It had been awhile since my last Nugget Challenge.
It had been one year, 11 months and 28 days to be exact.
So, when Mateo Golloshi, LCHS’s valedictorian and third place State finisher in the boys 50 yard freestyle and boys 100 yard butterfly, sent me a direct message challenging me to a swim challenge I was all-in before I could even think about what I was getting myself in to.
The reason was two-fold. For one, I hadn’t been challenged in some time and I truly missed getting myself into these absurd situations where I could get to know Lumpkin County’s student-athletes a bit more while completely embarrassing myself. The second reason was that it was Mateo, someone who I sincerely enjoyed covering since his middle school days when he and Harrison Spivey were known as “the dynamic duo” on the soccer pitch.
You see, there is something about Mateo that makes him an absolute joy to be around. He is always wearing a smile and always has a positive attitude no matter what the situation. He is wise beyond his years and carries himself in a way that most his age do not. Through my many years of covering him in soccer and swimming, I had developed a strong friendship with Mateo.
When you understand who Mateo is and what sacrifices his father made to make sure him and his older brother were given the best education, it is easy to understand where Mateo got his work ethic and passion to succeed.
Mateo’s father, a figure to be admired in his own right, moved his family from Albania to the United States to insure that his sons would be well educated. He went from a top-level education administrator job in Albania to a janitor job in the U.S. His decision to uproot his family in search of the American dream proved to be the right one, as Mateo’s older brother graduated from LCHS and went to Yale and Mateo himself graduated valedictorian of the 2019 LCHS graduating class and will be going to Georgia Tech.
“My dad is the reason that I work so hard,” said Mateo. “He taught me that if you work hard, you can achieve anything.”
And, though I gave Mateo a hard time when he left soccer to pursue his passion for swimming, I quickly realized that whatever Mateo set his mind to he would succeed at.
So, on Friday, June 28, a day after my 42nd birthday, the long-awaited return of The Nugget Challenge fleshed itself out in the form of a swim quintathlon of epic proportions when Mateo and I went mano-a-mano in my backyard pool.
The rules were simple: win three of the five events to be crowned The Nugget Challenge swim champion.
With a host of Nugget employees and a few friends there to help with judging, photo taking and videoing of the event, Mateo and I took to the water for the first event.
The first event was the watermelon race. Each of us would try to swim from one end of the pool to the other while holding a watermelon. If you dropped the watermelon or touched the bottom of the pool, you had to start over.
With the first event of the quintathlon came the first cheat that I would utilize to even the playing field and give myself a better chance at winning. This particular cheat was two-fold. First off, the watermelon I gave Mateo to swim with was about three times the size of the paltry seedless watermelon that I was to use. Secondly, I applied a thin layer of sun screen to Mateo’s watermelon to make it harder to hold on to.
Neither of my cheats worked, however, as Mateo flipped to his back and carried his watermelon as if he were a lifeguard saving someone’s life. While Mateo glided from one end of the pool to the other, it became painfully obvious to everyone in attendance that my swimming skills were less than desirable as I struggled to make my way down the pool. It was an easy victory for Mateo and put him up 1-0.
While my watermelon cheat didn’t seem to help me at all, my next cheat would prove to be genius.
The next event was the float race. Both Mateo and I would race on floats from one end of the pool to the other without using our legs. The first one to go from one end to the other and back would be the winner.
I handed Mateo a glitter unicorn tube to use for the float race while I sat back on my lounge chair float and pulled out my secret weapon: a kayak paddle.
I felt that I had the upper hand when race began, as I paddled madly towards the other end of the pool. Mateo struggled to get going initially, but soon found his stride and began to pick up ground on me as we headed back down the pool for the final stretch. Seeing that Mateo was nipping at my heels I abandoned my float and paddle at the last second and lunged forward just touching the wall before Mateo. My cheat had worked and we were all tied at 1-1.
Next, Mateo and I put our fate into the hands of the judges when we stepped up to the edge of the pool for the cannonball contest. The judging panel of my girl Brittany, her mom Sharon, Rachel Ayers and Harrison Spivey listened to the rules of the event, but it would become painfully obvious soon after that they hadn’t quite understood them all.
The rules were supposed to be simple: each competitor would attempt two cannonballs and the judges would award scores from 1-10 based on style and splash. If a competitor found themselves down after the first two cannonballs, they could opt to attempt a belly flop to receive a score as high as 15.
