GVSU men's runner Zach Panning on the right track after injury

By D'Angelo Starks | 11/9/17 1:29am

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GVL / Courtesy - Al Steible

The Grand Valley State men’s cross country team is coming off of a big weekend, which saw them win their 16th-straight NCAA Regional Championship. The Lakers had many runners deliver dominating performances, including junior men’s runner Zach Panning as one of those top performers. 

Panning finished in sixth place overall in the individual race with a time of 31:33.7, 0.2 second behind standout GVSU men’s runner Wuoi Mach.

However, the sport of running and cross country was something Panning wasn’t initially interested in. He was a hockey player up until his junior year of high school. However, he grew up with parents who coached cross country at the middle school level, so he was then pushed into running during middle school because of them. But through his time with the sport, Panning realized that he actually had a true passion for it.

“I started getting good in high school after they made me go out for the cross country team,” Panning said. “I continued to get better and better, and that’s what made me fall in love with it.” 

With his growing love and passion for the sport, the next step was thinking about college. Panning credited a very specific reason from his visit to GVSU that truly convinced him it was the perfect fit and school for him. 

“When I came on my visit to Grand Valley, I got to hang out with the team, and they were what really brought me here,” Panning said. “Hanging out with all of the guys and seeing how much of a family they were, it meant a lot to me being around that type of family atmosphere. That was something that I wanted in a college program, and I definitely found that here.”

His time here as a Laker hasn’t always been smooth, though. This past spring, Panning suffered an injury that sidelined him for three months, leaving him unable to run. On a more positive note, it helped him see his sport in a new light. 

“To be out there with the guys and running on the roads every day, it felt like it was something I was starting to take for granted," he said. "It was almost a blessing in disguise that I was able to see what that meant for me, and now I really enjoy the process even more.” 

Getting through the injury was a difficult time for him as he had suffered a stress fracture in his foot. In order to maintain his shape, he had to look to other sports as a source of training, one of them being swimming. He credits teammate Josh Steible as a person who helped him overcome his injury. 

“Watching Josh struggle through injuries and setbacks his entire career here, watching him struggle with that and still come to practice every day with a smile on his face was just something (that) really motivates me, and it pushes me to be that person to someone else," Panning said. 

Now a junior at GVSU, Panning is majoring in sports management and minoring in business. His goal is to coach cross country and track at the collegiate level. One memory he made while running at GVSU came from one of the most important meets of his life.

“Last year, we had an agonizing loss at the national meet," he said. "We were leading with about 1,000 meters to go and blew the lead. At first it was really difficult to understand why that might happen to us, and it was easy to blame someone else. I think we did a great job of coming together as a team and using it as fuel for this coming year.” 

Now that his team is competing in nationals once again, Panning looks to take the experiences from last year into this year’s competition.

“The only thing that we can control at the national meet is what we do," he said. "In cross country, that's even more true. In basketball, you can play defense and stop other teams from scoring. In cross country, the only thing you can do is be your very best. 

"Our expectations are to just go out and be our best. Whatever the outcome is we will be happy with it.” 

Panning and the rest of the Laker cross country team will be traveling to Evansville, Indiana, Saturday, Nov. 18, to participate and compete for a title in the NCAA National Championship. 

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