EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another installment in our ongoing ‘Where Are They Now?’ series, which highlights former area high school and college standouts, and their historic accomplishments.
Bret Mettler ran. And ran. And ran.
Then he ran some more.
He ran for fun. He ran for pleasure. He ran alone. He ran with friends. He ran competitively.
The life lessons he learned along the way — how to juggle a passion with your responsibilities; especially as a student, and how to conquer adversity — still, to this day, remain with him.
“You gain a skillset that is only gained through something like that,” said Mettler, a Yankton native and 1992 graduate of Yankton High School.
“You’re passionate about something and you commit to it.”
Involvement in athletics, he added, provides a person with valuable skills that will remain with them for the rest of their life.
“It allows you to function on a team and understand your place in the team,” Mettler said. “It provides you with discipline and it makes you gritty.”
And grit, in his eyes, is the number one indicator for success. It’s why he will ask his prospective team members — in his career field — if they competed in a sport. A ‘no’ wouldn’t be the end-all, be-all, but a ‘yes’ could tell him a lot about that person.
“You find that the majority of the time,” Mettler said. “It’s that concept of excellence.”
Two decades after his experiences — and successes — as a distance runner at YHS, Mettler is now acclimating himself to a new position in his decorated medical career.
He was in April named director of pediatric cardiac surgery, and co-director of the Blalock-Taussig-Thomas Pediatric and Congenital Heart Center at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore, Maryland.
A University of South Dakota graduate, Mettler has completed residencies at the University of Texas at San Antonio (2003), the University of Michigan (2007), the University of Virginia (2009) and Boston Children’s Hospital (2010).
Prior to accepting the position at Johns Hopkins, he spent nearly a decade in Nashville, Tennessee, where he served as an assistant professor of cardiac surgery at Vanderbilt’s Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital.
The world of pediatric surgery is an “intriguing and rare field,” according to Metter, and one that is competitive and challenging.
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A group of Yankton High School athletes, Mettler included, started running as a means to train themselves for their respective sports.
It charted a path that lives on to this day.
“That group of people set that standard moving forward; that this is what kids should do,” Mettler said.
The athletes began a routine that included twice-daily runs: In the morning before school and the afternoon after school. Although they were training for so-called individual sports (cross country and track), they didn’t view it that way, according to Mettler.
“We spent a lot of time together,” he said. “It was a team sport to us, not an individual sport.
“People don’t think of running like that.”
Mettler and his distance running teammates did, however, and that passion for their craft ultimately paid dividends during the 1991 fall season of cross country — when Mettler was a senior.
The Eastern South Dakota Conference meet that fall was held in Pierre, and Yankton was able to capture the team title in front of a group of spectators that included Rapid City Stevens. The Raiders traveled to Pierre to watch the action — “That was a preview of what was to come,” Mettler said.
Riding high from their conference championship, the Bucks rode their momentum into the state meet in Mitchell.
Yankton put five runners in the top-16 to capture first place with 49 team points, ahead of Stevens (55) and way out in front of Rapid City Central (126). The Bucks were led by Matt Althoff (second place), Josh Roberts (fifth), Jason Marquardt (11th), Mettler (14th) and Noel Pesce (16th).
“We wanted to win everything, and we did,” Mettler said.
That title — Yankton’s first in boys’ cross country — set the stage for what would eventually become a dominance in distance running for the Bucks and Gazelles.
Stevens won the Class AA boys championship every year from 1995-2004, but Yankton then won five straight titles (2005-2009). On the girls side, Yankton was the Class AA runner-up in 2002, but then hoisted the championship trophy in five straight years (2003-2007) and then again in 2009 and 2011.
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Mettler and his family were happy in Nashville.
They had no plans to leave.
He and his wife, Kelly, and their daughters (9-year-old Harper and 7-year-old McCall) enjoyed their life in Tennessee, and Mettler was happy with his work at the children’s hospital.
Then came the opportunity at Johns Hopkins.
“When Hopkins offered me this position, it was a challenge I didn’t think I should pass up,” Mettler said.
At one of the top medical centers in the country, with what Mettler called a “storied past,” Johns Hopkins afforded him the chance to build a team a doctors, nurses and research professors to provide national and international care, he said.
For a small-town kid who went to a small college, Mettler has spent his entire career working hard and competing against other professionals with varying pedigrees, he said.
“It’s spectacular to me, that a potential impediment turns out to be one of the best characteristics,” he added.
“I’m a small town kid who learned a lot about life through sports, and continued to grow and continued to work hard.”
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