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Quick Work

Leaders from men’s cross country team looking for more success after breakout season

Tommy Roehl running

Tommy Roehl competing in a race. Photo by Gene Cassell

From The Ichabod - Fall 2023
By Angela Lutz

Cross country can be a grueling sport. Athletes must run long distances in all types of weather, from sweltering late-summer heat to chilly November rains. They have to push themselves through physical discomfort and find the determination to be their best, not only for themselves but for their teammates. It’s not easy – which is exactly why Washburn University sophomore Tommy Roehl loves it.

“I started running in fourth grade,” Roehl said. “My first 5K was a run through a zoo. Right away I fell in love with cross country. I like the fact that it takes discipline to do it, and it’s a good way to take my mind off things.”

Thanks to their disciplined and focused approach, last year the Washburn men’s cross country team had a breakthrough season. The program is still relatively new – it was reinstated in 2016 after being discontinued for 34 years. Now the school’s distance runners are finding ways to distinguish themselves amidst tough national competition. Led by Coach David Granato, last fall the men’s squad competed in the NCAA Division II national championship for the first time in school history. The Ichabods set school records with a fifth-place finish in the NCAA Central Region race, a fourth-place finish in the MIAA championship and their first-ever national ranking during the season.

For Gabriel Chinya, a senior who started running in high school after moving to the Midwest from Uganda in 2016, the Ichabods’ success has been the culmination of several years of dedication. In addition to Granato, Chinya credits Paddy Robb, a graduate assistant coach, with helping the team maximize their efforts and improve their times.

Gabriel Chinya running

(Gabriel Chinya competing in a race. Photo by Christa Roehl)

“Paddy always pushes us to do better and run faster. He himself was once an athlete who competed for a top Division II school, and listening to him is like getting advice from an elder sibling,” Chinya said. “We all have goals and times we strive to achieve, but every time we get advice from our coach or graduate assistants, I feel like it helps us focus and look at things from a different perspective. Overall, it has helped to rely on my coaches and give them the time to develop me and my fellow teammates.”

Along with the coaches, the teammates also rely on each other for support and encouragement. According to David Kibet, a senior who came to Topeka from Kenya in 2019 and whose strong finish in the national championship has positioned him in a leadership role, last year’s team was competitive right from the start. After their first race, they knew they had a shot at greatness, but only if they continued to test their limits. To do this, they focused not only on their own personal improvement but also on bolstering their teammates.

“Cross country is all about teamwork,” said Kibet, whose father is a professional runner. “We managed to go to nationals because everybody worked hard and got good scores. Communication was important; we kept each other in check. At practice everybody was focused and wanting to run.”

David Kibet running

(David Kibet competing in a race. Photo by Christa Roehl)

Chinya and Roehl both said the team’s chemistry and promising early season results last year changed the way they saw themselves. They knew by staying focused on their goal, they could compete at the highest levels.

“This was huge for us – we race extremely well together, and we all feed off each other,” Roehl said. “Knowing we were all there with each other made it easier to fight through the pain and keep going. We keep each other accountable, and we are able to joke around with each other and stick together no matter what.”

While these student-athletes have found success on the course, they have also excelled academically. Last year, Chinya and Kibet were named U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association All-Academic Individuals. For Chinya, academic prowess isn’t just about his own future, but also that of his brothers and sisters.

“When I came to the States, I didn’t know I would go to school to run – I just wanted to learn,” he said. “I’m the first generation to go to college. My parents don’t have degrees and as a result don’t work their dream jobs. I'm also the oldest sibling, so it gives a better example to my younger siblings. I would like to get an advanced degree to motivate them and my family to keep working hard because this country often reflects on your hard work.”

On the course, the teammates also hope to continue motivating each other to achieve their shared goal of going back to nationals and improving on last year’s performance. The 2024 season started in September and the postseason begins Oct. 20.

“This year, I’m confident we are going to do the same thing but even better,” Kibet said. “We have new recruits, and I’m sure someone will step up. If we work harder than we did last year we should be able to achieve this goal.” 

Winter 2024 The Ichabod magazine cover with picture of the bell tower and snow fallen on campus

The Ichabod tells our story with features on alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, along with the latest campus news. View the current and past editions


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