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Sarah Gritter comes back for individual MIAA championship
By Nate Bierma

Cross country is about hearing footsteps. Sometimes you're listening for your opponents, constantly calculating, literally on the run. Sometimes you're listening for your teammates, to find out whether your top runners are where they need to be, and if not, where you have to finish to salvage the points for your team.

There was a time when the footsteps Sarah Gritter was listening to most closely were her own. Over the last two seasons her body was her most stubborn opponent, as injury and illness kept her from making it to the front of the pack. Not that she complained: "I just gave what I had no matter what," Gritter said.

Still, maybe her footsteps were coming to a halt. Her classes were done at Calvin, and although she had cross country eligibility left, after two team national championships and a personal top-50 national finish, she considered leaving it at that.

"That was the plan up until beginning of last cross season. I was just thinking I'd have my four years at Calvin and go to grad school," Gritter said.

"A lot of things convinced me that it was worth it to stay," she said. "One of them was the chance to win the MIAA [individual championship]. Plus, you learn so much from being part of a team. I've learned a lot this year about being a leader."

With her body healed and her mind back into it, Gritter led Calvin's march back to the top of the nation in Division III. After a top-20 finish in a field of Division I runners at the Notre Dame Invitational, soon followed by the MIAA individual crown she came back for, Gritter ascended to the status of top runner on one of the nation's premier teams. But after finishes of 61st, 83rd, and 49th at the past three national championships, a disappointing race at nationals kept her out of the top 100 this year.

Whether they believe it or not, a new wave of runners helped Gritter put together a run at Calvin's third straight national championship in women's cross country (the team was ranked second throughout much of the season). Gritter was interested in team accomplishments at least as much as she is in her individual season. As she sees it, ambition in both areas are related. "You want to do your best, and if you do better the team does better," she said. "Individual accomplishments are important personally, but they're more important for the team doing well."

This sense of teamwork is especially important to both the men's and women's cross country teams at Calvin. As much as they scatter across a span of miles on the course at a meet, they work at building a sense of team unity off the course in regular team devotions.

"Every Monday and every Friday we get together to talk about what we're struggling with outside of running," Gritter said. "And I think that makes us a lot closer."

It helps that the sport is itself a sort of metaphor for one's spiritual walk, which the team points out by reading verses such as 2 Timothy 4:6, where Paul said, "I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."

"We bring in those metaphors and we think about them," Gritter said. "A lot of what you learn from running also applies to life, like perseverance, struggling through pain. Almost everyone gets injured at some point, but how will it make you stronger?"

Whether the Calvin campus shares in this energy surrounding the team is harder to determine. While Calvin fans noisily pile into the Fieldhouse for basketball - the only other sport in which Calvin has ever won a national championship - the cross country course is far less spectator-friendly. But while plans continue to build a championship distance course on Calvin property to bring the team's crowning moments to students' backyard, Gritter said the sport already has its fans.

It doesn't hurt that there's a lot of carryover in interest from track and field, which is far more visible and accessible. Gritter especially excelled on the track, where she shattered school records in the 3,000 meters en route to being named the MIAA co-MVP and Great Lakes Regional Athlete of the Year. In fact, not until this year had her cross country success reached the height of her track accomplishments.

Completing her track career has Gritter thinking about the future in other ways. She's looking into graduate school options in Chicago and Ann Arbor, to build on her degree in mathematics. Chances are it will heavily involve computers -- Gritter works in Calvin Information Technology doing database support (a sedentary task that leaves her itching to run).

Wherever she ends up, Gritter doesn't see her running life slowing down. She hopes to enter road races and even graduate student track clubs, where she'll spread the word about the hidden powerhouse of distance running she was a part of at Calvin.

"I'll tell them I definitely really liked it. I wouldn't have stayed another year if I didn't," Gritter said. "To potential students I'd be saying, check it out, Calvin is a great place to go. To a runner, I'd say, we may not be a D1 or D2 school, but we have one of the best D3 programs in the nation."

That's a fact Gritter has a lot to do with, which is why women's cross county runners long into Calvin's future will be hearing the echoes of her footsteps.

 

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