Individual sports are the toughest.
The athlete stands on an island with no one else responsible for their performance. You succeed or fail based on your ability.
As a result, those who excel in an individual sport are almost always a cut above others in terms of strength and mental toughness.
It takes a special kind of athlete to accomplish success individually.
It takes someone like Livermore wrestler Timothy Cowan.
Cowan is likely the top wrestler in the East Bay Athletic League and is shooting for a spot on the medal stand when the California Interscholastic Federation Championships Feb. 24-26.
But it hasn't been a smooth journey for the Livermore senior.
Cowan started wrestling in the third grade, choosing to follow in the footsteps of his father who wrestled in high school and college. He tried a variety of sports, but it wasn't long before wrestling stepped to the front of the line.
"In 6th grade I fell in love with wrestling," explained Cowan, who is committed to Cal Baptist, a powerful wrestling school that is a NCAA D-I program in Riverside. "I knew that's what I wanted to do."
As a member of the Tri-Valley Elite Wrestling club, Cowan honed his skills throughout middle school and entered high school as a young, but talented freshman.
A couple of months into the season, that all changed.
"My freshman year was crazy," said Cowan. "I got hurt midway through the season when I fractured my neck. The doctor told me not to wrestle again."
This is where the personal resolve kicked in.
"The first thing I said when we got in the car to come home from the doctor was that I wasn't giving up wrestling. I just couldn't give it up."
Cowan turned toward an intensive rehabilitation.
"I went to therapy and put a lot of hard hours in at the gym," explained Cowan. "I had to make my body stronger."
The individual aspect of the sport increased Cowan's drive.
"Being in an individual sport it is all on me," said Cowan. "You can still rely on your team during the season, but if you put in the work, you can see the results."
By September he was given the green light to return to the mat for his sophomore season. But there was one more hurdle to clear after getting the doctor's blessing.
"It took a lot of convincing of my mom," said Cowan with a laugh. "In the end, she knew what it meant to me to be able to wrestle."
Given a second chance, Cowan made the most of it, winning the EBAL and North Coast Section title at 145 pounds. He then went 3-2 at the state meet and finished the season with a 41-10 record.
Big expectations were set for his junior year when he was hit by another setback -- COVID-19.
"That was a bummer," said Cowan of sports being shut down. "It was tough. I was still training, but sometimes you feel like what am I training for?"
Fortunately, a couple of events came together and once again Cowan took advantage.
There was an unofficial state meet invitation held in Fresno where Cowan finished eighth at 152 pounds. Then he was invited to a showcase put on by USA Wrestling in Iowa. He finished fourth and earned All-American honors.
He drew on past experiences to get through the year.
"Everything I went through my freshman year helped me get through my junior year," said Cowan. "I wouldn't be where I am now without the injury."
Which brings us to this year.
"I'm just hoping we have a state meet," said Cowan of the uncertain times we live in. "We've had to adapt with all that is going on. I am more disciplined with my weight because meets and tournaments can pop up at any time."
Wrestling at 160, Cowan is 19-3 right now and ranked No. 5 in the state. His losses have come to Mason Espinoza (Buchanan), Daschle Lamer (Crescent Valley, Oregon), and Angelo Posada (Poway -- San Diego), the current No. 4 in California.
He has since avenged the loss to Espinoza (No. 6 in the state) and is eager to see Posada again at state.
"Every day when I wake up, I write down that I am going to win state," said Cowan. "You always have to have goals, you need reasons why you are working so hard. Everything that has happened have been stepping stones for me."
Livermore High is rich in wrestling tradition, having been one of the top programs in California back in the 1980s and 1990s. Cowan is perfectly aware of the legacy.
"It's pretty cool to see the history of the program," said Cowan. "I am hopeful to be able to join those ranks."
To some, he is already there.
Clark Conover is one of the most decorated wrestlers to come out of the Cowboy program. He won multiple EBAL and NCS titles and medaled in the state meet.
After high school, he won the California State Junior College Championship at Chabot, then moved on to Cal-Poly where he finished third in the then Pac 10 and advanced to the NCAA Championship.
He came back to Livermore where he coached at cross-town rival Granada. He is currently a vice-principal at the school and had the new wrestling facility at Granada named after him.
While not coaching any longer, he still closely follows the sport. He has seen and talked with Cowan and is one of Cowan's biggest fans.
"Tim is one of the very best to come out of Livermore," said Conover. "I can't think of the last time someone like him has come out of Livermore."
Conover doesn't hesitate to tout Cowan's skills.
"The top-end talent is better now than back when I was wrestling," said Conover. "All of our Livermore alumni is behind him."
Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the Tri-Valley Preps Playbook, a free e-newsletter that covers Tri-Valley high school sports. Subscribe to the newsletter at LivermoreVine.com/Playbook.