In 2016, when the Northern Arizona University men’s cross-country team won its first national title, it might have been hard for running enthusiasts outside of Flagstaff to find us on a map. But last month, after three years of dominating cross-country performances, opponents, media and fans know exactly where NAU and Flagstaff are.
I had the good fortune to be at the NCAA National Championships in Madison, Wisconsin, for NAU’s first and third championships. Let me tell you, watching the Lumberjacks hoist that trophy never gets old!
It was an incredible sight—the determination on the faces of our student-athletes, the focus and enthusiasm of our coaches, the nervous anticipation of family and friends who lined the course and their cheers of “N – A – U” as the starting gun fired.
Less than 30 minutes later, every member of the team had crossed the finish line. They hugged and high-fived each other and their coaches, and they huddled together in the snow for a group hug. There were tears of joy as our runners talked to reporters about how each was there to win it for the team, not personal glory. Then the crowd cheered as the unofficial results became official—the NAU men’s cross-country team had just won its third consecutive national championship.
It didn’t take long for the whispers about the chances of a fourth national title to begin, but I’d like to keep our focus on the tremendous achievement of NAU’s cross-country team and acknowledge the many who helped make this happen. This is truly a team effort, brought about by our student-athletes, and everyone who has supported them on and off the course.
This recognition not only honors this team of extremely talented athletes, it honors decades of NAU runners and coaches. Mike Smith, Ron Mann and Eric Heins have created a foundation in which athletes shape themselves into tough competitors, good students and upstanding people on and off the race course.
As Coach Smith noted in a post-race interview, “The success of NAU cross-country is not possible without an impeccable support staff and our Flagstaff community. We come from the best place to train on Earth and run on the support of our community!”
I want to thank our community and all of Northern Arizona for your support of NAU and our three-time national championship cross-country team.
I also want to acknowledge the talent and achievement at the local high school level. Congratulations to the Flagstaff High School girls and boys cross-country teams for their fourth straight state championships, the Northland Prep boys cross-country squad for repeating as state champions and the Page High School boys team for a fifth straight state championship. And, congratulations to Hana Hall for her individual state title.
I could keep going with congratulations to local elite runners and the gold medal Olympians and international champions who win in part because they train at NAU and Flagstaff, but the list never seems to end. Instead, I’ll leave you with some questions: Does three consecutive men’s cross-country national championships amount to a dynasty? Do Olympic gold medalists, marathon champions and consecutive team and individual high school state championships make Flagstaff a mecca for the running elite, the amateur runner and everyone in between?
I’m proud to say the answer to both is yes! FBN
By Rita Cheng
Rita Cheng is president of Northern Arizona University.