Mary Persons senior Justin Wachtel signs his letter of intent to run track and cross country at the University of Virginia next year. He is flanked by his parents Rhett and Rebecca Wachtel and his track and cross country coaches at Mary Persons. Wachtel said he chose UVA not only because new talent gives their team a chance to compete at the highest level, but also because of the strong academics at the school.  (Photo/Will Davis)

Mary Persons senior Justin Wachtel said he wants to go into medicine perhaps as a doctor as he signed his letter of intent to run cross country and track at the University of Virginia on Wednesday, Nov. 11.

Wachtel said UVA has offered to cover about 80 percent of his tuition costs over four years in exchange for bringing his running talents to Charlottesville. The two-time cross country state champion said he chose UVA because the school is super-strong academically and the running teams and coaches are also a good fit.

“There’s a really good outlook for the next four or five years in being able to compete with the best,” said Wachtel.

Joining him at UVA will be another top runner from Georgia, Andrew Jones from North Hall High School.

Wachtel thanked his parents, Rhett and Rebecca Wachtel, his MP cross country coach Llonisha McElhaney and MP track coach Kip Burdette, for their encouragement. He even thanked his rec league baseball coach at the Monroe County Rec Department, Mike Berlin.

“Coach Berlin was a big part of that foundation,” said Wachtel, “he engraved that competitive sense in me.”

Coach McElhaney, who coached Wachtel to two state titles in cross country his junior and senior year, said she’s very proud of him.

“That is such an awesome accomplishment,” said McElhaney. “It’s never been done at Mary Persons. We’re honored to have you at our school. It’s been a fantastic ride. We knew you were gonna be something special.”

Wachtel’s track coach, Kip Burdette, agreed.

“I’ve coached some talented people,” said Burdette. “But the biggest compliment I can give him is it ain’t just talent. As mature as he is, he dug into what makes runners go. It’s not just talent. His maturity and willingness to do what you have to do to be great is what makes him special. You get everything you deserve, Justin. We’re gonna see him continue to bring home accolades. You have a lot to look forward to.”

Justin’s dad Rhett Wachtel said he has mixed emotions about the whole thing.

“It’s bittersweet,” said Rhett. “Seeing him leave and knowing it’s his last year is hard. But I couldn’t be more proud of him. He’s done this on his own. He’s put in the work and taken what little ability he was given and put in a lot of work and made this happen.”

While his accomplishments are many, Justin is focused on other goals.

He wants to finish a 5K in 14 minutes, which only 11 high schoolers have ever done.

He is currently training for the new Running Lanes Championship 5K in Huntsville, Ala. on Nov. 21. With so many other races canceling due to COVID, it has developed into a kind of national championship race for high school cross country runners. 

His goal during the track season in the spring is to set a state record in the 1 mile and 2 mile.

Long-term, Wachtel has the ultimate dream of making the U.S. Olympic team and competing against the best in the world.

Wachtel said it’s extremely competitive and that you basically have to run a 13:30 in the 5K to make the Olympic team. 

“Making the U.S. team is a crazy feat,” said Wachtel, “but that’s my biggest dream.”

Friends who’ve watched Justin over the past four years know it may not be as crazy as it seems.