Oct. 30, 2013
BY JESSE CLARK
UW Athletic Communications
ob Finnerty has a large scar on the left side of his abdomen. Every time he is seen without a shirt, people ask him about it. Each time someone asks, the story is the same.
On May 25th, at the 2013 NCAA West Preliminary Round in Austin, Texas, the senior lined up for the first heat of the 1500 meters, hoping to finish in the top five and automatically qualify for the NCAA outdoor championships for the second time in as many years. Unfortunately, Finnerty fell just steps from the finish line, taking 11th in the heat and 23rd overall in 3 minutes, 52.72 seconds.
"It wasn't even a dive, I just fell," Finnerty said.
While the scar serves a reminder of the frustrating way his collegiate track career ended, it also functions as a source of motivation for the future. In July, Finnerty was granted a sixth year of eligibility, allowing him to compete for Wisconsin's cross country team this season.
"It is my way of looking at it like a chip on my shoulder going forward," Finnerty said.
|"I realized last year was the first year I really ran cross country," Finnerty said. "I realized how much I missed out on the four previous years and I have a chip on my shoulder from not being part of the 2011 team."
Dealing with frustration is nothing new for the Burnsville, Minn., native. Dating back to high school, Finnerty has sustained four stress fractures, including two as a Badger. After redshirting his freshman season in 2008 and competing in just two meets in 2009 due to nagging injuries, stress fractures forced him out of competition in both 2010 and 2011. It wasn't long before his bad luck began to affect him mentally.
"It is unavoidable not to get a little crazy," he said. "It got to a point where I was so paranoid that every time I started running again, I thought I was going to get hurt."
This was not the way his collegiate career was supposed to unfold. Coming out of high school, Finnerty was a highly-touted recruit. He was a two-time Minnesota 2A state cross country champion. He was a two-time state track champion in both the 1600 meters and the 3200 meters. In June of 2008 he ran a 4:01.09 mile, the seventh-fastest high school mile in history at the time, to win the Midwest Meet of Champions.
Despite the struggles, Wisconsin head coach Mick Byrne did not want Finnerty to lose sight of the fact that cross country is a process and that hard work would eventually breed success.
"In this sport you don't always get what you want and you don't always get it when you want it," Byrne said. "But if you just stay true to your training and don't panic, if you stay true to the process and believe in the process, you will get the results at the end of the day."
Finnerty's fortunes improved in 2012, as he was able to stay healthy and contribute for Wisconsin. He was finally able to train the way he wanted to without worrying about getting hurt.
"It was all about momentum. I was getting in consistent (training) weeks for the first time since high school," he said. "Drawing on that consistency, I was finally getting into that training mindset that I hadn't had in four years. Just getting that feel back was pretty special."
|Finnerty had a breakout cross country campaign in 2012, earning a top-10 finish at the Big Ten meet and scoring for the Badgers at the Great Lakes Regional and the 2012 NCAA Championship
At the 2012 Wisconsin adidas Invitational, the senior finished second for UW but was disappointed with how he ran. According to Finnerty, it was at that point that he had to "look in the mirror and basically just man-up for the rest of the season." After the adidas meet, as he trained for the Big Ten championship, Finnerty finally felt like he was capable of running like himself again.
He was right.
Finnerty became a consistent scorer for the Badgers, finishing seventh overall and fourth for UW at the Big Ten championship in a personal-best time of 24:02 to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors. In his first career 10-kilometer race at the Great Lakes Regional, he placed 16th overall and fifth for Wisconsin.
Finnerty then ended the season on a high note, finishing 49th overall and fourth for the Badgers to help the team finish runner-up at the 2012 NCAA Championship.
Such efforts were not lost on Byrne.
"He is certainly resilient," Byrne said. "I think a lot of guys would have quit. The constant battle of trying to get back to fitness is where most people wear down. For us he was fantastic, having him back, competing in his first cross country season. It certainly helped us.
