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Profile: Sean Kuehn overcomes injury to lead cross country program

by Zach Wagner - Copy Editor
Tue, Dec 3rd 2019 03:40 pm
Senior captain Sean Kuehn has finished first on his team in every cross country meet he ran this season.
Senior captain Sean Kuehn has finished first on his team in every cross country meet he ran this season.

As a runner, it takes a lot of mental strength and will power to be able to surge through a race. To endure the physical and mental pain that comes along with the sport, you must have a certain love and passion for running to put yourself through that experience on a regular basis. Senior cross country captain Sean Kuehn fell in love with the sport in 7th grade.

“I knew I had a lot of potential and I just wanted to reach it, I wanted to see how good I could become,” Kuehn said. “Every year went by and I wasn’t satisfied with the times I was racing and I knew what I needed to do to get better, I just needed the time and resources. I fell in love with the grind of trying to get better.”

After nine years, Kuehn has wrapped up his competitive cross country career, taking 54th at the Division III cross country national meet in Louisville, Kentucky. Just like any other successful athlete, the road to this point in Kuehn’s career wasn’t easy. Battling adversity and having the determination to improve his marks, Kuehn stayed focused, which paid off many times throughout his long journey.

As a cross country runner in high school, Kuehn found success early on, placing 24th at the Section III sectional meet as a sophomore, 16th as a junior and eventually qualifying for the state meet in his senior season. He used his breakout senior campaign to generate attention from Division I coaches. He then endured a serious injury, suffering a pars fracture in his L5-S1 vertebrae, which was also herniated, pinching a nerve in his back. The injury cost him his Division I opportunity, forcing Kuehn to settle for his back up school, The College at Brockport.

“I remember it was the night before sectionals my senior year, I woke up and my right foot was numb,” Kuehn said. “I ran the race and I qualified for states, I trained through it for a week and my leg and foot started to become numb.”

Kuehn pushed through the state meet but didn’t finish the way he wanted to. He took the next week off from running, working on his strength and conditioning. His other leg started to go numb, which worried him, causing him to set up an appointment with a doctor.

“It was because I had coeliac disease, that was the cause of the pars fracture. It leaked in the bone but it also made my joint’s really inflamed,” Kuehn said. “I had to go through this huge diet change and it actually wasn’t until I changed my diet when I started recovering.” 

The injury bothered Kuehn for quite some time, forcing him to sit out of the indoor track season. When outdoor track came, he fought through the pain, adjusting his workouts to do everything he could to participate in his last high school sports season.

“It wasn’t until the end of my freshman year of cross country season when the symptoms started to go away,” Kuehn said. “I still have some nerve damage in my feet, but it took a year to go away.”

Moving through the rest of his collegiate career, Kuehn found out he needed to go the extra mile to find success at such a high level. After suffering a “plateau year” in his sophomore campaign, not seeing much improvement, he realized adjustments needed to be made if he wanted to get where he wanted to be.

“The factors that really affected my running was bumping up my mileage and weightlifting,” Kuehn said. “It wasn’t until my sophomore year — that was kind of like the moment, if I want to be good, I’m going to have to do this.” 

He bumped his mileage up weekly over the summer, eventually hitting 70 miles in one week. It was a turning point in his career and the results showed in his running. The extra mileage put him in great shape and the weightlifting helped prevent the risk of becoming injured.

Despite not seeing much improvement his sophomore season, Kuehn was awarded a captain position as a junior due to his natural leadership. His teammates voted him in, but former cross country head coach Danielle Novara wasn’t quite sure if he was ready to take on that role. She believed Kuehn was at a crossroads after his sophomore slump and he needed to decide what kind of collegiate athlete he wanted to be before he stepped in as captain.

“I sat Sean down before we broke for summer heading into his junior year — I explained to him that I thought he was on a precipice, and that he needed to decide which road to take,” Novara said. “He could step into the leadership role naturally, but it would mean that he had to fully commit to the lifestyle and the mission and vision of the team.”

It is clear to see what path Kuehn decided to take. Helping Brockport improve the cross country program while moving up in the SUNYAC each year, Kuehn has helped turned Brockport into an elite program. His freshman year, Brockport took eighth place at the SUNYAC meet, while the squad was able to grab third place this season.

“Sean was my first ‘all-star’ recruit,” Novara said. “Even though he came to us a little beat up, all I saw was the limitless potential in him. He had the personality to change a previously negative team environment and had the talent and guts to back it up.”

Running is predominantly an individual sport, but the hard work and dedication of one athlete can have a ripple effect on the rest of the program. The mindset held by Kuehn of being the best you can be has rubbed off on his teammates, creating a winning atmosphere at Brockport. Although it was devastating, without Kuehn’s injury he suffered prior to his collegiate career, Brockport’s cross country program may not be seeing the success it is having without Kuehn leading the pack.

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