Cross Country: An Ideal Asian American Youth Sport?

rajpaulpannuWhile I have seen many heavily Asian American teams at high school cross country meets, one thing that I have recently began to notice is that increasingly, some of the winners are Asian Americans.   After seeing this interview with runner Cameron Tu, who I saw win at the Lowell Invitational this year, and later this interview of an Asian American cross country runner Rajpaul Pannu, who competes at the Division I collegiate level, I began to wonder:   is this an ideal sport for Asian American youth?  I think it could be for many, for several reasons which I’ll talk about.

At first, cross country seems like track – something stereotypical that Asian Americans might join to round out their college applications.     While it is a no cut sport like track (meaning everyone can participate), I think it differs in a number of ways.  In cross country, factors such as height are not as big as in other sports.  If you are a 5’6’’ Asian kid, good luck beating a 6’5’’ kid in the high jump.  In cross country, you can still do pretty well even if you are not tall.   You don’t need a lot of body mass in cross country as compared to what you might want as a football offensive lineman, and training can be done just about anywhere. The skill needed for cross country – running – is generally simple and straightforward.  While coaching running form definitely helps, parents do not need to join expensive club sport teams just to be competitive, unlike sports like basketball or volleyball.

Another aspect of cross country that could appeal to Asian Americans is that the success in cross country comes mainly from hard work.  A runner can have some talent as a runner or natural speed, but that talent will not be enough unless he or she works hard.  Rajpaul Pannu says that he was an overweight high school sophomore with bad grades who had never ran before, but he worked hard and made varsity in a year.  He now runs at the Division I college level.   Asian American runners at my sons’ high school have gone on to run at the collegiate level, and the daughter of some family friends was recruited to run for her college.

Number Two Son likes cross country because you can still stand out and do well even if the rest of your team doesn’t do well.   He got into cross country during middle school because he was frustrated with his school teams losing all of the time.  With running, he could do well and win medals by himself.

As a parent of two cross country athletes, I like many things about it.  First, even if a child doesn’t compete at the highest levels, that child can still compete themselves and work to improve their times.  I have seen my sons train themselves to constantly seek self-improvement.  While he definitely is not slow, Number One Son is not at the top of his team’s depth charts (which is incredibly deep), but he still works hard to get better.  My sons have also learned to eat much cleaner, as cross country has taught them the hard way that eating a lot of junk negatively impacts their performance.  Learning to work hard, trying constantly to improve, and taking care of one’s body – those are lessons that they can use the rest of their lives.

westmoorAnother thing that I have really enjoyed about being a cross country parent is going to the places where they compete and train.  Competitions have been in scenic places like Golden Gate Park.  The race venue in Daly City shown to the left was beautiful that day, and Number Two Son is in the chase group between the tower tops of the Golden Gate bridge.   I will sometimes hike or run on the same trails where they train like in Alum Rock Park (shown below) and the Los Gatos Creek trail.  I don’t try to keep up with my sons as they are much faster than me!

While there are things I like about cross country, it has its challenges.   Injuries from things like rolled ankles, falls, or just plain overuse can happen.  Number One Son is currently out of action from a strained Achilles tendon after a particularly challenging training session.  I know some Asian American parents who discourage distance running saying it is not healthy.   Despite the advantages that I have mentioned, Asian Americans were only 1.5% of all NCAA cross country runners in 2011 season, the last year I could find data on.  In high school though, the trend is definitely looking up, as statistics show that cross country participation in high schools is growing across the US. Cross country is a sport that has tremendous potential for Asian Americans and indeed all ethnicities, benefitting not only the fast runners but runners of all speeds.


(Rajpaul Pannu picture courtesy of Tod Fierner)
(Alum Rock Park credit: Oleg Alexandrov shared by under Creative Commons)

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About Jeff

Jeff lives in Silicon Valley, and attempts to juggle marriage, fatherhood, computer systems research, running, and writing.
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