Chad Stevens was one of 145 runners vying for the 2A Washington state cross country title in Pasco on Nov. 8.
A senior at East Valley High School in Spokane, Stevens was among the crowd at the state meet in 2013, placing second. This time around, he had hopes that he and his East Valley teammate, Scott Kopczynski, also a senior, could capture the top two medals at their final state meet.
“For us, it didn’t really matter who won as long as we did that,” Chad said. “We focused on working as a team instead of trying to pound the other into the ground.”
Stevens strode confidently on the 5K (3.1-mile course), tackling the rolling hills of the Sun Willows Golf Course, site of Washington’s premier prep cross country competition each November for the past 26 years. By the time he crossed the tape, the senior had eclipsed his time from last year by nearly 11 seconds, capturing the championship in a swift mark of 15:38.16.
“It was mostly relief that I finally accomplished my goal,” Stevens said of the state crown.
Kopczynski nearly made it an East Valley 1-2 sweep, just finishing short of second.
“Regardless, he still had a good race, and 1-3 is better that 1-4,” Chad said.
In the spring, the senior teammates also found their way to the 2A awards podium with Kopczynski placing first in the 1,600-meter (1-mile) final and Stevens finishing third in Tacoma. In the 3,200-meter (2-mile) race, Kopczynski took first, four seconds in front of runner-up Stevens.
For Stevens, the turf, twists and trails of cross country rate ahead of track.
“I like them both, but right now I would have to say cross country is my favorite,” he said. “There’s a lot of different turns in cross country, a change of scenery.”
When Stevens scarcely missed qualifying for Pasco as a sophomore, he ramped up his training efforts. When East Valley Cross Country Coach Andrew Walker told Chad he might have a chance to place among the top 10 as a junior, Stevens instead envisioned a top five time. Walker says Chad has achieved what he has through “his work ethic and his belief in himself.”
“Chad really developed into a great runner starting at the end of his junior cross country season last year,” said Walker who also coaches the East Valley distance runners in track. “One thing that he stresses to his teammates is to never be intimidated by people that are better than you, which is something he lives on the course. He was hampered a bit by Achilles problems going into state so the result in Pasco speaks to his ability to believe that he is going to get it done more than anyone else, despite facing adversity.”
Stevens’ time in Pasco qualified him for the Nike Border Clash, an annual event pitting the best high school runners from Washington against their counterparts from Oregon. Since the meet was held on Sunday, Nov. 23, however, Stevens declined, opting to follow his practice of not running on Sundays. He is a member of the Foothills Ward in the Spokane Valley Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“For me, Sunday has always been a day of rest,” Stevens said. “It’s the Sabbath day and has always been the Sabbath day. I was raised by parents who taught me the importance of that. I run and train six days of the week. The least I could do was give back. I don’t run on Sundays. Last year, I was lucky that the Border Clash meet was on a Saturday night, so I was able to go. But this year I had decided that if it was, I would not be going.”
The next race for Stevens will be the Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships on Dec. 13 in San Diego. Regardless of the upcoming meet, Stevens said he remains focused on reaching his potential through sacrifice, hard work and holding true to his beliefs.
“I know, if I don’t train hard and do my best, I won’t get anything accomplished,” he said. “For me, I don’t know if I would say I have a lot of natural talent. I have some, but natural talent only goes so far, you have to develop it into a raft. You can only accomplish so much without trying.”
Along with consistent training, Stevens said his faith and principles are critical components in his approach to running.
“I think my faith has a huge part in my success,” he said. “There’s the faith in my training, but way more importantly is my faith in God. At state, there was a lot of prayer going on inside my head.”
Leaving Pasco with a state championship wasn’t necessarily the proof that someone above was listening, Stevens added.
“Winning was cool to me, but if I hadn’t won, it wouldn’t have decreased my faith at all,” he said. “I just knew that God had a plan for me that day, win or lose. I trusted in Him, and He was telling me to believe in the training that I had put in. My thought was ‘It would be really cool to win, but regardless of what happens I will walk out of here with my head held high knowing that God was helping me in the best way possible, and just because I didn’t see it yet, doesn’t mean I wouldn’t.’”
Stevens has become accustomed to questions about not running on Sundays. Yet, recently, the topic of his plans after college seems to draw more discussion. He has already made a decision to serve a full-time LDS mission after he turns 18, essentially putting serious running on the shelf for two years.
“For as long as I can remember, going on a mission was something I always wanted to do,” he said. “It’s a priority in my life because I know that God has given me so much that the decision to go and serve Him for two years is quite an easy decision and I know serving a mission is going to help me in my own life. Putting running on hold for two years, in my head, seems kind of small in an eternal perspective.”
Stevens has turned inquiries about his mission – and the occasional incredulity – into a chance to share thoughts about his faith.
“Most of them understand,” he said. “Some say ‘That sounds awful” or ask ‘Why would you do that?’ but I just tell them it’s something I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember and then explain why I’m going. I say ‘I’m going because I believe this Church is true.’ Considering all that God has given me the least I could do is put aside running for two years and serve a mission.”
As for setting an example of his beliefs, Stevens said his fellow runners at East Valley both respect and support him.
“I’d be lying if I said that the peer pressure is never there,” he said. “However on my team, it’s not really there. I think that’s been a big help to me. We come across it at school, or wherever we are. It’s on billboards, magazines, etc. It’s nice that most of my team understands where I’m coming from. When there are times where I’ve had to stand up for my beliefs, a lot of the time, my team backs me up. It’s nice to have that. How I stand up is I either politely ask them to not do those things around me or I leave and go somewhere else.”
Walker said Stevens has emerged as a leader at East Valley, going out of his way to encourage and motivate his teammates. His fellow runners chose him “Most Inspirational” by a unanimous vote.
“He is as driven and concerned with allowing the team to reach its potential as he is himself,” Walker said. “He thought that as a team, we needed to work on mental toughness and once a week would talk to the team and give them a thought exercise to help them focus and improve in this area. He is also very mature and good at looking after the underclassmen. After we had a few minor instances of bullying last year, he made sure to make it a team goal that we would be a brotherhood this year and that no one would be negative towards teammates. He does everything the right way and would be completely selfless if I didn’t remind him he had to take care of himself as well in order to help the team.”
Stevens plans to run in college, but hasn’t decided on a school quite yet. His long-term goals include qualifying for the highest level of international competition and participating in marathons – but for now, he will continue to find his stride with faith in every footstep.
“I think every runner has aspirations of doing something great,” he said. “I want to be an elite collegiate athlete and hopefully one day make it to the Olympics. For now my goals are to be the best that I can be. Maybe I won’t ever make it to the Olympics but I will at least be able to hold my head high if I try. As I said earlier, I know God has a plan for me, and if it’s not going to the Olympics then that’s fine. It just means He has something else planned for me that will help me out.”
Walker said Stevens has the potential to develop into an top-flight college runner.
“Chad is going to run (NCAA) Division 1 after he finishes up his mission,” Walker said. “He has a very high ceiling because of some of things I mentioned before, mainly his belief in himself and his willingness to work for it. College running is tough – it presents new challenges but Chad is too driven and does too many things right not to have some success at the next level. After he gets back from his mission, he will put in a couple years of good training and get used to the college system but he will be an All-American for somebody down the road.”