Athlete Feature 25 - Craig Gundersen - USA Athletics Scholarships

Athlete Feature 25 – Craig Gundersen

Craig Gundersen

Liverpool Harrier Craig Gundersen followed in the footsteps of numerous previous British distance runners by committing to Butler. However, he returned home after just 1 year after a tumultuous spell in the NCAA. He gives his story here.

tbUSA – You attended Birmingham Uni from 2007-2010. How did you end up there?

CG – When I was choosing where to go for university I rightly or wrongly wanted somewhere that would be good for running but academics were important to me too so Birmingham fitted the bill on both counts. I emailed Bud Baldaro and he moved heaven and earth to accommodate anything I wanted, he arranged for me to come and visit and while I was there visiting I knew I wanted to go to Birmingham. I loved the campus, had a great time doing a session there and received brilliant hospitality staying over at Adrian Holliday’s (and others’) house for the night. After this it was easy for me to choose Birmingham and I had maybe the best three years of my life there.

tbUSA – Had you never considered the NCAA as an undergraduate?

CG – To be honest I didn’t consider the NCAA as an undergraduate at all. It was something that I knew nothing about and because of the school I was at and the environment that I was in it was simply the done thing to go to university in Britain and get a good degree. I seem to remember Taff at my club telling me he’d received a letter showing interest in me from an NCAA college, I think it may have been Iowa but it could have been anywhere, but I just brushed it off because I wouldn’t even have entertained the thought of moving to America at the age of 18. Attitudes have changed a lot since then though and I think it’s well worth considering the NCAA as an undergraduate now – in many ways it’s a better option than going out as a postgraduate.

tbUSA – In attending Birmingham, you made excellent gains in strength, improving your 5K PB from 14:56 to 14:13. Is to fair to say that this progression clearly was an excellent recruiting tool?

CG – I think so yes. At some point in my second year I decided I wanted to go to America, so I knew that the track season at the end of that year was vital to improve my options when being recruited. At the start of that summer I set myself the target of running under 14:30 because I thought that would be what I needed to get the chance to go to a good division 1 school. I ended up surpassing this and ran 14:18 that year, so I was in the fortunate position of being quite an attractive prospect for schools that were recruiting.

When I ran 14:13 I had already committed to Butler, but it was still an important moment for me. I had been injured for quite a long time in my third year and I think I felt that I needed to justify my scholarship, probably to myself more than anybody else, so I was delighted to have run that time and go out there on a high.

tbUSA – So, you ended up in Indiana? Can you explain how that came about?

CG – The reason I went to Butler was largely down to the assistant coach Darren Gauson who did most of the recruiting. Steve Lisgo mentioned the possibility of going out there to me and then Darren got in contact with me and really sold the place to me. I was recruited by quite a few other schools but Darren seemed more committed to getting me there and I think that’s the main reason I chose to go to Butler. Obviously the progress the likes of Lisgo, Baker, Mullett and others had made also appealed to me and I enjoyed the thought of living in a city like Indianapolis. So basically Butler recruited me the hardest and I decided that it was the best fit for me when compared with the other colleges that were interested.

tbUSA – There are differing schools of thought on heading to a school with a large British contingent. Which one did you subscribe to?

CG -I think it definitely depends on the individual but for me it was vital that I went somewhere with at least some sort of British contingent. Obviously the danger is that the Brits can keep to themselves and isolate themselves from the Americans on the team but that didn’t happen at all at Butler and the whole team got on really well regardless of nationality. I believe that it’s really hard to move to another country so people with the same interests (e.g. football) and more in common can help you settle in better and improve your experience. But if you do go somewhere with a large British contingent, make an effort to get to know the Americans well too, they are really great people and it would be a massive shame to neglect the possibilities that come with being friends with the American people that are there (outside of the track team too).

tbUSA – Once out there, how did you find life and the settling in process?

CG – I loved it for the first couple of months, but the big turning point was when I got injured. Everybody on the team and the people at the college and other locals made me feel really welcome and massively aided the settling in process. This didn’t change when I got injured but the only reason I was there was to run so being told that I couldn’t do that for the next 3 or 4 months was a massive kick in the teeth. Life outside of running there was quite good and everybody did as much as they could to help me but being in the situation of an athletics scholarship means that running pretty much dominates everything so I found it very very difficult to be there when I was injured.

tbUSA – You came back after two semesters, right? We understand you had injury problems, Was that the only reason?

CG – Being injured was the main reason I came back – it’s obviously going to damage the experience if you can’t do the only thing you went there to do! I had a fairly serious stress fracture so I was out for a long time and then struggled for fitness when I returned. It was gutting for me because I was flying before I got injured and I every race I did afterwards was a long way from what I knew I was capable of. But on top of that I struggled badly with homesickness, I had a girlfriend at the time back at home, I wasn’t enjoying the course I was doing, Liverpool were on their way to being relegated under Roy Hodgson and everything got on top of me to the point where I just didn’t want to be there any more. I was devastated that it turned out that way because it was a fantastic opportunity for me and I loved the people on the team. It was such a terribly hard decision to make but I knew it was the right thing for me to do; although I hated myself for letting them down I couldn’t have carried on the way that I was.

tbUSA – Can you explain to our readers how things differed in reality to your perception before you headed out?

CG – To be completely honest there wasn’t too much difference to what I expected. I’d spoken to a few people who were out in the states and I had spoken to Steve Lisgo quite a lot who was already at Butler so I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. In terms of the training, Coach Roe had described how things worked in great detail before I arrived so I knew what to expect there too. The main way that things differed to what I expected was how I personally dealt with things; I had never seen myself as the homely sort of type but I missed home massively while I was out there. Another thing that you can never really prepare yourself for, regardless of how much people try to drill it into you, is the incredible depth in collegiate athletics. I had gone from being one of the best in Britain to being a million miles away from even the best in the state of Indiana. The standard of distance running in America really is amazing and it’s impossible to describe it unless you’ve experienced events like Pre-Nats, Stanford or Mt SAC.

tbUSA – Have you any advice to pass on to prospective student athletes that you would like to have known before you went out?

CG – I think the most important advice would be to make sure that you are 100% certain you want to go to America. When it’s for such a long time you have to be completely committed to it or it can never end well. Although I wanted to go I had lingering doubts and was a bit unsure about leaving my girlfriend at the time and all my friends and family at home who I’m really close to and that probably played on my mind the whole time I was there. I’m a bit of an introvert and I think more outgoing people cope a lot better when moving to new surroundings.

So I would say to firstly be certain you’re in a position to give everything to immerse yourself in the experience, then do as much research as possible and speak to as many people as you can so that you can make an informed decision on the best place for you to go. Despite things not working out for me, I do think it’s an opportunity well worth considering. A couple of my mates have been asking for advice about going there and I have told them to be sure they want to go and if possible to go somewhere where there will be other Brits and even better somewhere with someone you are friends with.

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