I went first. Not having attempted a cannonball since I was knee high to a grasshopper, I knew that my first attempt wouldn’t be the best. But, I gave myself a quick pep talk and launched myself toward the pool for what I hoped would be a tremendous splash. It wasn’t as impressive as I had hoped and I was awarded a total score of 29. Mateo followed with a crowd-pleasing splash that gave him the lead with a score of 33. My next attempt was just the right amount of splash and style and I was awarded a score of 33, putting me back into the lead. But, Mateo threw a monkey wrench into the equation when he flew through the air and hit the water with a gut-wrenching splash. Mateo’s belly flop, though completely out of order according to the rules, pleased the judges and he was awarded a total of 47 points.
Trialing 80-62, I knew that I would have to top Mateo’s belly flop with one of my own. At my age belly flopping is not something done on a regular basis and I needed to psyche myself up before attempting it. I knew I was going to go all-out, and I had to prepare my body for the upcoming impact. At the whistle, I jumped in the air, fully splayed my arms and legs as far as I could and hit the water with a thud. I hit so hard that one side of the goggles I was wearing filled up with water while the other stayed completely water-free.
I felt a sense of excitement as the first judge’s scores were displayed, but that quickly turned to utter bewilderment when Rachel held up a score of 8. Even Mateo was confused by the low score.
“You are not welcomed back to my house or my pool,” I jokingly told Rachel as I exited the pool to let Mateo attempt his final cannonball.
Mateo put a bit of a spin on his final cannonball that I must admit was impressive, albeit something that might have pulled some muscles I didn’t even know I had had I tried to attempt it.
The judges were impressed by his flair and awarded Mateo a score of 37.
After tallying up the total scores, Mateo eked out a 117-113 victory to take a 2-1 advantage.
Needing a break to catch my breath and gear up for the final event, I got Mateo to battle it out with Harrison in a game of chicken fight for the challenge’s halftime entertainment. With both Mateo and Harrison riding on inflatable chickens, the two met in the middle of the pool and tried to make the other fall off their chicken into the water. Mateo talked much trash as he and Harrison traded jabs with the pool noodles they wielded. But, it would be Harrison that would get the upper hand when he grabbed ahold of Mateo and dunked him into the pool.
With the halftime entertainment complete, Mateo and I retook to the pool for a game of floating bean bag toss. At first we decided that we would play a game to five points, but it quickly became evident that hitting the target was a lot harder than either of us thought it would be. With our audience losing interest, we changed it to first one to score a point would win. A couple throws later Mateo landed the perfect shot and emerged victorious in the bean bag toss 1-0 to take a 3-1 advantage.
Although I knew that I had already lost the overall competition, we both took to the pool one last time for a game of shoot ball. Shoot ball is a lot like basketball, but when the ball goes through the hoop it flies out one of six sides which have point values assigned to them. The object was simple: first one to score 1,000 points won.
Theoretically, the game could be won in two shots if you were skillful and lucky, as there was a 500 point side. But, for Mateo and I, the game of shoot ball took considerably longer for us to acquire 1,000 points.
Mateo went first and quickly sunk a shot to score 50 points. He followed it with another great shot that flew through the 500 point side, giving him a 550 point lead. I followed with three made shots for 10 points apiece before missing and turning the ball back over to Mateo. After several misses by both of us, I started to heat up and sank shot after shot to take the lead. In the end, I outscored Mateo 1,010-570 to win the shoot ball competition.
And, although I lost the challenge by a final score of 3-2, it was one of the most unique and fun challenges I had ever taken part in. It didn’t even feel bad to lose to such a great kid like Mateo.
Afterward, everyone enjoyed some time lounging in the pool while I cooked hamburgers and brats for everyone.
When Mateo left he thanked me for the opportunity to be a part of The Nugget Challenge and told me how much fun he had doing it. It filled me with a joy I cannot fully describe, but it also filled me with a tinge of sadness.
You see, the challenges have ceased coming long ago and this may have been the last one I ever get to do. That is a sad prospect for someone who has competed in over 30 of these challenges over the years, even if I only won two of them.
But, if this was the last Nugget Challenge, then I am so glad that it was against Mateo Golloshi. It was one last time to be in the presence of such a positive, happy individual and something that I will talk about when I am old and gray.
So, thank you Mateo for giving this sportswriter one last spectacularly absurd Nugget Challenge.
It had been awhile since my last Nugget Challenge.