by Adam Pruiett, Assistant SID
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — With the assortment of injuries having mounted to a seemingly hopeless level, ruthlessly stealing his entire indoor and outdoor track seasons his sophomore year, Taylor Sanders arrived at home one day and approached his dad overwhelmed with emotion. Believing his still young Bellarmine University athletic career might be over before it truly began, he broke down in tears.
Recalled Sanders: "I really thought about it: How many times can you keep getting up after you've been knocked down?"
Every time it turns out. His dad and "biggest fan," Bob Sanders, helped him reach that conclusion.
"I remember waking up and my dad had written something on a piece of paper," Taylor Sanders said. "The gist of the note was that nobody would fault you for throwing in the towel, but why give up when you have a platform to prove people wrong and prove to yourself you can still do it."
Despite enduring a litany of injuries over his first two years at Bellarmine, Sanders has never called it quits. In fact, the Knights' junior is fully expected to be among the BU men's cross country team's top performers this season, a reputation gained in no small part by finishing second on the team to All-American Robert Sandlin in the Knights' third-place finish in the 2013 GLVC Championships.
"He's one we expect — with a healthy season — to be a guy who in particular could make a significant difference in the outcome," said Jim Vargo, BU's director of cross country and track and field. "He rises to the occasion in the big meets. He doesn't want to go out unless he knows he's given it his best, and he knows that's still ahead of him. He's persevered through two consecutive years of injuries."
Listing those injuries is a true test of the memory bank of Sanders, who will help lead the Knights in their season debut on Saturday at the UK Bluegrass Invitational at Masterson Station Park in Lexington, Kentucky.
"I've had stress fractures, strains in my groin, calf, achilles, quad, hamstrings. I've had lower back problems," Sanders said. "I even hurt my collarbone in high school. It was in a race. I tripped, fell and busted my shoulder and collarbone. You could name anything, and I've probably had it."
On the flipside, what he also has that not many can claim is an individual state title. In November of 2011, Sanders, then a senior at North Oldham High School, was crowned at the Class 2A level in Kentucky. Whenever he faces adversity — and certainly he's dealt with more than his fair share — he recalls that experience, noting "it's the best feeling I've had so far in my life."
Bellarmine's Cody Parks competed against Sanders in that race and finished behind him in 10th before gaining a measure of revenge in the 2 mile at the state track meet. The former high school rivals are now good friends, with Parks reinforcing the comments of Sanders' father that he is fueled by the doubts of others.
"Taylor is mentally and physically tough," Parks said. "He prides himself on people telling him he won't run faster than he already has. That's why I never count him out. He's gritty. He's ready to race when it matters."
That was certainly the case at last year's GLVC Championships, when Sanders dashed to 20th place behind only Sandlin team-wise for Bellarmine. The season before he finished a distant 108th at the conference meet, meaning he vaulted from the bottom 30 to the top 30 in one year. Before injuries hindered him his freshman season, Sanders placed first on the Knights in the team's first two meets.
"It was a situation," Vargo said, "where you would see it — that 'Wow, he has an opportunity to be very special.' But he just couldn't sustain his health long enough for that to come out. He knows he's capable of that, and that it's going to happen. Having a successful summer where everything went well has reinvigorated him, and he knows he can get back to being the athlete he sees himself being."
Sanders is a training freak, but not necessarily a mileage freak. Workouts are frequently performed twice a day, but instead of two running sessions he will fill one with methods such as weight training, swimming, rowing or biking. An exercise science major, Sanders interned with CrossFit the Ville in Louisville and credited trainer Laura Barito for creating a regimen that helped him rectify the problems that arose from his extensive injury history.
"He is just one of the most conscientious athletes I've ever had in terms of stretching, strengthening, getting physical therapy — he's just been a workhorse in non-running activities to get better health-wise so he can maximize his potential," Vargo said. "The things that have got him healthy are a tribute to him being willing to do all the things that most athletes know they need to do, but just won't do. Or they do it for a while and stop doing it. He's become almost a fanatic with not only stretching but the flexibility, the strength, the cross-training."
All that preparation has led into a 2014 season that Sanders is anxiously awaiting. He's done everything possible to remain healthy and, if that continues, last year's GLVC Championships may only be a prelude for what's to come.
"I was happy but not satisfied," Sanders said of his result in the conference meet. "I want to improve on that, but I could care less about what I do as long as we make nationals as a team. I'd be more than happy."
It wasn't that long ago that happiness was eluding Sanders. Then he awoke to find a note from his dad.