"Rob Finnerty always has the ability to perform beyond his fitness, as great champions do. He stayed true to his training, he stayed true to the fact that he believed in himself and I think that there speaks volumes for his determination."
After a successful season, there was just one problem. As a redshirt senior, he had exhausted his eligibility.
Finnerty had tasted success in his lone full cross country season. Feeling like his collegiate career ended prematurely, he was prompted to apply for a sixth year of eligibility. With the support of Byrne, Finnerty applied for graduate school and filed all the necessary sixth-year NCAA applications last May. By the end of July, the NCAA had granted his request.
"I was going to be able to come back," he said. "I realized last year was the first year I really ran cross country. I realized how much I missed out on the four previous years and I have a chip on my shoulder from not being part of the 2011 team that won (the NCAA championship)."
|"He is on a mission to do better than he did last year, whether that is at the NCAA meet or at the Big Ten (meet)," Byrne said. "I just know him, that's the way he thinks.''
This season, Finnerty looks to build off confidence gained from the 2012 campaign and an impressive summer. In June, he won the 1500 meters at the American Milers Club with a personal-best time of 3:38.34. A month later he became just the eighth runner in program history to break the four-minute mile barrier when he crossed the finish line in 3:59.42 at the Roughrider Twilight Meet. With those performances, Finnerty now ranks sixth in Wisconsin history in the 1500 and fourth in the mile.
While the sixth-year senior realizes that track and cross country each present different challenges, he believes one race can turn around a season.
"Before I ran the 3:38 at the American Milers Club, my (summer) season wasn't anything like I had hoped it would be," Finnerty said. "So it is kind of funny how one race can pretty much turn everything around. After that race I had three or four good races in a row and the mentality switch is huge. It switches big time once you start running well again.
"Then that (mentality) goes right into summer training and hopefully I can draw on that positive energy throughout this entire fall."
Finnerty's goals for this cross country season are simple. He puts the team first, and every year Wisconsin's goals are the same: to win the Big Ten championship, to win the Great Lakes Regional and to get on the podium at the NCAA meet.
"It is a team sport here, it's not about individuals," Finnerty said. "Every time you get out there, it's about the uniform you're wearing."
Personally, he hopes to claim the individual title at the conference meet and finish in the top 40 at the national championships in order to earn All-America honors.
"He is on a mission to do better than he did last year, whether that is at the NCAA meet or at the Big Ten (meet)," Byrne said. "I just know him, that's the way he thinks."
Although this year's team will be without All-Americans Mohammed Ahmed, Maverick Darling and Reed Connor, Finnerty has learned valuable advice from the trio and knows what it takes to be a leader.
"They helped me realize what you really need to do to get to the next level in cross country," he said."They told me exactly what I need to expect. One thing I remember Reed (Connor) saying is that going into nationals, all you need to do is to not try and do anything spectacular and you'll run well.
"That is a funny way to look at it, but that is what you have to do because all these guys going into NCAAs thinking they are going to change the world and get top 20 and everybody blows up. So it's about going in with a level head with these big races and that is a huge thing they taught me."
Byrne will look to Finnerty to lead a relatively inexperienced cross country team into the championship season. The sixth-year senior cherishes the challenge.
"That's why he came back," Byrne said. "He felt like he owed the team something and he is going to relish the fact that he is the leader of the team. Hopefully he is going to make these younger guys believe in themselves, keep them focused and let them understand that there is a big picture and whatever happens is going to happen with the season.
"There are some things we can control and some things we can't control. We just have to focus on the things we can control. He will bring that to this team."
In the midst of a career riddled with injuries, disappointment and achievement, Finnerty has learned to approach the sport, as he does life, one day at a time. He has embraced the lifestyle Byrne has instilled and he will help the newcomers acquire the same mentality.
"Take it like it comes," Byrne said. "When you have your good days, love them and embrace them. When you have your bad days, learn from them."