HE DOES NOT strike an imposing figure at 5-foot-10 and 155 pounds. He does not play football, basketball, baseball or any other high-profile sport. Nevertheless, he is likely the best athlete in the state of South Carolina.
He is Tony Morales, the defending state Class 4A cross country champion and emerging tri-athlete super star. The River Bluff High senior recently placed 17th — fourth among United States athletes — in the Pan American Cup triathlon in Brazil, and will compete in three weeks in the World Championships in London.
Although no one who has watched him compete would be surprised to see Morales representing the United States in the Olympic Games one day, he is now emerging as a top-of-the-world competitor. That is because he is a relative novice in two phases of the triathlon. Long-distance running long has been his forte with Morales picking up cycling and swimming in the past two or three years.
“Whatever he would have had a passion for, he would have worked very hard to be the best,” says Mike Wendt, who has served as a personal coach to Morales over the years and is an assistant cross country coach at River Bluff. Wendt, like many who follow athletics in Lexington, believes Morales could have been a top-level soccer player. Heck, had he taken up football and added some weight, he might have made an outstanding fullback.
Morales was a recreation-league legend on the soccer field and made the Lexington High JV team as a seventh-grader, scoring five goals that season. But Morales said he did not have the proper conditioning, nor stamina, to be an accomplished soccer player.
So, he ran cross country and still holds the top five times recorded by a seventh-grader. Morales proved to be a natural despite not having the prototypical physique of a cross country runner. He is not lean and long-boned. Rather, his bulging quadriceps remind Wendt of Robert Newsome, the one-time running back for the Dallas Cowboys, and make Morales look more like a sprinter than a long-distance runner.
Morales possesses an extraordinarily strong work ethic and drive to succeed. He also has shown a willingness to learn, and, unlike many athletes, works most diligently on his weaknesses rather than his strengths. While continuing to improve on his 5K run time and his 20K bike time, Morales works hardest at lowering his time in the 750-meter swim.
A typical school day for Morales means wakening at 5 or 5:30 a.m., eating a few crackers and drinking an Ensure for breakfast, riding the bike trainer in his garage for about one hour, then heading to school. It is important for Morales to get as much homework done as possible during school hours, so he does not cut into his sleep at night.
He carries a lunch to school consisting of a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, pretzels, a banana, an apple and a protein bar. After school, cross country practice includes a three- to eight-mile run between 4:45 and 6:15 p.m.
Then Morales returns home where his mother, Mary, often prepares whole wheat pasta or grilled chicken for dinner. Then he is off to Columbia College, where he swims 4,000 to 5,000 yards between 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. before returning home for bed (unless there is homework outstanding) by about 10.
You will find all kinds of swim gear, running attire and cycling equipment in the 2011 Toyota Tacoma that serves as Morales’ mobile office, but you will not find candy wrappers and empty soft drink cans. He has been conscientious about his diet since the seventh grade, and cannot recall the last time he consumed a soft drink or fried food.
In 2011, when Morales started biking, Wendt heard about the United States Cycling Time Trials in Augusta. Morales borrowed a bike from a Lexington man, and rode it one time before heading to Augusta. Upon arrival, Morales was informed that the bike did not meet race standards, so he was sent to a mechanics garage for adjustments.
When Morales returned to the starting line, he garnered stares from other competitors because he was not wearing an aero-dynamic helmet, and was dressed simply in a pair of biker shorts and a T-shirt.
“The other kids were looking at him, like, ‘What is this?’ ” Wendt recalls. “ ‘Really? You’re going to race? Really?’ ”
Without having warmed up for the race, and riding on a strange bike, Morales finished 26th in the country.
A year ago, Morales was visiting his older brother at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., when he took off on a Saturday morning bike ride up a nearby mountain. When he got near the top he noticed a strip of finishing-line tape strung across the road. Upon further inspection, Morales found a road race was scheduled that day.
In fact, the race was The Knob Two-miler, which starts in downtown Boone, covers a course described by race organizers as “two miles of pure hill,” and finishes at Howard’s Knob Park. Morales scurried down the mountain, dropped his bike off with his brother and ran the race, without an official number on his shirt and while wearing biker shorts.
He quickly found himself in the lead pack of three runners who jockeyed back-and-forth, mixing walking with running as they climbed the mountain. Morales finished second.
Four days later, still exhausted from his weekend climbs up the North Carolina mountain, Morales won the Lexington County Invitational cross country race at Lexington High in a school-record time of 14:57.
“That’s a kid gifted with power, speed and endurance,” Wendt says. “You really don’t see that much.”
Those gifts have caught the eye of college cross country coaches, but Morales is not certain he wants to restrict himself to long-distance running in college. He also is considering offers from Marymount (Va.) University and the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, both of which field triathlon teams.
Representatives from those schools, no doubt, see a future Olympian in Morales. The 2016 Olympics might be unrealistic while he is still in college, but the 2020 Games are on Morales’ radar.
By then, we will better understand why he once was the best high school athlete in the state of South Carolina.