Northern graduate Sweeney runs to All-American status
Northern graduate Sweeney finishes 13th at national race
Lining up for his first national race at the NCAA Division II cross country championships last Saturday in Pittsburgh, the moment got to Charlie Sweeney for just a bit, as he fell down as the race started on the Schenley Park course that had been soaked by snow and rain in the days leading up to the race.
“I got up real quick and they restarted it which was an added bonus,” said Sweeney, a Western Colorado University redshirt freshman who graduated from Northern in 2017. “That kind of helped me calm my nerves down. ... Once we got into it, it was just being careful around the tight turns and being careful to not be going too fast or be around too many people who could be falling. From then on it was just trying to take the path of least resistance or least mud and trying to stay on the grass as much as possible.”
Whatever the route ultimately taken, things turned out quite well for Sweeney as he finished 13th in the race to earn All-American status. Sweeney finished the 10K race in 32 minutes 42.8 seconds, 56.4 seconds behind the winning time. Western Colorado also earned a podium team finish, coming in third.
It all seems a far cry from where the Northern graduate was just a few years ago, as Sweeney didn’t even entertain competitive running seriously until he was halfway through high school. While he didn’t dive in until later than many of his peers, that relative inexperience is something that he believes sometimes plays in his favor.
“I did football and basketball up until my junior year of high school, so I didn’t start taking running too seriously until I was in 11th grade,” he said. “That’s when I started getting into it and developing. I think that’s only helped me in the grand scheme of things. There are a lot of people my age or even younger who have been running four or even five years more than I have and they’re getting kind of mentally burned out.
“This is the most mileage I’ve ever run in my life. I get to see how my body adjusts to that and it gives me more opportunities to try out new things and it also helps me not get burned out on racing. If I’ve been racing an exponentially lower amount of time than most people I’m competing against at the national meet, that’s just going to help me. I look forward to racing that much more than these guys who have been to nationals who knows how many more times, these fifth-year seniors competing in their 20th national meet or whatever. ... It just makes me that much more excited to go out and do these things I love.”
Sweeney’s high school coach, Northern head cross country coach Josh Dawson, had been an interested observer from afar throughout the season and made the trek north for the national meet.
“I always said if I had anyone make it to nationals, I’d do my best to get there,” Dawson said. “Luckily D-II Nats was in Pittsburgh so my wife and I make a weekend of it, saw a Penguins game against the Flyers. Overall, it was a fun weekend. ... I texted him about a month ago and said, ‘I need you to answer the following questions: Are you 100 percent healthy? Is the team healthy? Is there any way you guys screw this up?’ He said, ‘Yes, yes and there’s always a way.’”
For Dawson, watching the race was no different than watching Sweeney run when he was competing for the Patriots.
“I handed my wife my phone and asked her to take a lot of pictures because I wasn’t going to think about it,” Dawson said, noting that he ran around the course cheering Sweeney on similar to what he would do during a typical high school meet. “It was a 2K loop, so I probably saw Charlie eight times.”
The way the Sweeney’s race played out had a familiar look for Northern’s coach.
“It was just like high school watching him in the front of the race and just getting outkicked at the end,” Dawon said, “but it was twice as long as the high school race, because it was a 10K, and it was nationals. It was just really weird seeing him very comfortable and very confident in the front of the race. It was really cool to see.
“I always expected him to be at that level just because of his dedication. But I didn’t expect it to be his freshman year, even though he’s a redshirt freshman. With what he ran in the spring, I would not have predicted what he did Saturday. But there aren’t many kids who work as hard as he does.”
Competing for Western Colorado, Sweeney trains at an elevation much different than his average competitor.
“It’s a really nice difference. We’re at almost 8,000 feet,” Sweeney said. “I’ve gotten really used to running at altitude and feeling the lungs burning effect of altitude. Going down to sea level, as soon as you step off the plane you can just feel your body and your lungs get saturated with oxygen. ... But in terms of racing you can feel it, for sure, but on Saturday I couldn’t really feel it necessarily just because it was so slow and such a muddy course. It obviously helps you get in shape and recover faster and use less oxygen than a sea-level person.”
The future looks bright for Sweeney and his Western Colorado teammates, as almost the entire team is slated to return. The team’s 117 points left it behind only Grand Valley State (Mich.) and Colorado Mines, which finished with respective totals of 89 and 99 at the national meet.
“It’s definitely awesome. We’re only losing one of our guys next year who is graduating at the end of this year,” Sweeney said. “But we also redshirted a twotime All-American who was All-American in cross country last year and then 10K in outdoor track. We’ll have him next year and a couple guys who were dealing with some injuries. We’ll have them next year, so in addition to the six that we’ll bring back from the team this year we have at least three other guys who are ready and will be more than willing to step up. ... It’s awesome to think about.”
And while not long ago any collegiate athletic aspirations he harbored centered around other sports, Sweeney is quite content with the route he’s taken.
“I wouldn’t have changed anything,” he said. “I had a lot of fun playing football and basketball and I learned a lot of valuable life lessons, but it’s crazy how much of the world, both from a training standpoint and literally traveling, running has opened up for me.”
Western Colorado University redshirt freshman Charlie Sweeney, a 2017 Northern High School graduate, finished 13th at the NCAA Division II cross country championships at Schenley Park in Pittsburgh on Saturday.