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‘You were replaceable’: Gonzaga runner Kristen Garcia advocates mental health, finds boost with transfer from Wisconsin

By Justin Reed For The Spokesman-Review

Kristen Garcia was not enjoying running at the University of Wisconsin.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying.

Two years after graduating from Sedro-Wooley High School – just over an hour north of Seattle – Garcia desired a change.

Running became a business for the 2018 Washington State 2A champion and practice was a constant fear as one mistake would cause her to be left off the Badger travel squad.

“You were replaceable, you had to kind of always be on your toes,” Garcia said. “It was very stressful.”

Garcia approached the director of cross country and track and field at Wisconsin, Mick Byrne, with an intention to transfer.

In today’s NCAA marketplace, transfers have become routine.

And Byrne knew the perfect program for Garcia.

He made a call to one of his former runners – Gonzaga women’s coach Jake Stewart.

“It was easy for Mick to pick up the phone and say this is a good kid, maybe it just wasn’t the right fit for her,” Stewart said.

The Bulldogs were an instant match as Garcia ran her way to a qualification at the NCAA Cross Country National Championships in 2021. She was the first runner to qualify under Stewart.

Garcia took third at regionals to advance, which was the best finish in program history.

Personal accolades aside, Garcia has helped foster a team chemistry that has catapulted the women’s cross country and track programs to new heights.

“It’s not a fluke that we finished the highest we’ve finished at the (West Coast) conference meet this past fall, and cross country earned the highest regional finishing (fourth) the university has ever had,” Stewart said.

The cross country squad was one spot shy of making nationals, which Garcia said was a disappointment, but they were also ranked nationally for the first time in program history heading into regionals.

This track season has been productive for Garcia as her program-record time of 33:2749 at the Stanford Invite on April 2 gave her a 15th seed into the postseason.

On May 25-28, Garcia will head to Fayetteville, Arkansas alongside two other GU women runners for the NCAA West Regionals.

She will compete in the 10k this season after making it to regionals in the 5k last season.

Four Zags men will also make the trip.

Garcia initially was recruited to be a Badger by Jill Miller who ended up not coaching Garcia’s freshman year.

“I really enjoyed her, I felt like she was someone who I could like see myself running under for four to five years,” Garcia said. “So, my big reason for going there was because of her, I felt like her and I clicked really well.”

Garcia made the tough decision to pack up her life and took a chance by moving halfway across the country. She, being the oldest sibling, was the first to go to college. Her and her family were enthusiastic for the opportunity to go to Wisconsin.

Instead, Mackenzie Wartenberger was hired in 2019 by the Badgers as women’s cross country coach and assistant track coach.

“Then I got a new coach and I definitely did not sign up for her,” Garcia said. “I was not willing to stay there and deal with her. ”

Wartenberger posted to her Twitter account in January, “I am stepping away from coaching at Wisconsin, effective this season, to focus on the well-being of my family.”

Garcia said there were interactions between Wartenbeger and herself that weren’t super pleasant and that she felt her ability to thrive at Wisconsin was dampened due to the coaching.

Garcia picked up a calf strain which she said in the past would have freaked her out. She wouldn’t have known how to handle it and would have not been able to recover in time to race in the postseason.

“I think I would have probably been blamed for what happened (at Wisconsin),” she said. “There is this environment where there’s not a lot of empathy or willingness to work around obstacles.”

“Either you can survive in that sort of environment, or you can’t, and it just breaks you down.”

Stewart approached coaching from a different perspective and from the first phone call, he checked every box in Garcia’s head. The way he ran his program instantly appealed to Garcia.

“I just felt reassured and he made me feel I’d be taken care of at GU, and at that time, that’s exactly what I needed,” Garcia said. “I needed someone who was going to be confident in my abilities.”

She said Stewart has been the largest difference between the two schools, and she knows he has her best interests at heart.

After she visited Spokane the spark that was dampened in Madison, Wisconsin shone bright again and she was off and running.

“I do think just the environment in which we train and compete, it fits her personality really well,” Stewart said. “She is a competitive kid. She really has high achieving goals.”

The two years in Bulldog colors has wiped clean any negative memories her first two years as a college runner. Her time as a Badger feels like a lifetime ago, she said.

As Garcia has continued to break Bulldog records and lead the team to new team heights, she has also appreciated the way GU handles mental trials and hurdles in a challenging time for student-athletes.

On May 1, GU’s first-year athletic director Chris Standiford took the microphone at the all-sports banquet on campus.

Stewart said he summed it up perfectly when he explained that this period for a student-athlete is the most difficult in the history of the NCAA.

He said from the coronavirus pandemic, to the day-to-day pressures and commitments, student-athletes are under more scrutiny than ever before.

In turn, it causes more reliance on resources that universities make available.

But before those resources need to be put into action, Stewart wants to key in on the foundational happiness of the athlete, protecting that emotion before it gets damaged.

“We are aware of that, and if we’re doing that, I think everything else falls in line behind, because it just makes like easier in that sense,” Stewart said.

Stewart makes sure it is discussed within his program all the time, lowering the stigma surrounding mental health in college athletics.

It also means these student-athletes can stay healthy post-college after the extra rigor, stress and strains are behind them.

“Mental health problems are just so prominent with college athletics and especially college running,” Garcia said. “You hear all the college athletes struggling with mental health and, I feel like especially recently, there has been a lot of stories of college athletes passing away due to mental health problems.”

Garcia’s former Badger teammate, Sarah Shulze, took her own life in April.

“I think that mental health is the most important aspect of college athletics and for everybody in general, I think that should be the main focus,” she said.

A healthy mind also allows the physical body to perform better, especially in running where Garcia says she is able to shut her mind down and hone in on just running.

Being able to direct her focus on the things she can control has altered her mind in an immensely positive way.

Again, using the calf injury as an example, she said that in the past she would have been too frustrated about the injury , to work hard enough to return to action as soon as she could.

Garcia agrees with Stewart in that the running coaches and the GU athletic department as a whole does a sound job of having those tough conversations about mental health. She said those conversations can be awkward, but they are important.

“Being a smaller school, and a more tight-knit athletic department, those conversations are definitely had, and they’re definitely valued,” she said. “GU does a really good job of focusing on the mental side while making sure that we’re doing what we need to do from a training perspective.”

And those conversations are had at all levels from athlete to athlete, athlete to coach and athlete to support staff.

Garcia sees herself working in collegiate athletics in the future, not in coaching, but in academic support.

Her adviser Steffany Galbraith directed her with course decisions and kept her path straight toward getting her master’s in organizational leadership.

“I’d love to be able to that, for other athletes someday,” Garcia said.

I think that mental health is the most important aspect of
college athletics … I think that should be the main focus.” Kristen Garcia Gonzaga runner