By Mary DeMaio
It’s a crisp Friday afternoon in mid-autumn at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. The clock reads 4 p.m. The weekend has finally arrived; an opportunity to take it easy. The cross-country team is off from practice, but the faint whispers of heavy breathing can still be heard from the track. The shadow of only one athlete is present.
Even on his off days, 21-year-old senior Sean Ferguson can be found going that extra mile.
It’s that work ethic which has enabled him to come back from what doctors labeled a career-ending injury two years ago, to becoming one of the top Division 1 runners in the nation this year.
At the end of his winter-season sophomore year, the Smithtown native ran at a championship conference meet and suffered detrimental complications to his heel. He had to stop running altogether and was sidelined for a year, causing him to miss one cross-country and two track seasons.
During his layoff, he visited four doctors, some of whom predicted he would never be able to run again. But Ferguson refused to give up. Finally, in October 2014, after receiving seven injections in his hobbled foot and getting lots of rest, the pain started to subside and he began rehabbing.
He spent a year working with athletic trainers, strengthening the muscles in his heel through rigid resistance exercises every day before he was able to start running competitively again.
“Finding the motivation to keep working despite not knowing if I would ever be able to return again was extremely difficult,” Ferguson said.
But thanks to his mental fortitude, Ferguson overcame his injury and is now better than ever. Most recently, on Oct. 31, Ferguson won the Northeast Conference championship 8,000-meter race, beating out 70 runners.
“Sean is determined, focused and is so humble,” said teammate Trevor Guerrera. “He has broken multiple meet records and still is the most down-to-earth person I know.”
Christian Morrison, Ferguson’s cross-country coach at Sacred Heart said, “Sean has progressed tremendously because he is single-minded about being the best runner he can possibly be, and he’s coachable and easy to work with. He’s tough and isn’t afraid to suffer and push himself during a race to run as fast as possible.”
When Ferguson steps on the line, he said he has four goals: to race well, to run fast, to be competitive and, most importantly, to have fun.
“I just really try to take in the moment and enjoy what I’m doing while I’m still able to do it,” he said.
Ferguson said his mental approach is what gives him an edge on other runners. Fixating on time tends to trip up many runners, he said. They are, what he calls, “slaves to the watch.” Ferguson, however, said he pays more attention to how his body is feeling and focusing on putting his best effort forward.
“Running is mostly a mental sport, you can train as well as anyone but if you don’t truly believe you are the best, you won’t be,” said David Wood, Ferguson’s cross-country coach at St. John the Baptist Diocesan High School in West Islip. “By senior year, Sean believed he could run with anyone even if in reality he couldn’t.”
What Ferguson has long believed has finally become reality.
At the start of his season on Sept. 5, he defeated 60 runners at the Stony Brook University Invitational en route to a first-place finish. He also set his school’s record for the 6K with a time of 18 minutes, 35 seconds; the previous school record was 18:52. It was the fastest that anyone has ever run on that course.
A week later, at the Rhode Island Invitational, he came in first place out of 100 runners, crushing his school’s 5K record, setting a course record and beating every runner on Providence College, highly ranked in the country. Ferguson finished the race in 14:50; the previous school record was 15:28.
The wins and records kept piling up. All together during this year’s cross-country season, Ferguson ran six races, won five of them and set four course records. At the New England championship in Boston he was injured during the middle of the race, but he pulled himself together and just focused on finishing, coming in 23rd place.
Unfortunately, Ferguson was not able to run in the trial race to qualify for the National Championships in Louisville, Ky., because he hurt his calf at practice.
But there’s always next season.
Although slated to graduate this May from Sacred Heart, where he’s studying history and maintains a 3.87 GPA during his first six semesters, finishing with a 4.0 in three of them, Ferguson has one year of college athletic eligibility remaining. Due to his heel injury, Ferguson received a medical waiver from the NCAA that allows him to compete if he chooses to enroll in graduate school. His decision to stay at Sacred Heart or go elsewhere is still up in the air.
For now, he’s focused on training for winter track when the season begins Saturday. He’s expected to be a top competitor in both the 3K and 5K races.
“I have high expectations for myself because I got hurt,” said Ferguson. “The cross-country season didn’t end the way I had hoped and that is something I want to rectify.”