It’s a little before 7 a.m. on a San Diego fall morning when three white vans pull up on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Olive Street. When the doors swing open, a steady stream of young men and women dressed in blue and white warm-up jackets, sweats, shorts and running shoes, emerge onto the fringe area of Balboa Park. Their mood runs the gamut. Some visibly show quiet determination, some engage in enthusiastic chatter and a few are still waking up less than 30 minutes later.
Quickly assembled, though, the University of San Diego men and women’s cross country teams, led by head coach Will Guarino and assistant Kirsten Allan are ready for practice. No time is wasted. Breaking off into packs, team members jog, stretch and go through other warm-up routines before splitting into men and women’s groups for double-digit “progressive” 400-meter laps. Guarino shouts out times as runners cross the finish line “… 67, 68, 69, 70.” The coaches confer on certain runners, times and progress made.
Everything done at practice is in preparation for the Nov. 2 West Coast Conference Championships (9 and 10 a.m.) at Alumni Park in Malibu, Calif. Although USD’s chances of winning a WCC team title has perennially had formidable obstacles — 2012 WCC men’s champion University of Portland has had a near-stranglehold on the team title since 1979 (BYU won in 2011) and San Francisco’s and Portland’s women teams have each had a stretch of consecutive titles this past decade — it isn’t due to a lack of focus or determination.
It’s more about the balance Guarino, head coach for a decade, demands. Case in point this day’s practice. At 8:35 a.m., with team drills completed, Guarino gathered his runners in a circle, said a few words, and, after they came together with arms extended and hands stacked in solidarity, the Toreros returned to the vans and left quickly. Why? Many runners had a 9 a.m. class. Guarino’s pinpoint schedule had them back on campus by 8:55. A focused practice, followed by focus on what’s equally important: academics. He holds his student-athletes accountable, a trait he expects them to heed now and carry with them long after college ends.
“In order to develop great runners, I have to recruit future-oriented people,” said Guarino, a 1988 USD alumnus and former Torero standout runner “It’s an academic sport. It isn’t just about winning (races). It’s about developing athletes who are going to be academically involved. It’s about developing kids to handle themselves in the academic and professional world. … We graduated 11 students this past year. One is now working at Google, another is doing a graduate program (architecture design) at Harvard, one is teaching in South America.”
Guarino’s respect for academics and the trust placed upon him by a recruit’s parents means a lot. “It’s a commitment to not just help make them faster and better, but also better people, help them maintain a healthy standard of living,” he said.
It harkens back to something USD’s Executive Director of Athletics, Ky Snyder, said in a recent Inside USD interview about athletics being part of an all-around USD education experience.
“We feel we’re a laboratory for students to take the leadership skills and put them in play, to work on goal setting, to strive for excellence, to learn how to deal with adversity and manage their time. These are skills our student-athletes have to master if they’re going to survive our rigorous academic and athletics programs. If they master these skills, by the time they graduate, they’re ready to step into the business world and play a key role in their communities.”
Guarino’s student-athletes develop not only leadership skills, but also working together as a team, even having practices in which men and women train side-by-side.
“We’ll have a future surgeon, a future lawyer, future teacher or future tech person who makes it,” he said. “The better your effort to provide them the opportunity to realize those options, the more you can help them see patterns of success, overcome obstacles and learn how to deal with people.”
“These individuals are resident assistants (RAs), they’ll play guitar at mass, they are leaders of clubs and organizations, sit in the front of the classroom and they also do their miles of training during the week.”
Said Dan Yourg, USD associate director of athletics: “Experience and student-athlete testimonials show that (athletes) perform better in the classroom when they have the opportunity to participate in their sport, providing them with a synergistic experience between mind and body. It provides for a holistic experience.”
Top female runner, senior co-captain Gillian Gorelik, is a psychology major and a two-time WCC Honor Roll selection. Her daily schedule is a balanced recipe for success. She does twice-a-day training, eats healthy, takes an ice bath and joins her teammates at Tu Mercado for group study time. Gorelik has a rule about no homework after 10 p.m. to ensure sufficient rest time. Gorelik set the USD women’s six-kilometer (6K) record in 21 minutes, 1.7 seconds in October and has high hopes for WCC championship meet success.
“It’s a great way to stay motivated for running and school,” she said of her routine. “I don’t slack off and I’m a more well-rounded person. My teammates are really good at motivating me to do my homework, even when I’m really tired.”
Jessica McCarthy, a four-year cross-country runner, is a senior double major in biology and Theology and Religious Studies. But when she’s not competing in a race, McCarthy is in her second year as co-president of University Ministry’s Students for Life organization and is an RA in the Alcala Vista Apartments, leading sophomores in the Living in Faith Together residential learning community and its Emmaus group.
Her busy schedule can be stressful, but her commitment to cross-country helps. “I love the team, they’re like a second family. When you’re getting up early every morning for this, you’d better like the people you’re doing it with, and I do. The races are great, they’re fun, but what I most like is being part of the team, being part of something that’s bigger than yourself. It’s also a great start to my day. Running helps me balance everything I do.”
The men’s team is young, but Guarino said his freshman class — including Adam Bodine, Matthew Beasley and Ryan Lesansee — is one of his best. Bodine, from Havertown, Pa., said he hopes to be part of a Torero program that grows into a WCC contender. Bodine has already shown his potential as he set USD’s freshman 8K record in 25:18 just a few weeks ago.
Guarino’s teams will seek continued improvement at the WCC meet Saturday, hoping to lower their times against some of the nation’s best. And because of their focused regiment, they already know what they need to do to succeed.
— Ryan T. Blystone
USD cross-country race photos courtesy of Cyndi Olagaray