Tag Archives: Features

His family fled the Taliban. Now he’s one of Virginia’s most feared wrestlers.


There is an Arabic expression that transcends life’s daily trials, a phrase Zaki Mohsin invokes every day. Its meaning is “God willing,” but its power lies in something more self-reliant — that a little resilience today will yield greater outcomes tomorrow.


Mohsin muttered it upon waking each morning at 3:30 to pray in his family’s 15-person citrus home on the western edge of Kabul. He whispered it before earning accolades across Asia as a rising star in the sport of judo. And he repeated it as his family spent a frantic two weeks uprooting their lives and fleeing Afghanistan, putting Mohsin’s dream of an Olympic gold medal on hold. Continue reading His family fled the Taliban. Now he’s one of Virginia’s most feared wrestlers.

How an accomplished college hoops coach landed at a tiny private school in rural Virginia


THE PLAINS, Va. — Butterflies surge through the old coach’s 6-foot-5 frame as he ducks into Activities Bus No. 2, a white, 14-passenger GMC van idling at the top of a steep and winding road. His teenage players file in giggling, their heads buried in their phones, their minds too preoccupied to dwell on the game three hours away.

At last, Joe Harrington wraps his right hand around the gear shift and his left around the steering wheel, the red-and-gold marker of an ACC championship reflecting from his ring finger onto the windshield. At Maryland he used to board a charter bus that cruised to the airport with a police escort in tow. At Wakefield School, Harrington drives the bus.

A former Boston Celtics draft pick after his playing days with the Terrapins, Harrington crisscrossed the country as a head coach at four Division I schools and as an assistant for the Toronto Raptors. He mentored the likes of Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Chauncey Billups. He chased rebounds as an 11-year-old Stephen Curry — the son of former Raptor Dell Curry — heaved three-pointers before games at Air Canada Centre.

This season Harrington, 71, is immersed in the unfamiliar realm of high school basketball. At 13-2, his Wakefield Fighting Owls have matched the best start in school history. And their sophomore-laden roster is doing it on a remote, 63-acre campus 60 miles west of where Harrington’s career took flight as the right-hand man for Lefty Driesell, the legendary former Maryland coach.

“We actually don’t know how he came here,” Wakefield senior forward Colby Weeks said. “That’s somewhat of a mystery to us.” Continue reading How an accomplished college hoops coach landed at a tiny private school in rural Virginia

Olympic champ Kyle Snyder returns to high school gym to wrestle for Ohio State


Kyle Snyder stood in the corner of Good Counsel High’s gym Sunday afternoon and waited to reacquaint himself with the launchpad of his sparkling wrestling career. The navy-and-gold center mat looked exactly the same as he had left it in 2013, but everything that has happened since — a world championship, an NCAA title, an Olympic gold medal — rendered this an entirely different spectacle altogether.

For starters, Snyder was no longer sporting his high school’s colors. The burly 21-year-old donned a black Ohio State warmup pullover as he prepared for a home dual meet roughly 405 miles off campus. The unusual showdown — held just 15 miles from College Park — was the result of a recruiting pitch from Ohio State Coach Tom Ryan, who promised Snyder a home meet at his old high school at some point before he graduated.

Snyder, a junior, paced the warmup mat, but he wasn’t getting loose for his upcoming heavyweight bout just yet. Instead, he was signing hats and T-shirts for giddy children as parents leaned back to take pictures. A sold-out crowd of 1,200 spectators filled the bleachers on either side.

“It’s nuts,” Snyder mumbled as he scrawled his name across another hat’s bill. Continue reading Olympic champ Kyle Snyder returns to high school gym to wrestle for Ohio State

Varsity field hockey has arrived in Loudoun County, but there’s still work to be done


The novelty of the scene at Briar Woods was evident only in the players’ faces.

On one side of the field, 25 members of the Heritage field hockey team decked in candy red uniforms giggled through their warm-up shooting routine. On the other, two of Stone Bridge’s 21 white-and-navy clad stick wielders stopped to laugh at a whiff that sent dirt flying over a stationary ball.

