Oct. 2, 2000
by Jane E. Pater
Drawing on the momentum provided by last year’s BIG EAST team championships in cross country and outdoor track, Sean Zanderson is ready to go the distance.
The senior’s commitment to Notre Dame and the love for his sport has propelled him to a level he was unfamiliar with three years ago.
The unexpected success of two BIG EAST championships last year parallels that of Zanderson’s unlikely arrival in the world of cross country and long-distance running.
Growing up, Zanderson’s sport of choice was soccer. Up until his junior year in year in high school, dedication to soccer overshadowed his interest in running. He played soccer for more than a dozen years before discovering the appeal of running and crossing the finish line in first.
“I was tired of playing a sport where I could be told that I wasn’t as good as someone else,” Zanderson explains.
“Soccer became too political, and it detracted from my enjoyment of the game. In distance running, that is not the case. If you win a race, the guy that you beat can’t say that he is better than you. That’s what I love about running. There’s no politics involved in it.”
Changing sports turned out to be a smart choice for the Poway, Calif., native. During his senior year of high school, his cross country team was ranked second in the state of California, the highest ranking ever for a team from the San Diego area. Poway also was ranked 15th nationally. The state meet was an eye-opening experience for Zanderson as he competed against runners from schools all over California. The new level of competition was appealing and offered experiences he had never encountered as an athlete.
It was at that state meet where Zanderson began to thrive in the pressure of high competition and its challenges. The meet proved to be a catalyst to take his talents to the next level.
As a freshman, he attended Cal Poly – San Luis Vista and ran track while deciding to forego cross country.
“I wasn’t in shape for cross country during my first year of college,” Zanderson says.
“Collegiate cross country isn’t a sport you can jump into unless you were a top-flight runner in high school because you have to adjust to the training. The training mileage increases from about 30 miles per week in high school to at least 60 or 70 miles as a freshman. If you’re not ready, it can wreak havoc on your body.”
During that first year, Zanderson’s desire to compete at a larger Division I school with a storied athletic tradition and a more competitive cross country and track program became an attraction. He followed his lifelong desire and dream to attend Notre Dame by transferring to the Midwest to train under longtime Irish head cross country and track coach Joe Piane. Although he did not compete in cross country as a sophomore, his body became more accustomed to the training as he settled into campus life at Notre Dame and bonded with his new teammates.
What surprised him the most was the new perspective he gained at Notre Dame as he was awed by the accomplishments of his new teammates and the opponents he ran against each week.
“When I was in high school, my perspective was so narrow, I was only aware of what was going on in San Diego,” Zanderson recalls.
“In college, however, you get such a national – and even international – perspective. Our top runner’s high school team was number one in the country and we also have a runner on our team from Canada. You get the best of the best at this level, especially at Notre Dame.”
Since his arrival at Notre Dame, Zanderson has earned the right to experience that awesome level of competition first hand as a member of both the cross country and track teams. Last year’s BIG EAST cross country title might have surprised the rest of the conference, but not the Irish runners.
While not ranked in the top 30 nationally before the start of the season, the Irish trampled the competition by 14 points in the BIG EAST cross country meet. The confidence the team gained and the opportunity to prove themselves to the rest of the country pulled the team closer together. Much of the cross country team would contribute to the 2000 BIG EAST outdoor track and field team championship.
Thanks to the close connections on the team, Zanderson is becoming more comfortable with the “pack mentality” that dominates collegiate cross country. While initially hesitant to stick and run with the pack, he has become more and more comfortable with the strategy.
“At first, I felt overwhelmed and shocked by it,” he says.
“I’m still trying to settle into the pack, trying to get used to the vibe of the pack and to flow with it. It’s something I’ve grown accustomed to over time.
This year, Notre Dame’s pack will be missing its leader, Ryan Shay, as he continues to recover from training for the Olympic trials 10,000-meter competition. His presence is still felt on the team, however, as he continues to encourage his teammates. While his scoring will be obviously missed throughout the cross country season, this year’s Irish team is pulling together to try and make up for his absence as much as they can.
That collective passion is what will propel the Irish through the upcoming season, and what is helping Zanderson stay motivated. After finishing as Notre Dame’s third runner in the Valparaiso Invitational, he sat out the National Catholic meet with a strained Achilles tendon two weeks ago. Coming up this weekend is the Notre Dame Invitational, which brings together six of the top 25 teams in the country in addition to other traditional cross country powerhouses.
It will be a good time for the Irish team to assert itself on the national stage and a perfect time for Sean Zanderson to take advantage of the level of competition that initially attracted him to Notre Dame.