As a freshman in 2012, junior Sawyer Hitchcock produced a strong season for the men’s cross-country team that saw him earn Empire 8 Rookie of the Year honors. Even more impressively, he became the one of two Bombers to qualify for the NCAA Division III Men’s Cross Country Championships.
Two years later, the Bombers have high expectations for the season as they look to continue a streak of four straight Empire 8 titles and improve upon a ninth-place finish at the NCAA Atlantic Region Championships last year.
Hitchcock is not only an integral member of an experienced group of returning runners, but is also bouncing back from an ankle injury he suffered midway through last season. Due to a bad step on a trail during a practice run, Hitchcock was forced to miss three weeks of the season while rehabbing a sprained ankle. Senior captain Dennis Ryan said he believes Hitchcock’s injury can’t be attributed to any mistake the runner made.
“The injury he suffered last year was a freak accident, and there was nothing he could have done to prevent it,” Ryan said.
The injury came at a pivotal point in the season when tournaments, such as the Geneseo Invitational, the Hamilton Invitational and the New York State Collegiate Track Conference Cross Country Championships, are held. These tournaments involve teams from across the region and are key to determining the runners that will make it to Nationals. Still recovering from his ankle injury, Hitchcock was unable to compete in these tournaments last fall.
“It was definitely difficult mentally and physically to come back from the injury, especially since it was basically right into championship season,” Hitchcock said.
Whether the injury could have been avoided or not, Hitchcock quickly began working with the team’s trainers so he could get back to running. The athletic trainers immediately got Hitchcock on a rehab plan that focused on strengthening his ankle while relieving stress on his muscles. To do this, Hitchcock began a regimen of low-weight exercises that targeted his ankle, as well as training in the pool in order to take pressure off of his injured muscles. These exercises ranged from spelling out the alphabet with his foot to running through water.
“I did pool workouts pretty much every day for those three weeks, along with lots of ankle-strengthening exercises that our trainers set me up with,” Hitchcock said. “It was no fun.”
Despite being forced to the sidelines, Hitchcock remained determined to get back to competing and worked hard to do so. Head coach Jim Nichols said he was impressed with Hitchcock’s ability to stay focused and recover from his injury.
“Losing three weeks in the middle of the season would be hard on anyone, but Sawyer did a good job of staying focused on what he needed to do to get and remain healthy,” Nichols said. “Many athletes with Sawyer’s injury would have been out for the season. Because of his strength training he lost only three weeks, but it did affect how his season would finish.”
This summer, Hitchcock worked hard to prepare for his third season as a Bomber. By keeping up with his ankle exercises and pushing himself to go on long runs and improve his times over the offseason, Hitchcock said he has made sure that his ankle is back to the shape he wants it to be in.
“I had a great few months of training this past summer, and I definitely look forward to putting it to use this season with my teammates,” he said.
Despite the challenges of overcoming the letdown of the injury, Hitchcock said he wants to keep a positive attitude going forward.
“I try not to get caught up in thinking about what would have happened if I hadn’t gotten injured,” he said. “It’s not worth it.”
Hitchcock is also determined to avoid repeating the mistake that caused the injury.
“I still do ankle exercises from time to time just to keep it strong, and I’m sort of hyperaware of where my feet are on trail runs these days,” he said.
Hitchcock’s determination to put last season behind him and make the most out of this fall has been an inspiration to his fellow teammates. Ryan said he believes Hitchcock has put in the necessary work to have a healthy and productive season.
“His work ethic serves as a prime example for the rest of the team to follow,” Ryan said. “He had an incredible summer of training and put in the extra miles to get to where he is. He’s always trained smart to avoid injury, and he’s managed to get himself into incredible shape for this season.”