Being named an All-American in U-S collegiate athletics is a rare and prestigious thing. Only the best of the best are good enough to earn the honour, and for some, it’s the crowning achievement of their college careers.
What’s more rare, though, is having a Canadian All-American.
Almost never happens.
But a Chilliwack kid, and Unity Christian alum, has joined that select club through his exploits in track and field.
Travis Vugteveen, a long-distance runner at Simon Fraser University, made history at the 2015 NCAA division two Indoor Track and Field Championship.
In the mens’ one-mile race the former Valley Royal, trained by Sue Northey, started slow but made steady progress toward a sixth place finish.
His time of 4:12:49 was just over three seconds behind race winner Oliver Aitchison from Adams State, who crossed the line in 4:09:39.
“This is our (SFU’s) third year being eligible for nationals and All-American honours, and someone had to be the first,” Vugteveen modestly said, down-playing the feat. “I do appreciate that it’s a big accomplishment, but it’s probably something I’ll think about and enjoy a lot more when my career is over.”
There was a time, not that long ago, when Vugteveen struggled at this level.
A star coming out of Unity Christian, he had high expectations when he joined the Clansmen in 2011.
“Maybe they were a bit too high,” he admitted.
The jump from high school to university is a big one, athletically and academically.
Vugteveen struggled to juggle studying and training, everything made worse by a series of injuries.
“At the same time every year, between the cross-country and indoor track seasons, I got the same knee injury with patella pain,” he explained. “Because of that I couldn’t get consistent training in, and then I didn’t get the results I hoped for. It was frustrating.”
Vugteveen credits SFU track coach Britt Townsend for helping him through the tough times, reminding him it was a five year process from freshman to senior.
“Brit is always confident in everyone, and even if I wasn’t confident in myself, she believed in what I was capable of,” Vugteveen said. “She puts us into high quality meets and gives us good opportunities in racing. She helps us realize what we can do.”
Vugteveen turned the corner last year, posting a personal best in an early-season 1500 metre race.
Away from the track, he had a good handle on his kinesiology studies.
At the track he figured out a couple exercises to keep the knee pain away and focused on qualifying for the indoor track nationals. As he lowered his one-mile time from 4:12 to 4:09 to 4:08, he started getting excited.
In late February he finished third at the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Championships in Portland, OR.
He and teammate Oliver Jorgensen (in the 5,000m) soon became the first SFU men to qualify for the indoor nationals.
Then, the eighth place finish and All-American status, and a sense that all the pain and frustration was worth it.
His first trip to nationals as an individual was actually his second trip overall.
Vugteveen and his cross-country teammates travelled to Kentucky in early December, finishing 20th.
“Two years ago was our first chance to qualify for cross-country nationals and we were quite a bit short,” Vugteveen said. “We refocused and it still didn’t happen in 2013. We spent all of last year working together and we finished sixth in qualifying, getting the last spot in nationals by a very small margin of points.”
“That’s probably my favourite memory from my career so far,” he added
Vugteveen’s university career is winding down.
A senior now, he’s starting to see the end, though he’s too busy to worry too much about it.
“I think about it once in a while, but right now it’s really busy and stressful with school and track,” he said. “Maybe the last couple meets I’ll think about it more.”
The weeks ahead will take the Chilliwackian to meets in Washington State, Oregon and California.
The schedule is full of warm-weather meets in places like San Francisco, Pomona and Palo Alto.
“We really look forward to the races in California,” he said. “The warm weather’s nice, but they’re also pretty competitive meets where a lot of guys post their best times, marks that get you to nationals.”
The NCAA division two outdoor nationals take place in late May in Allendale, MI.
Vugteveen would love to be there.
Meanwhile, he’ll have time on some long trips to reflect on what he’s done, what he will do and what he’ll take away from the university experience.
“The thing the seniors tell the freshmen is, focus on your academics because you need to do well in school to be able to run,” he said. “Maybe I didn’t listen to that as much at first, but I’ve learned.”
“Work hard. Manage expectations,” he continued. “Be consistent in putting in the time and effort. That’s what I’m taking away from this.”
SFU has three Chilliwackians on the mens’ track and field team.
In addition to Vugteveen there’s also Lorenzo Smith (GW Graham grad) and David Sawatzky (Sardis).