A trip down memory lane

Blugold cross country seniors reflect on their past four years running for the program

More stories from Meghan Hosely


Photo by Kendall Ruchti

Steven Schimmel, Ryan Mugan and Christian Leitner, pictured in the campus mall, have participated in the Blugolds’ Cross Country program for their entire collegiate careers. Throughout their time with the team, they’ve not only become more disciplined in practice, but have focused on leading healthy lifestyles to improve.

The men’s cross country team may have claimed the NCAA Division III national title late last month, but it was a goal they didn’t achieve overnight.

Rather, the team has steadily improved over the past four years.

Since 2012, the men’s team has been nationally ranked in the top ten. They finished 10th that year, and in 2013, they improved one spot up, finishing ninth. The following year, they moved up two spots, finishing seventh, which was the best finish in school history.

Until this year.


The building blocks

Head coach Dan Schwamberger said the 2012 freshman class  was “solid,” that included runners Nick Pederson, Matt Cooper, Christian Leitner and Steven Schimmel.

While Leitner and Schimmel have used all four years of eligibility, Pederson and Cooper have junior standing on the team.

Both Schimmel and Leitner said when they were going through the recruiting process in high school, both saw potential in the program at UW-Eau Claire.

Leitner said he was planning on going to another school, but after an overnight visit to Eau Claire, he changed his mind.

“I actually was set on going to … (University of Minnesota-Duluth),” Leitner said. “I really liked the team, and I really liked the guys. It completely changed my decision.”

Schimmel’s older brother also ran for Eau Claire during his freshman year, which played a role in his decision, but it wasn’t the only one.

“Talking to coach Schwamberger, he got me pretty excited about coming here and the program and the guys on the team; he told me they were all a tight bunch,” Schimmel said.


The evolution

Not only was the 2012 freshman class a strong class, Schwamberger said it was the beginning of the team’s new training plan.

Four seasons ago, Schwamberger said he drove around Eau Claire to find the biggest hill in the area. The idea behind that, he said, was to introduce a hill workout to his athletes. He also started taking his runners out to Lowe’s Creek County Park to do intervals that season as well.

“I think those little tweaks have really helped because basically every year since then we’ve had at least one All-American on the men’s side,” Schwamberger said.

Schwamberger has been head of both teams since 2007, and he said 2012 was the first year he had an All-American runner.

In the history of the men’s program, there’s only been nine men who have been awarded All-American honors. The status is awarded to the top 35 individual runners at nationals.

This year alone, three Blugolds received that recognition: senior Ryan Mugan, junior Josh Thorson and sophomore Darin Lau. Leitner was three spots away from reaching All-American status, as he placed 38th nationally.

Mugan, a fifth-year senior, said not only have the workouts helped him, but he’s become more strict with his lifestyle outside of practice.

“I’ll do little things outside of practice that would help with recovery,” Mugan said. “The biggest thing for me was to figure out my body, eat well and get sleep. It all adds up.”

Being strict has seemingly paid off for Mugan, as he’s the only runner in program history to be named an All-American three times during his tenure at Eau Claire.

For the team as a whole, Leitner said everyone has been more committed to the program as it has changed throughout the last few years.

“People are putting in the miles … the consistency and staying healthy; doing the little things,” Leitner said.

The Blugolds have benefitted from being diligent, Leitner said, because in 2011, the team wasn’t close to competing in the national meet. Now, he said, it’s surreal for him to have gone to nationals all four years.

“After my fourth national meet, it’s just crazy,” he said. “I always thought that running at one national meet would be cool, I never thought I’d be running at four.”


What they’re leaving behind

Schwamberger said all three outgoing seniors have brought different traits to the team, which will be hard to replace.

“Ryan … he did a very good job of getting the seed planted … that’s key, you gotta have the belief first,” Schwamberger said. “Christian, he’s just a fun guy. It’s hilarious having him on runs, because all of a sudden out of left field, he’ll have a (movie) quote”

Schwamberger said Leitner’s energy was important in keeping the team’s mood light, because they went into the national meet ranked No. 1.

“And Steve is just a guy who … does everything he needs to do. Being the second year in a row he was an alternate, he did a fantastic job being positive about that,” Schwamberger said.

Even though the season has been over for less than a month, and Mugan will be graduating later in December, he said the ending has been bittersweet for him.

“It’s already starting to hit me,” he said. “It’ll definitely be weird to not come back. It hasn’t totally sunk in, and while the pressure to keep training is nice, I will definitely miss it.”