Tom Hahn

“I can remember a time when I couldn’t even leave my bed because I was so afraid of the unknown.”

There are many individual paths to the SkillsUSA Championships, but Tom Hahn’s was particularly stressful. In his own words, Hahn tells how he overcame his clinical anxiety to earn a gold medal in the biggest of the national competitions.

SkillsUSA has made a huge impact on my life. My family is comprised of blue collar-workers and musicians. My grandfather started his own carpentry business called Family Craft Builders in Chicago. He and my grandmother had seven children within a time span of about 10 years. So, our family has never been the wealthiest, but for the most part it’s been comfortable.

When my grandfather passed away, my father took over the family business. With my mother working with him in the office, things were going pretty well for the whole family. I was born in 1994, and by about 2004 my father decided he wanted to start a subdivision in Homer Glen, Ill. With the hope that the property and his beautiful townhomes and single-family homes would attract many potential buyers, it seemed as though it would be a very lucrative business move. Things went on without much of a hitch until 2008 [when the market faltered].

I was about 13 years old and hadn’t really figured out what I was going to do with my life; not surprising for a young boy. A few years prior to this, I was diagnosed with clinical anxiety, social phobia and panic disorder. It was a huge struggle in my life, and the family business being impacted by the failing economy didn’t help the stress my parents were experiencing, either.

TomHahn2However, life kept going, and soon I was in high school. Not many people liked me, as I wasn’t the best at socializing and often had to leave the classroom to try and calm down. In my sophomore year, I took an automotive technology class. I didn’t think much of it; I just knew I would be driving soon and wanted to be able to take care of the maintenance myself to save money. Unfortunately, there was a lot of bullying, making the environment a bit stressful, but I kept going with it because I very much enjoyed working on the motors.

That same year, one of my friend’s parents told me about the SkillsUSA automotive competition. I didn’t look much into it, as the very thought of competing terrified me.

Senior year rolled around, and I had a car, a license and a longer lunch break. My guidance counselor informed me that I could take Automotive Technology III at another high school in my district if I was willing to go there in the morning and drive back to my high school during my lunch break. I took her up on that offer, and that’s where I met Ron Morris. That was the first semester Ron would be teaching Auto Tech III, and it was his first year at Carl Sandburg High School. His class was excellent: It had good structure and content, and I just soaked it all up.

A decision that changed everything

One day, Ron announced he would be taking anyone who was interested to the qualifying test for the SkillsUSA Illinois competition in Automotive Service Technology. I contemplated it, as I had come very far with my anxiety, but decided that because I was about to start a new job, I wouldn’t have had time for the training it would take to succeed.

Tom Hahn and Alex Marneris

Hahn (left) and Marneris both earned medals at their state and national championships. “This was such a huge success for me, as I worked very hard to ensure that we all did our best,” says Hahn, who helped train the high-school student.

Ron, who was very excited to get started in SkillsUSA, signed up other students but hadn’t heard from me. So, on the last night of registration, he signed me up in case I wanted to go. The next day, he pulled me aside and asked if I would want to compete. I explained to him my situation, to which he responded, “Well, Tom, that’s fine, but since you’re already registered, there’s a $40 withdrawal fee.” I did not want to spend $40 — that was a lot of money to me at the time — so I took the test. (Later, I found out there was no withdrawal fee, but Ron saw much potential in me and wanted me to compete.)

A week later, we got the results. I was the only one in the entire district to qualify! I had a decision to make: Do I decline and focus on my job at the quick lube, or do I give this a shot? Being that I was the only one who could go and I didn’t want to let Ron down, I decided to compete.

We trained hard, usually three times a week for two to three hours. It was the first time competing for both of us, so we had no idea what to expect. The state competition came around, and I was very nervous. I barely got three hours sleep the night before. I did my best, and that Friday morning, there I stood, with a gold medal around my neck and a huge smile on my face.

After the awards, we had our briefing on the nationals and were just buzzing with excitement. All that summer we trained three, sometimes four, days a week, a minimum of three hours a day.

I was so nervous the night before the national competition, I was lucky if I got two hours’ sleep. I did my absolute best, but this time, it did not get me a medal. I finished 18th in the nation. At first, it was very depressing. But when you think about it, that’s still very impressive.

Before SkillsUSA, I was just going to settle for an automotive technician position and do that for the rest of my life. I have been in the field for about four years now and am so glad I decided I could do more and attend college to become an automotive engineer.

At Joliet Junior College, I met several amazing instructors who all helped me achieve great things, including another state gold medal in automotive. During the 2014 national conference, I placed second at the college/postsecondary level. That was the highest rank my college has ever received, so everyone was very proud.

Because college-level students can only compete twice, I decided 2015 was going to be the year to take it all. But I knew I had to do more, so I met with Ron Morris, who I knew was just as dedicated as I am to SkillsUSA. What we came up with was a great thing: He sent his top three students to the college to train with me for the state-level qualifier. It was a very good symbiosis. I already knew quite a lot but still needed to review the things that might seem mundane. A good deal of the information was new to his students, so teaching them the basics kept it fun and interesting, if not sometimes challenging for me.

All of us qualified, and so the training continued. We would meet usually two days a week for about three or four hours a  day. We all worked extremely hard, and last year at the state level, Alex Marneris and I both took the gold medal in Automotive Service Technology [in the high school and college/postsecondary divisions, respectively]. John Kumerer, one of the other three students, placed second.

This was such a huge success for me, as I worked very hard to ensure that we all did our best, and it paid off tenfold. Alex and I continued to train together, this time three to four days a week, three to four hours a day. Neither of us missed a single training session.

Soon the 2015 national conference was upon us, and we were ready. We had a great time the few days before the competition, with a bit of last-minute cramming. To our delight, I placed first in the nation, and Alex placed third. This combined effort allowed us to achieve amazing things, which will be a boon to us always, and has brightened my future like the brightest star in the galaxy.

I can remember a time when I couldn’t even leave my bed because I was so afraid of the unknown. So for expanding my horizons, getting me over my fears and helping me mature, I thank the entire SkillsUSA organization from the bottom of my heart.