The wait is over. Matt Cooper is ready to step on the track and accomplish what's been on his mind since last year, when his life changed and his career was put on halt. Some would say what happened to the Carmel High (IN) senior was remarkably undeserving, especially for someone so positive and encouraging.
He would argue it's been for the better. He would say it's taught him about himself. He would confirm it's the path that's been chosen for him, that he's overcome the mountain, that he's ready to fly downhill.
Consider what the 18-year-old has been through.
The teenager was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and acute lymphoblastic leukemia in February of 2016. He battled three rounds of chemotherapy in the ensuing months, losing his hair and physical stature. He endured and fought and adjusted to a bone marrow transplant, a difficult procedure that proved the biggest toll.
Now he's in remission. Now he's all but beaten it.
"I've always set goals throughout my life," said Cooper, who was granted his request of attending the IAAF London World Track and Field Championships in August from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. "I try to reach them."
Now he's back to a healthy weight of 148 pounds. Now he's on his feet and practicing with the Carmel High track and field team, which is a return to the sport he loves so much, the sport he watched insatiably in that hospital room, that he dreamed about endlessly.
He's expected to return to school by March. He will graduate on time.
College is right around the corner. And in Cooper's eyes, he's hoping to become a Division I runner.
At this point, would you doubt him?
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Consider what Cooper did in the year after his diagnosis.
Not once did he become lethargic on his hospital bed, where he spent months at a time. Never once did he lose interest in school or athletics.
Instead, he maintained his stature in the classroom, studying nonstop and working on homework nearly three hours a day to keep his 4.2 GPA. He took both the ACT and the SAT, going from the hospital to Carmel High on a day when school wasn't even in session.
It showed. The senior, who has been accepted to the University of Miami (OH) and has applied to Clemson and Wake Forest, scored a 29 on the ACT -- out of a 36 -- and a 1350 on the SAT.
Better yet, leukemia didn't keep him off his feet. As a sophomore, Cooper had been an emerging runner who had run a 5K time of 16:51.70, a 1600m best of 4:39.33 and a 3200m PR of 10:21.10.
Cancer didn't slow him down.
On the first day he was admitted to the hospital in Indianapolis, he asked his oncologist one simple question.
"Do you want me to exercise?" he said.
When she agreed, he followed with another response.
"Can you get me a stationary bike in my room?"
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In some ways, Cooper went the rare path in his hospital room, forgoing days of video games and hours spent watching movies.
He replaced it with hundreds of miles on the bike. In time, he developed another love.
"Matt has always had a stubborn streak of determination," his mother, Debby Cooper, said. "After riding the bike for 20 miles, he would want to run. I'd say, 'Can you really run?'"
Was it ever a question?
Cooper worried about his health the first day he was first admitted to the hospital.
All he could think about were memories of his childhood, when he first jumped into a pool at the age of 3.
He remembered his friend Jack, who also battled a leukemia diagnosis years ago, and knew if he didn't keep active that he might lose the motivation.
Always a runner... even when you have cancer? he thought.
So he biked for an hour a day each day in his hospital room, sweating away the problems he was facing.
"I remember telling him, 'Dude, you're supposed to be sick,'" Carmel track and field coach Ken Browner said. "But his reserve and his will, it's what kept him going."
Sometimes, it felt as if Cooper never had leukemia. He dealt with the diagnosis as if it was a badge of honor, Debby said.
Teddy Browning, who became one of Cooper's best friends, was in the hospital on the day Cooper was diagnosed.
"I was just in shock and started to cry," Browning said, "and then he looked at me and said, 'I'm going to beat this thing.'"
The community around Carmel High supported his effort to remission. Debby said one GoFundMe page generated nearly $22,000, helping her quit work and take care of him full-time.
Cooper was released from the hospital three times after his chemotherapy treatments. Each day after he was released, he would be on the roads running again, bald and scrawny.
"Our team would always ask, 'While he's fighting off cancer, what's our excuse?'" said Ben Veatch, another close friend who's now a member of the Indiana University cross country and track and field teams. "It was humbling to see how much dedication he put to running."
Cooper's runs were hard. Sometimes they were unbearable. But he continued. His mother followed him in her Honda Pilot as oncoming traffic stared.
"The first time out of the hospital it wasn't what you would call a banner run," Debby said. "It was hard on his body in different ways. Either his lungs hurt or his legs hurt."
But Cooper finished that first run in a way that gave him optimism.
"That entire run was really tough," Cooper said. "And I was going slow most of the time, but by the time I turned around and started to come home, I began to notice that it was much easier and I was even going 7:30 pace. That gave me a lot of hope, because it told me I could still run."
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Browner visited him in the hospital. So did his friends, some even making a T-shirt that read "Coops Troops."
He beat his own release schedule to make sure he was at the Indiana State Track and Field Championships in June, when the Carmel boys won the state title.
In the minutes before the bus was to leave the school for its 90-minute trip south, Cooper spoke to the team in the locker room.
He had a speech prepared, but as he looked at it, the message became less and less about what he had written and more about what he felt: don't let life beat you in your biggest moment.
His teammates began to cry, and then so did his coach. By the end, Cooper was looking down, too. He couldn't hide the fact that he was welling up.
"It was one of the more moving events in my 27 years of coaching," Browner said. "I've never had a kid put a team on his back without even competing."
It all mattered in some small way.
"Everyone was running for something a little bit more," Browning said.
Veatch would go on to win two state titles, including a win in the 3200m that brought Carmel back from a 41-33 deficit and led the team to a title, its second straight, over Indianapolis Ben Davis High.
"Matt has really been an inspiration," Veatch said. "He's been so strong over the past year and half or so."
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And then soon enough, when Cooper traveled to Cincinnati and endured the toughest procedure of his life, wondering whether his body would accept bone marrow from a donor overseas, he didn't blink.
Even though every part of his body hurt. He kept thinking it's all going to work out.
"You're so weak. You don't want to move. You don't want to walk to go to the bathroom," Cooper said. "You want to stay in bed all day. Your body feels like garbage."
In times of struggle, he would think of his mother, who quit her job to take care of him. He thought of his father and his siblings and his teammates and his coach.
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Cooper kept his dreams alive, too. He continued to believe in his quest to run for the high school before he graduated.
"I'm just driven to do it," he said. "I know if I want to reach them and run at the collegiate level, I have to do my training. It was the same with cancer. If I had to beat it, I had to have the mindset and rely on my family, my friends and my support team."
He defied expectations throughout the process, often coming out ahead of schedule. Doctors eventually told him he was the "best AML patient they had in their hospital."
After bone marrow transplant, he ran the very same day. Soon enough, he was back up to 20 miles, and then 30.
It didn't take long for Cooper to get right back into his training regimen.
And now, with one final track and field season to go, the senior remains optimistic he can once again beat the odds, race and score PRs.
"He already told me he's going to make the 4x800 team," Browner said. "I'm not going to doubt that kid."
Cooper also wants to run the mile in sub-4:30.
"He's just got that will and that resolve," said Browner, who wants to be cautious. "Maybe he's going to say, 'I'm going to do this open event and you're going to have to stop me if you don't want me to.'"
"I don't care if he goes out and runs 20 minutes for two miles," Browning said. "Just to see him get on a track, it's honestly remarkable."
Some day, not far in the future, Cooper wants to keep going, never forgetting the diagnosis that changed his life, but moving forward to a time when he's the best runner he's ever been.
Maybe he'll even compete and win the race of his life, even though some part of him already did.
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