June 1, 2020
By David Nordby
The Brillion News
BRILLION – Gunner Schlender will leave Brillion this summer for the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater to be a two-sport athlete in cross country and track.
Those two sports ended in Brillion for him as the antithesis of each other. He last competed in track as a sophomore. He missed his junior year with an injury and saw his senior year canceled to a pandemic.
His cross country career ended with him helping the Lions to second in the state, the highest finish in the program’s history last fall.
“It was historic for us as a program and definitely the climax of my high school career,” Schlender says.
Now in the fall, Schlender will start his college career as a Warhawk, the same school that his father, Jeff, played football and that his grandfather, Karl, coached for 20 years from 1974 until 1994.
Karl served in numerous roles, including six years as head men’s gymnastics coach, 20 years as an assistant football coach, nine years as assistant men’s and women’s track and field coach, and as the men’s and women’s head track and field coach for nine years.
Karl coached the men’s track team to six top twenty finishes in a NCAA championship and the women’s team finished in the top twenty nationally three times.
Jeff accepted Karl’s posthumous induction into the Whitewater Hall of Fame in 2011. Karl hired current cross country head coach Jeff Miller to the program in 1984.
“At first I kind of underappreciated that aspect of it. I kind of blew it off,” Schlender said. “The further I went along in the process of trying to find a school, the more I appreciated the fact that there’s already coaches and people there that care about me before I even knew.”
Whitewater was the last school he visited.
“That’s the school I felt the most comfortable,” Schlender said. Long distance running has become routine for Schlender.
By middle school, Schlender says he felt naturally good at it.
“As I got older, I think the peacefulness of it and especially the world we live in today where everything’s so hectic and everyone’s hurrying around trying to do all this, it’s almost not reality. It’s something that gives you an escape,” Schlender says.
For an hour each day, Schlender’s mind is with running.
“It’s a way for me to get outside and exercise and connect with myself, think about myself and just get it done. That’s the biggest thing for me is just how genuine and peaceful it is,” Schlender said.
Cross country and track events both require a different mindset, he says.
“I try to stay more relaxed (in cross country) because I do understand it’s a longer race, so the first half of a cross country race is pretty much just zoning out trying to not make yourself think about anything,” Schlender said.
Training the mind to think about nothing requires practice, he says.
“That’s something I’ve been trying to work on here, especially the last couple of years … It’s easy to get mentally burned out in the second part of a cross country race if you overthink every move you’re making in the first 800 of a cross country race. There’s so much time to make stuff up,” Schlender said.
The 800-meter runs in track take much less time. They only take about two minutes.
“Every move you make is pretty crucial … I would say you’re more focused and intense for a track race,” Schlender said.
As a sophomore, he qualified for state in the 1600-meter run.
“I didn’t run too well there my sophomore year, so I feel like I just got my feet wet. I feel like I just got a little taste of what I could accomplish in the next two years and then unfortunately last year I had that injury,” Schlender said.
Then he missed his junior year to an injury.
“I think at this point I’ve tried to change my mindset, kind of view it as a privilege where I have an opportunity to face the type of adversity that a lot of people don’t have the opportunity to face and understand that I’m becoming a lot stronger not only as a runner, but as a person because of it,” Schlender said.
With last spring in the rearview, he looked to the 2019-20 school year.
“I tried to stay optimistic through (the injury) and just think I have my senior year of cross country and my senior year of track to really make sure I cash in and then obviously (the virus) kind of happened,” Schlender said.
Schlender contacted his college coach when this spring season was officially canceled and has been training on a college schedule since.
“I would say the biggest difference is how specific it is. There’s a laid out plan for you every day with strength work, core work, mobility, flexibility, everything like that, and the running aspect isn’t necessarily harder, it’s just more volume,” Schlender said.
Schlender says some days are easier allowing for fast recovery, but the difficult days are tougher than high school training.
“It’s just a lot more in-depth and specific,” Schlender said.
Schlender is already friends with members of the Whitewater cross country team and they have a goal of making it to nationals his freshman year.
“Obviously that’s kind of the peak of our goals,” Schlender said.
Jeff coached Schlender in every sport he tried when he was young and is the Brillion head track and field coach.
“It’s been great. I think the biggest thing that makes a difference is knowing that there’s someone there that supports you at every practice and every competition … Most kids don’t have that luxury where they know a parent is going to be watching and monitoring their progress every day,” Schlender said.
Schlender says that having Jeff’s support helped him through his injury last spring when he was away from the team.
Soon he will be competing for Whitewater like his father and grandfather did. He will even get to race in the annual Karl Schlender Invitational track and field event.
“It means a lot to me already and I’m sure it [will] mean a lot to me when I get there too. It’s kind of like how it was in high school where you’re already familiar with the program and you know what they’re about,” Schlender said.
This article first appeared in the May 21, 2020 edition of The Brillion News.