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Valencia's More than an Athlete: Matej Cernosek

Valencia swimmer prospered in a trying time

Posted: June 14, 2014 10:18 p.m.
Updated: June 14, 2014 10:18 p.m.

Matej Cernosek was born in the Czezh Republic, but he grew up in the Santa Clarita Valley, where he excelled as a student and an athlete.

 

Editor’s note: Today marks the fifth in a series in which we recognize athletes at the local high schools who represent their respective schools not so much by what they do on the field, but off of it. We call them “More than an athlete.”

When Matej Cernosek had to be tough and resilient in the face of tragedy and pain, he was.

Not because anyone asked him to, but because he saw that he had to be.

Cernosek graduated from Valencia High School two weeks ago, which was in some ways the capstone to a two-year whirlwind for the senior swimmer.

It was a period in his life that was set into motion by the sudden death of his father.

Instead of letting a traumatic event turn things in a negative direction though, Cernosek showed incredible toughness and self-motivation.

“I don’t know,” Cernosek says. “It was just nose to the grindstone a lot and constantly being out and doing that stuff.”

When times got tough, he turned to the gym and the swimming pool.

It helped him release his energy and set his sights on a single goal. He wanted to help Valencia win its first Foothill League swim title in school history.

Cernosek had never swam on the varsity team before his senior year, though.

And with his commitment to playing saxophone in Valencia’s marching band taking up a big portion of his time, it was going to be tough for him to elevate to a regular varsity spot on one of the best swim teams in town.

So he did the most logical thing he could think of. He quit the band, which he had been a part of since sixth grade, got a gym membership and went to work.

“When you’re on the block and ready to jump and they say, ‘On your mark,’ the blood rushes into you and the anxiety and the adrenaline rush was more (than band). So I just said, ‘I like this more,’” Cernosek says on why he left the marching band.

This past school year, he set up his class schedule so he didn’t start school until 9 a.m., which gave him time to drop his younger sister, Teresa, off at school earlier in the morning so he could head to the gym.

Five to six days a week, an hour to an hour-and-a-half of working out.

“He’s a role model to me,” says Teresa, who will be a senior varsity volleyball player at Valencia next year. “He gives me the motivation to be like him, to do everything, to get great grades.”

Earlier this year, when Matej showed up for high school swim season in the spring, his coach hardly recognized him.

He was 30-40 pounds lighter and was visibly fit and in excellent shape.

“This is not the same kid,” says Valencia swim head coach Chris Stroh of when he first saw Cernosek this season. “This is not the kid I saw six months ago.”

A changed kid he was. And Cernosek’s transformation wasn’t just about swimming.

Cernosek grew up in the Santa Clarita Valley after moving here from his native country, the Czech Republic, before his first birthday.

His father, Milan, escaped what was then a Soviet-ruled socialist republic in 1989. He went through a refugee camp in Austria before making his way to the United States.

Milan would eventually meet his wife, Sarka, when he moved to the SCV.

And once Teresa was born, that’s where this is where the family of four settled.

Just before the start of Matej’s junior year of high school, on Aug. 1, 2012, Milan died in a car accident at the age of 54.

For Matej, he felt like the best thing to do was to keep his mind and body occupied, whether that meant volunteering for the Henry Mayo Newhall Health Foundation, participating in summer internships, or swimming.

“If I was to sit down and relax and hang out with my friends, it would be nice, but if I was to have nothing to do, it would allow my mind to wander, so I would think about my dad dying and that would just bring up bad memories,” Matej says.

Instead, he can look back at the last few years full of good memories.

He can recall how he worked all season to eventually become a key point scorer at the Foothill League swim finals for Valencia’s 50- and 100-yard freestyle races.

Valencia wound up making history and winning the league title and Matej was given the Most Improved award on the team.

“He just wanted to continue to work through that problem or through that issue,” Stroh says of Matej dealing with his father’s death. “And I think swimming was a great base for him to let out any emotions that he had.”

Matej graduated with a 4.1 GPA and earned a partial scholarship to Colorado School of Mines, his engineering school of choice.

He’s working for a geotechnical engineering company called RMA GeoScience this summer to help cover additional college expenses.

Even in a chaotic and trying time for he and his family, Matej fought through it and came out prosperous on other end.

All that courage and toughness seems as if it came naturally to him.

Perhaps he got it from his dad.

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