To evaluate the quality of a program, we need not always look at its top varsity runners. As important as a strong top-seven are in cross-country, perhaps more important at the high school level is the journey and progression runners experience from start-to-finish. Arguably one of the greatest demonstrations of a program that develops each and every runner is Coach Scott Christensen's Stillwater cross-country team, known locally as, 'the machine'. This week I had the opportunity to hear from a parent and his son about how positively their lives have been impacted by Christensen, and I think the development of senior Nick Gag as a runner and person over his high-school career is a fantastic testament to the program the Christensen has established at Stillwater, as well as an excellent demonstration of a remarkable young man giving everything he has for his team.
Nick began running when he was in 9th grade. "I was pretty sure I was going to be a football or basketball star," he said, "but when that didn't work out I decided to give cross-country a try."
His first two-mile took him 22:50, and Gag remembers, "I had to walk most of it." In his debut 5-kilometer race, Gag ran 25:01. But within four years, he would drop over seven minutes off his 5-kilometer time and break 18-minutes, including a two-and-a-half minute drop between his junior and senior years. "I never imagined that I would reach anywhere near that time!"
Gag immediately credits the Stillwater program as the catalyst for his success. "Every single runner is made to feel important and we all care for eachother. The team is like a family, and I would not be where I am without the help and support of this team." Knowing he only had one more year to compete, Gag was motivated to step up his training last summer in order to prepare himself as best he could for his final season.
His work paid off, and the rest of the team took notice. After the Stillwater team's season wrapped up, finishing with a State runner-up team title, it was Nick Gag who was named the team MVP for his effort and attitude. "Nick receiving an award for MVP is truly a testament to his fellow runners. They had the awareness to know that it takes different talents to make a team successful or special," remarked his father.
Nick remarked, "Receiving the MVP award means a lot to me. One of the biggest parts of our program is the 'machine' idea, and every piece of this machine needs to be working in order to keep it running." Gag admitted that he knew from the start that he would never be one of the top seven runners, so "I worked hard to be the best teammate and leader I could be."
Most noticeable in my interaction with Nick was his constant praise of the team and Coach Christensen. These relationships and the journey that Nick has undergone through his high school career is a perfect example of what high school athletics should be. Teammates working together, supporting each other, and giving everything they can to contribute to the success of the group are the key factors that Nick both exhibits and takes advantage of as a part of the Stillwater team.
Success ultimately is a culmination of the talent available, the program in place, and the commitment of the runners, however, in almost every case a team can only be successful if they can pivot off of an inspirational and knowledgeable coach. For Stillwater, Scott Christensen is that coach and he has an instrumental impact on the running abilities of his athletes as well as other aspects of their lives. "Scott deserves praise for not only being a successful coach when it comes to state finishes and developing top-class runners, but creating top-class people," said Nick's father.
Nick Gag is the 'finished product', so to speak, of the Christensen program. As a runner, he has transformed from finishing close to last in JV meets as a freshmen, to being a strong runner his senior year. As a person, he has gained valuable experience as a teammate, athlete, and leader, and his story should serve as a reminder to every high school runner that the measure of success is not always results. Most of us will not go on to be world-class runners, but in our time competing we can learn how to push ourselves, support our teammates, and become leaders on and off the course. The culmination of these skills sets up young runners for successful careers past high school.
Congratulations, Nick, on a successful high school cross-country career, and thank you for sharing your story of perseverance, dedication, and development with the running community!