ASHLAND, Ore. — “When the race ended I looked over and the crowd was going crazy,” said Eric Avila. “I kind of pointed at them to say thank you. They completely lifted me and then a couple of seconds later people started telling me, ‘Do you know what you ran?'”
What Avila ran was the fastest 5,000 meter time in the country for any collegiate athlete. It was one of many highlights for Avila’s storied SOU career, which already includes three national championships between cross country and track. SOU wasn’t Avila’s first choice of schools. He started out running for DI Northern Arizona, but only lasted there a year and a half. He took more than two years off from competitive running before reaching out to SOU.
“This was kind of his last resort because he didn’t have any NCAA eligibility left,” said head coach Grier Gatlin. “Had he gone to an NCAA school he would have had one year, because once you start in the NCAA your clock doesn’t stop. In the NAIA, your clock stops, so here he could come and have three years.”
Those three years were exactly what Avila needed to resurrect his career.
“You know his first year here, as we got in to track, you could see flashes that he was going to be good, but he was rusty,” said Gatlin. “It’s just like any other sport. You’re just rusty.”
“They offered me three years of eligibility,” said Avila. “At an NCAA school I would have just had one year and that would have been my first year here and I feel like I was still trying to figure out how to go through the motions of training and balancing school and that would have been upsetting if it was to just end like that.”
The progress may have been slow, but the pay-off has been great. Avila currently has the fastest NAIA time in both the 800 and 5,000 meter runs in his senior year.
“This year I don’t know what it is,” said Avila. “I have a lot more confidence than in the past, I’m healthy, everything’s going good. School’s going good. It just seems like I’m just riding this wave and I don’t want the wave to end.”