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American record holder and former professional distance runner Chris Solinsky speaks with former SMRC camper and staff member AJ Ricketts about his career as a runner, including his struggles and triumphs, and what it takes to become a professional distance runner. Now the head coach of the William & Mary Cross Country team, Chris Solinsky will be directing his first Nike Running Camp this summer at the beautiful Central Wisconsin Environmental Station in Stevens Point. Solinsky's mission is to share his experience while spreading his passion for the sport of running to young campers.
AJ: Chris Solinsky achieved tremendous success at every level in the sport of distance running. The numbers speak for themselves. Eight state championships in high school, five NCAA titles as a Wisconsin Badger, and a professional career that included setting the American 10K record time. Solinsky now the head distance coach at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Chris, all this success, and to start off here, a congratulations is in order for another achievement. The launch of the Chris Solinsky Distance Camp this summer. I know you’re definitely looking forward to that.
Chris: Yeah, thank you. It’s more of a new endeavor and I’m really excited to be launching it through US Sports Camps and with the help of Nike. I think it’s something that, bringing to Central Wisconsin and the larger Midwest region, and hopefully beyond. I’m just trying to spread the passion that I have for this sport and to share my experiences. I’m still gaining all of those experiences as we speak, because as soon as you stop learning the sport, you probably should hang it up. Whether it’s as a runner or as a coach. Hopefully each year there will be a little bit of a different feel for the camp. Because every year I’ve been learning as a coach and am very fortunate to be surrounded by a lot of great coaches in my lifetime and rub shoulders with some great athletes. Currently, working with Coach Henderson, he is part of a very successful camp through US Sports Camps as well. I’m excited to be picking his brain and his experiences as well.
AJ: I want to go back now to the early stages of your career and get into your mentality and philosophy. You win the Footlocker cross country title in ‘02 after a terrific high school career. How would you describe your work ethic? Your training? At that point in time that led to all that success before getting to Wisconsin.
Chris: I think in high school i definitely adopted the mindset of wanting to be the most prepared, well trained athlete on the starting line. I think that’s something that is a bit easier to do in high school than it is in the collegiate and beyond ranks. I very quickly adopted the strength-to-speed type of mentality, where I found that range and volume that was good for me to be challenged, but I could also do week after week after week. I had a couple of great high school coaches - Don Bankey and Pat Leahy - who instilled the importance of consistency over kind of like going for a home-run hit one week and then come down the next week. I grew up on a dairy farm. My father was a dairy farmer and my mom was a very hard worker and I think they just instilled it really early on the importance of hard work and the appreciation of, you know, you get done with a day and know that you put your best into it. Not just going through the motions, but if you’re going to do it, it’s worth doing it with everything you’ve got.
AJ: And moving up a level now, five championships at Wisconsin. It can seem from the outside that it was a smooth career. Individual and team titles. So often, when we talk with elite athletes, there are so many euphoric moments to reflect on. Was there ever any point where you felt challenged, Maybe struggled? Where there was adversity that you weren’t ready for on or off the course.
Chris: Yeah, I think that being challenged and facing adversity are what made those titles possible. It’s really easy to look back and think that it was as smooth as ice. Being able to fall into those titles, if you will. But for me, I had a lot of bumps in the road. With every good moment came an equally, and maybe even larger, crushing down moment that I learned a lot from. And now, that’s kind of what I’ve taken into the coaching world. When I talk to the kids after races or workouts that they get really disappointed from, I tell them: “listen. You’ve got to take whatever lesson is tangible for you to be able to figure out what it is you can control and change going forward, and make a decision to remedy that mistake. But you can’t worry about the things you can’t control.” Because in every situation there is things you can and cannot control. So, it’s taking those lessons and applying them for the future. And when you do that, and remember the lessons, and get egged on with more determination when something doesn’t go as planned, that is the recipe for success.
AJ: Can you recall a time when you experienced something at Wisconsin and very acutely in your mind realised that lesson right away and wanted to try to apply it the very next practice? Does anything come to mind, through that adversity, you learned something that you had to apply to continue your success at Wisconsin?
Chris: Yeah, sure. One of the biggest things that will always stick with me is actually my senior year of cross country. That whole season, I went to it with a mentality that the year before, as a junior, I was third at the NCAA. The two guys that were in front of me had both graduated and I went in saying “hey I’m the favorite.” I studied my competition constantly and I was always focused on trying to work on what I thought were my weaknesses, and strengthen those weaknesses so I had no chinks in the armor, if you will. So, I didn’t enjoy that season as much as I should have and I was bogged down under the pressure of “this is your senior year. You are really trying to end with a bang.” And you worry about everyone else’s expectations on top of your own expectations. I just felt the weight of the world on my shoulders and I had no need or reason to have that. My performances in that season were very reflective of that undue stress that I placed on myself. Going forward, that track season was probably my best track season throughout my entire college career and it really helped me transition to the post-collegiate ranks. I’ve tried to say “why did I start this? Why did I get into this?” It was because I enjoyed it and I loved it, and I want to have fun. The end result isn’t what I should be focused on, it’s the process and how to get there. Focusing on the execution. That’s where you’re going to go in with a care-free, yet focused mentality.
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