Just about anywhere else in the Washington area, this is a totally normal Tuesday evening in September. In Loudoun County, this is unprecedented. Continue reading Varsity field hockey has arrived in Loudoun County, but there’s still work to be done

For Falls Church boys’ soccer, a diverse roster determined to make history

Falls Church soccer players panted in Tuesday afternoon’s 85-degree heat, hustling alongside the track while four of their teammates camped near the goal to conduct shooting drills during practice. One of those teammates, freshman forward Ahmed Elmataoui, jogged over to the water cooler, rinsed his mouth and spit every last drop onto the turf.

This week marks the most important stretch of these boys’ high school soccer careers. It also marks the start of Ramadan.


As the upstart Jaguars prepare for Friday’s 5A state semifinal, their Muslim quartet must also respect a sacred month of fasting that began Sunday night. A typical day for them this week mirrors junior midfielder Mahmoud El-Khatib’s routine: Fast before and during school, keep fasting at practice, take a nap, wake up at 8:30 p.m. to eat and drink about a gallon of water, sleep, wake up at 3:30 a.m. to drink some more, go back to sleep, wake up at 6:30, repeat.

No Falls Church soccer team has ever qualified for states, and no Falls Church team of any kind has ever won a state championship. As such, El-Khatib and company are opting for a temporary exemption from their religious obligations this weekend. The Jaguars face 5A South champ Mills Godwin at 4 p.m. at Lake Braddock.

“I wanted to make sure God knew that I have to make an exception on Friday, and if we win, then Saturday as well,” El-Khatib said.

Continue reading For Falls Church boys’ soccer, a diverse roster determined to make history

From Sierra Leone to the mat, this trio of George Mason wrestlers is tied together


One is an Olympic hopeful. The other two are the first members of their families to attend college. All three trace their roots to a war-torn country across the Atlantic Ocean, and by varying routes, they all found their way to the same college wrestling team.

Ibrahim Bunduka and Konbeh Koroma were 7 years old when they arrived in Alexandria after fleeing Freetown, their families desperate to escape a civil war that claimed at least 50,000 lives in Sierra Leone. Sahid Kargbo remained in Alexandria all along; his parents and older brother left Freetown in 1991, just before the war spread.

The three George Mason University students share a unique heritage, but their true common ground is on a wrestling mat.

Kargbo opted to redshirt this winter in an effort to qualify for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Koroma will wrap up his college career this weekend at the Eastern Wrestling League championships in Lock Haven, Pa., where Bunduka, a redshirt sophomore, will look to cap a strong season as the Patriots’ lead-off wrestler at 125 pounds.

With their final meet together looming, the three brothers in singlets find themselves on the precipice of new phases in their lives — a long leap from where they began. Continue reading From Sierra Leone to the mat, this trio of George Mason wrestlers is tied together

Westfield field hockey provides extended support network for teammate’s family members with Stage 4 cancer


As the Conference 5 championship got underway Oct. 26, Westfield junior defender Carolyn Ziegler sat in her family’s basement watching “Dancing with the Stars.” Ziegler, a role player on Northern Virginia’s most dominant field hockey team this fall, wanted desperately to be bouncing alongside her teammates on the sideline, to be cheering in the sanctuary that soothed her spirit during the most painful year of her life.

Yet she knew that home was exactly the place she needed to be that night. Her older brother, Michael, was locked in an 18-month battle with Stage 4 brain cancer, and he had recently suffered a seizure that stole his ability to speak. Perched on the basement couch next to Michael was their mother, Barbara, who was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer in February. Barbara’s husband, Mark, sat nearby. The family needed to stick together.

The doorbell rang at about 9:30. Mark trudged upstairs to answer the door, and Carolyn bolted off the couch at the sound of familiar voices. In walked Westfield Coach Starr Karl with five beaming field hockey players in tow. The triumphant entourage, gleeful in the wake of a 3-0 victory over Herndon, made its way downstairs, where Karl presented Carolyn, Michael and Barbara with a shiny piece of hardware.

“That’s your plaque,” she said. “That’s your district championship.”

