LAND O’ LAKES — Trevor Nichols didn’t have contests in mind when he began drawing a portrait of Kris Keppel, his Land O’ Lakes High cross-country coach who was diagnosed last year with pancreatic cancer.
Keppel had been a pivotal figure in the 18-year-old Nichols’ life throughout his high school career. Nichols’ parents, Lynn and Penny Nichols, suggested he draw the coach and give the portrait to Keppel as a gift.
Which is just what happened.
That could have been that, but Nichols’ art teacher, Cynthia Smith, was impressed with the drawing — titled “Our Coach Keppel” — and suggested Nichols enter it in the annual Congressional Art Competition hosted in this area by U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis.
Nichols won Best of Show. As he accepted his award April 24, he asked to say a few words.
Those in attendance said Nichols explained how the coach had been his mentor over the past four years, encouraging him and rooting for him and his cross-country teammates to do their best on and off the course.
He said that even after Keppel was diagnosed with cancer, the coach continued to check regularly on the students.
Keppel was in the audience that night and said it was the students who gave him the will to keep fighting.
Among those at the awards ceremony were Alison Crumbley, chairwoman of the Pasco County School Board, and board member Cynthia Armstrong.
“It’s an incredible story,” Crumbley told her fellow board members at a meeting last week.
For Crumbley, the situation was all the more impressive because the professional artist who judged the contest did not know the drawing’s back story when she named it the winner.
Keppel said he was thrilled with how well Nichols captured his likeness.
“It was flattering,” Keppel said. “It was touching to have something like that drawn of yourself.”
Keppel has coached both Trevor Nichols and his twin brother, Travis. Travis has been the more successful runner, so the coach said he was glad to see Trevor in the spotlight for his artistic talent.
“I am very proud of Trevor,” he said.
Keppel underwent a 12-hour surgery about three months ago and is cancer free, he said.
He plans to return to teaching social studies in August and wants to be back at full strength by July to take his runners to a cross-country summer camp in Georgia.
“Right now I’m at home trying to get stronger,” he said.
The Congressional Art Competition has been held annually since 1982, and winners are selected from congressional districts throughout the country, though participation is at the discretion of each member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The art award comes with a few perks. Nichols and his mother will get a trip to Washington in June where they will attend a national ceremony, plus tour the White House and the Capitol. Nichols’ artwork and the winning entries from other congressional districts will hang for one year in the Cannon Tunnel, which connects the Cannon House Office Building with the U.S. Capitol.