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The Items In Ethan Cepuran’s Forest Fire “Go Bag” Tell His Story

By David Siegerman | Aug. 31, 2021, 4:24 p.m. (ET)

It made perfect sense that Ethan Cepuran would pack his bicycle and his trainers. His coaches at US Speedskating had a ride planned for the long track national team the next day, and Cepuran had to make certain he’d be ready, wherever he might land.

The Parleys Canyon Fire was beginning to burn its way through the western hills of the Wasatch Range, threatening homes along the stretch of Interstate 80 that connects Salt Lake City and Park City. The blaze would be contained within a week, and it never did come close enough to Cepuran’s home to warrant a full-fledged evacuation. But in those early uncertain hours, he wanted to be prepared.

So, he grabbed the tools of his trade — the training equipment and his skin suits, his skates and extra blades — and started filling the duffel bag from his storage locker, loading up on the practical basics (passport, vaccine card, laptop) as well as those irreplaceable personal items he couldn’t bear to forfeit to a fire. Printed photos that were not saved somewhere digitally. Credentials collected from all those skating competitions, especially the one from the 2020 Four Continents Championship, held at the Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee, the rink roughly 100 miles due north of his home in suburban Chicago where Cepuran’s journey to the brink of potentially qualifying for the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 truly began. And the jackets — so many jackets — from all the National Training Programs he’d made. The jacket from his first Junior World Championships made the cut, as did the one from his first World Cup.

“I overpacked compared to everybody else,” said Cepuran, weeks later.

For the most part, no one would question Cepuran’s packing nor his prioritization. He’d had time to gather his must-haves and his couldn’t-live-withouts, and who could begrudge the choices any of us might make under such circumstances?

There was, though, that one curious item he chose to take, carrying it with him into the nearby rental home where his girlfriend’s parents were staying.

The gallon of chocolate milk required some explaining.

“All of her family was there, and they were like, ‘Why do you have that?’” Cepuran, 21, said. “Gotta stay fueled. I got roasted a little bit by my teammates for that, but I regret nothing. I was ready to go.”

Of all the items in Cepuran’s unique grab bag of a “go bag,” there were a few that surprised absolutely no one. When faced with the mounting prospect of having to flee his home, Cepuran’s first and clearest thought was to save the t-shirts.

The ones with Anthony Rizzo’s name on them. And the ones with Kris Bryant’s. 

Rizzo and Bryant were cornerstones of the greatest celebration in Cepuran’s young life, so far — the night the Chicago Cubs won the 2016 World Series, ending their epic 108-year championship drought. He could never leave those guys behind, even if the Cubs had just moved on from them both players.

A couple of weeks before the Parleys Canyon blaze chased Cepuran temporarily from his home, the Cubs had amputated his favorite players from their roster, sending Rizzo to the Yankees and Bryant to the Giants at Major League Baseball’s trade deadline.

“When I found out, it was heartbreaking,” said Cepuran, the son of two Chicago White Sox fans, who nonetheless followed his older brothers into rooting for the Cubs. “All of my Cubs gear is Bryant and Rizzo. In a matter of 12 hours, it was all obsolete.”

Maybe so, but the shirts were still coming with Cepuran. And so was the most special t-shirt of all — the Cubs championship collectible t-shirt he and his father bought in the hours between the final out of the World Series and the first bell at high school the following morning.

Cepuran had watched Game 7 of the Series at his brother’s apartment in Milwaukee. As usual, he was in town to practice at The Pettit. When the rest of his regular carpool of teammates headed home to Chicago after they got off the ice — earlier than usual, since practice had been moved up by their coach (Cepuran’s brother, Eric) to ensure he’d be in front of his TV before the first pitch — Cepuran stuck around for what unfolded into a historic and unforgettable night. 

After the four-and-a-half hour game — which featured a torturous late rally by Cleveland, a rain delay and, ultimately, an extra inning — Cepuran’s brother drove him to the Wisconsin-Illinois border, where they met their father. Somewhere along the second leg of the ride home to Glen Ellyn, Cepuran suggested that maybe they should find a sporting goods store that might already be selling celebratory apparel. Sure enough, they stopped, spent a couple hours in line with other delirious fans and by 4 o’clock in the morning had procured what immediately became Cepuran’s most cherished possession.

“All my teachers were like, ‘How did you already get a shirt?’” said Cepuran, who never did make it to sleep before that once-in-a-lifetime day of his junior year. “It was a long night. I wasn’t really that tired that day, but I did take a really long nap at home. It was the best day ever. I wouldn’t change anything.”

And when you come away from the Best Day Ever with a t-shirt, that memento comes with you. Wherever you go. Whatever the circumstances.

“It was unlikely that anything was going to burn this far, but just in case …” Cepuran said. “There’s no way I can lose that shirt.”

In the end, no homes were destroyed during the Parleys Canyon Fire, though thousands of residents had been evacuated. Cepuran was able to return to his home, unpack everything he’d packed (minus the chocolate milk, presumably) and return to his task at hand — preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. squad bound for the Beijing Games in February. 

Should that happen, the Cubs’ magic moment might find its standing challenged as Cepuran’s all-time favorite. For now, it remains a treasured memory, unsullied by the team’s trade deadline fire sale, and a potent inspiration.

“Some days, the dream feels a little further away. But then you also have days where it feels right there in front of your face, like you’re able to reach out and touch it,” Cepuran said. “And if it can happen for the Cubs, after a hundred years, I think I’ve got a chance.”

David Siegerman

David Seigerman is a veteran sportswriter, producer, author and the producer/writer/host of the new sports podcast, Out Of Left Field. He is a freelance contributor to USSpeedskating.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Ethan Cepuran

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