Juan Olea paused when asked to describe his most memorable moment as a CSUN athlete. It took some minutes, but he was finally able to find a good story.
It was October 2008 and Olea was participating in a cross country competition at Cal State Bakersfield. It was extremely hot and windy, but there was no cancelling the meet.
With the 8k run coming to an end, and Olea in second place with about 700 meters to go (a bit less than half a mile), something unexpected happened: a bug had found its way into Olea’s mouth. He couldn’t spit it out due to the dryness caused by the heat and running almost five miles.
“As I’d breathe in, it would go in my throat, but it would come back out when I’d breathe out. It was terrible,” Olea said. “I tried to breathe out really hard to get it out, but it was impossible. I was tired, had to gasp for air, the bug went down my throat, and never came back out.”
Olea was in a tight spot with two Cal State Fullerton runners on his tail. These two were running strong, looking to pass the Northridge runner.
Olea finished second with a time of 25:15, beating out CSUN’s leading runner at the time, Diego Fernandez.
The rest is history.
This story sums up the determining and competitive nature the senior Northridge athlete possesses. Participating in long distance running has shaped the persona that is Olea.
For someone who only started running competitively as a tenth grader, Olea has made quite a name for himself at CSUN.
Olea consistently scores personal best times in the 5k and 8k races, both in cross country and track and field. He has qualified for the 10k event at the Big West Track and Field Championships for three consecutive years and has been to the cross country NCAA West Regional in Oregon for the past two.
In fact, his time at this year’s regionals’ 10k was 31:59.70, which shattered his 2009 time by more than two minutes at the same event.
Personal-bests are always what motivate him throughout the long running season.
“A personal best is the best feeling a runner can have. After that, it feels like you are just riding a wave of good feelings. The day after good races, the motivation just increases,” Olea said. “The recovery run the next morning is the best, because you are thinking about what you just did and how you are in good position to do it again.”
Not having enough free time isn’t really a problem for Olea. He manages to receive good grades despite being the lead Matador long distance runner on the men’s side. He places focus on school and other responsibilities.
“My grades have improved since being on the team. The only way you can compete is if you have the grades and pass all of your classes, so it’s an added incentive,” Olea said.
During cross country season, Olea spends most of his time training, finding time anywhere he can to finish schoolwork and work his two jobs.
“I can’t afford to be staying up late and studying or doing homework because that will tax my body. So, I have to use whatever free time I have to get things done before it gets late,” Olea said.
Gustavo Hernandez, Olea’s cross country and track and field teammate, said Olea’s dedication has earned him recognition from the university.
“Juan Olea last year received the Varsity ‘N Academic Athletics Honor Roll, which is only handed to athletes that carry a cumulative GPA higher than a 3.2,” Hernandez said. “Now imagine doing that for 365 days a year, because he is a cross country runner in the fall and a track and field athlete in the spring.”
This is a great accomplishment for Olea, considering how packed his schedule is for most of the year.
Olea wakes up at 5 a.m. and starts practicing at 6 a.m. After practice, he drives back to campus, showers, eats breakfast and goes to back-to-back classes. When school is done, he eats something while driving to his job as a cross country coach at Sylmar High School. Then he goes on a second practice run, goes home, showers, eats, does homework and then goes to sleep.
On weekends, Olea is a waiter at a restaurant.
What stands out in all this is the fact that Olea walked on both the cross country and track and field teams. He was not awarded an athletic scholarship until this past summer.
Donald Strametz, head coach of both the cross country and track and field teams, allowed Olea to stay on the team as long as he improved. His potential and show of promise earned him a place on the team.
“Juan was a true walk on in every sense of the word and meaning. He had contacted other schools out of high school, and had been told that his times were not fast enough to even try out,” Strametz said. “Due to the lack of scholarships, our situation is one in which athletes who show promise are allowed to stay in the program, and hopefully develop.”
Olea likes everything that being a student athlete brings, but points out that athletics isn’t number one on his list of priorities.
“I like the friendships I’ve made with teammates. I like learning more about my potentials and my true character,” Olea said. “I like being able to learn about the sport through experience, so that hopefully I can help people like me in the future reach their goals and find happiness through opportunities just like the ones I’ve had. Lastly, I’m fortunate enough to get priority registration to make sure I get my first priority taken care of, which is my degree.”
The source of Olea’s success hasn’t been athletics, but more of a drive that characterizes his persona.
“I think if you want to do anything in life, no matter what it is, you will do whatever you have to, to get it done,” Olea said.