPack athlete Conlan Sprickerhoff spent four years running under Mazzotta.
“Even without the cancer stuff, Carmin’s always been a super big inspiration to everybody and a very big people person, but him going through a lot of that stuff and still putting the time and effort into coaching, it brought the team together a bit more,” said Sprickerhoff, noting Mazzotta’s famous/infamous motivational one-liners, such as “The hay is in the barn,” were always amusing.
“It was really easy to buy into what Carmin was saying. He is a listener and took time to help each individual,” Sprickerhoff said.
Mazzotta said the WolfPack have a great facility for an indoor track team, including the mondo track inside the Tournament Capital Centre that came at great cost to the city.
“Any legit cross-country runner is also a track runner,” Mazzotta said. “I know the track and field community at large was kind of looking at that and going, ‘OK, why does TRU not have an indoor track program?’ Curtis has to work within the budget parameters he had and I totally understand.”
WolfPack cross-country running results improved under Mazzotta, but disparity existed between TRU and most Canada West schools that field competitive teams.
“Running a university program is not something you should really be doing off the side of your desk,” Mazzotta said.
“And I had to do a complete evaluation when I went through cancer for a second time, to say I’m running on all cylinders and have been for years. You start examining all the causal factors. You can lose your mind thinking about something like that. Between coaching and my city job, that’s 70 hours a week, eight, nine months a year, not even including weekends to travel to competitions. How sustainable is that? And then my own relationships …”
Mazzotta told athletes it was time for him to step aside and make way for a coach who could take the team to the next level, someone who could recruit properly and put in long hours, someone who would need to be paid more.
Atkinson put work in to find that someone, but eventually pulled the plug on the program, saying funds required to hire a competent coach and field a successful team could not be acquired without taking money away from other programs — and that is not an option.
“I have the utmost respect for Curtis,” Mazzotta said, noting WolfPack athletes who remain at TRU will still be able to train together and race at open events. “Curtis was honest with me from the gun.”
Athletes were not informed of the decision to nix the program until March.
“It’s getting a bit late to transfer,” Mazzotta said. “I know some of the student-athletes were pretty raw about the way it ended. They reacted in a pretty raw way. There is no need to be spiteful toward the university. I don’t want to pin any of this on COVID, but in a way, it is kind of like the nail in the coffin. There were some fundraising discussions, a community fundraising push.”
Added Atkinson: “There is a lot of emotion attached to that. That was the unfortunate reality we were in. The financial gap was too significant to overcome.”
Scholarship dollars will be honoured through the 2020-2021 school year.
Mazzotta, working from home since the city declared a state of emergency on March 20, has turned his focus to his wife
“She’s my priority right now,” he said. “She’s on the front line of this war. I frame it up — I’m grateful. It has been tough this last bit, but my wife is incredibly strong and supportive. We’ve got the perspective.”
They sure do.
“You’ve kind of got to develop almost a philosophical standpoint about life and death,” Mazzotta said.
“I’ve had a great life to this point. I feel really blessed and privileged. I was born in B.C. We live in the most beautiful place on earth. We’ve won the lottery. We won the lottery by being here.”