Continue reading Westfield field hockey provides extended support network for teammate’s family members with Stage 4 cancer

Kyle Simmons trusts a unique cure for cancer: his football team

Westfield football coach Kyle Simmons sits alone in front of the TV, absorbing painkillers and game film on another hot August afternoon.

The drowsy mentor tilts his head back gingerly to let another sip of the 10­-milliliter dose slide slowly down his scorched throat, his eyes never leaving the screen. His right hand reaches for a pen to jot down a missed block near the sideline, his left for a sip of ice cold water that he ends up spitting back out, a precaution against coughing fits triggered by saliva buildup.

To Simmons, 10 milliliters of medication is 30 minutes of prep time. By then the flames burning his throat have died down to allow passage for another liquid meal. The shake always contains some combination of heavy cream, full fat yogurt, full fat milk, raspberries and protein powder, a high­-calorie concoction that takes him over an hour to work through.

Soon enough he rises from his chair and puts on his shoes. Nothing can keep the coach from the place he belongs, not the radical tonsillectomy operation that won’t let him speak, nor the lymph node dissection that left 10 staples snaking down his neck.

Kyle Simmons is heading to practice, cancer be damned. Continue reading Kyle Simmons trusts a unique cure for cancer: his football team

Memory of coach propels Holmes Run Acres swimmers

(Photo by Shamus Ian Fatzinger/Fairfax Times)

Clayton Joyner might be gone, but to the swimmers at Holmes Run Acres Pool, he’s all around them all the time.

Thunder shakes the sky when their former coach jumps up and down, his enthusiasm rippling across the pool to push his swimmers just a bit faster. Lightning strikes when he shouts quick bursts of encouragement to keep them motivated. Even clear weather is Clayton, his upbeat demeanor shining down on everyone at once.

“I just feel like he’s still here,” said Julie Surette, an 11­-year-­old swimmer for the Hurricanes.

Joyner, a co­-head swim coach at Holmes Run Acres for the past 11 years, died May 5 following a massive heart attack he suffered two weeks earlier. He was 29 years old. Continue reading Memory of coach propels Holmes Run Acres swimmers

Madison baseball’s long rise to the top

(Photo by Shamus Ian Fatzinger/Fairfax Times)

Just beyond a basketball hoop in the Madison High gym, tucked behind the door festooned with baseball photos and newspaper clippings, an artist puts the finishing touches on his latest masterpiece. His right hand works furiously across the canvas before him, his back hunched below a clock fast approaching 3 p.m.

Finally, Mark “Pudge” Gjormand drops his pen and emerges with his finished handiwork: a wrinkled piece of paper full of chicken scratch. He immediately likens it to a Picasso painting.

“Or maybe a Rembrandt,” he says. “Or Michelangelo.”

Gjormand’s work may not be as alluring as a Picasso classic, but it’s nearly as meticulous. The 8×11 sheet reflects a mind churning on equal parts control and detail: “3:25: Inf. Ground ball drill/Get dirty.” … “3:40: Stations: Live pick throw down/Forehand.” … “3:50: Multipurpose 1, 2, 3.”

Only two phrases on the computer paper are typed. At the top is the whole enterprise: “James Madison High School Baseball.” At the bottom is what drives it: “Prepare to perform.”

Like an architect clutching a blueprint, Gjormand holds the practice plan up to the light to get a final look. It’s the guide to his team’s improvement and, in his eyes, the reason his baseball program has been Northern Virginia’s most consistent over the last dozen years.

“I want my kids to feel like they’ve done four hours of work in a two-­hour practice,” Gjormand says. “If we just came out and did [batting practice] and did the same thing every day, we would lose them. You’ve got to keep them sharp mentally.”

Now in his 19th year at the helm, Gjormand knows exactly where today’s practice plan will go. He’ll place it right on top of yesterday’s, in one of three drawers storing every practice plan he’s ever devised, including ones for his kids’ little league teams.

Before he does that, though, Gjormand folds the plan up as he rushes out the door. He needs to be on the field at 3:05 p.m. Continue reading Madison baseball’s long rise to the top