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Coach Ondriezek changed my life


Last updated 3/11/2020 at 12:50pm

How do you say thank you to someone who changed the course of your life, especially 40 years later? Do high school teachers really have an impact on a young person’s life?

In 1977, I was a very small, 95-pound high school freshman attending Riverview High School in Sarasota, Florida. Because of my size and long blonde hair, I was a natural target of bigger kids for teasing, and didn’t make much of an impression on anyone.

While not a bad kid, I had no discipline, no goals in life, and no idea what I should be doing.

All that changed when the wrestling coach, John Ondriezek, walked up to me in gym class and said I should try out for wrestling because he saw something.

For reasons I still don’t know or recall, I accepted his offer. Once on the mat, Coach Ondriezek proved to be an incredible teacher, motivator and role model.

He made me want to get better, faster, stronger and win! As a wrestling team, our high school lost only one match in my three years under his leadership.

As I went through high school and in the 10-20 years after graduating, I never gave things much thought. But, in 2005, I was getting ready to retire from the U.S. Navy after a distinguished military career, and began reflecting on how I got to the point I was at – where did 25 years go and what did I accomplish?

I enlisted in the Navy, was selected as Navy Medicine’s “Sailor of the Year” representing 32,000 medical department sailors and officers; I was accepted into three highly competitive college programs leading to four college degrees, including a Master’s from Baylor University.

I married my high school sweetheart with whom I’m about to celebrate our 38th anniversary, and had two successful and beautiful daughters.

Today, 40 years after Coach Ondriezek’s mentoring, I am approaching retirement from Federal Civilian Service and again reflecting on how I got to this point.

At this point I think it’s important to understand that in 1977-1980, none of my close, non-wrestling friends at the time graduated high school (they are all good people, but they ended up going another direction). Without his guidance, that could have easily been me.

Several years ago I tracked down Coach Ondriezek to tell him thanks, and to let him know we were doing great. He told me at that time he was preparing for retirement after 40 years of coaching. I wanted so badly to make the trip from Florida to Mukilteo to say THANK YOU in person, but simply couldn’t make it work.

While I was able to thank Coach Ondriezek, I did it via e-mail and a brief phone call, but for all he did, that somehow seems inadequate.

I am hopeful this letter of thanks will make it into the Mukilteo paper or on-line news so Coach Ondriezek, his family and many others know that I am a better person because of John Ondriezek.

It is with utmost respect, admiration, and sincerity that I say, THANKS, COACH, YOU MADE A HUGE DIFFERENCE IN MY LIFE…


Douglas Thomas, Lieutenant Commander

Medical Service Corps, United States Navy (Retired)


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