Karthik Kochuparambil didn't need much motivation.
Everything was right there in the photo — Oconee County senior Wesley John standing center stage, arms outstretched, triumphant as he crossed the finish line.
Then, over his left shoulder was Kochuparambil, a little more than an arm's length away and less than a second behind the eventual 1600 meter state champion at the Class 4A state meet.
"My friends were joking about that and I was like, 'You know what, this year is my chance and I'll probably make up for it,' Kochuparambil said. "It got cut short, but it happens. Things happen."
Kochuparambil entered his junior track and field season eager for redemption, but Denmark's standout distance runner didn't get a chance as the 2020 season ended shortly after it began because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kochuparambil finished second in two events at last year's state meet: the 800 and the 1600. Both of the runners who beat him were seniors, though, signaling that this year was Kochuparambil's chance at a state championship.
"I just really felt bad for the seniors, because I felt like they could have done something there," Kochuparambil said. "I felt like we could have done better, especially in the 4x4. I feel like we had a really solid team this year, and I felt like we could have shown up at sectionals and region. We could have gotten one of those three places, for sure."
Kochuparambil, the 2020 Forsyth County News Athlete of the Year in track and field, picked up where he left off as a sophomore, winning the Longhorn Stampede's 800 meter run in March with a 1:57.07, about half a second faster than the previous season's seed time.
He also ran a team-best 52.59 in the 400 at the Sawnee Mountain Invitational in February.
"I would say I have more experience running the 800," Kochuparambil said. "I would say I'm more of an 800 specialist, but 1600 is there for me, due to cross country and that mileage kicking in."
His second-place finish in the 1600 as a sophomore is made more impressive by the fact that it was his first year running the event.
In the fall, Kochuparambil placed 13th individually at the Class 4A cross country state meet to help the Danes to a second-place finish. He also earned a 10th-place finish as a sophomore.
So, while the spring season ending early was a disappointment, it also provided Kochuparambil the opportunity to rest his body ahead of his senior season.
"That's kind of what I was bummed about, but overall, I felt like it was kind of needed," he said. "I felt like my body just needed a break and I just took it as a positive thing."
Kochuparambil ran the 200 and competed in shot put in seventh grade, then started running the 800, 4x1 and 4x4 in eighth grade, which is when he began to dedicate himself to the sport.
However, Kochuparambil traces his start in running back to his childhood in India, which is where he lived until about a decade ago.
"We used to do races at school there," Kochuparambil said. "It wasn't like with spikes on a track. It was with Converses in a field. It was just really fun for me. I love racing. It was 50 meters, 100 meters max. I had friends growing up that were older than me, and I still do have older friends and those are the ones that push me the most, and those guys would always be faster than me. I was like, 'No, I can't let that happen. I've got to be faster.'"
Kochuparambil continued measuring himself with other runners even after the season ended, staging impromptu races against some of Georgia's top distance runners, such as Marietta's Kamari Miller and Harrison's Sully Shelton.
For Kochuparambil, it's a preview of this fall, when the Danes will join the ranks of Class 7A after spending the past two years at the Class 4A level.
Kochuparambil, who spent his freshman year at South Forsyth, remembers the intense competition of Class 7A, something he thought he might miss moving to Class 4A.
"My excuse was, 'It's 4A. It's nothing compared to 7A. I don't have any competition,'" Kochuparambil remembers thinking. "Then you go into 4A and you're like, 'Wow, OK. There are some fast kids here. Nevermind.' Now there's Sully Shelton and a couple other guys I've got to go against. The competition has increased, I'd say exponentially — not to my liking, but it is what it is.
"For cross country especially, it's going to be new. We have Lambert, Harrison now, Marietta is still always there. It's going to be interesting to see how cross country shows up."