Cal Poly senior Swarnjit Boyal did not just start from the bottom of the Division I cross country team; he started, in his words, “six feet under.”
The Big West Conference champion for the track-and-field 10k and four-time Big West Athlete of the Week ended his last cross country season with an appearance at the NCAA Division I National Championships, a goal he had been dreaming of, where he finished in 211th place.
However, his rise to prominence was no easy task after failing to recieve any running scholarships out of high school and having a short stint with Cal Poly’s Distance Club before joining the Cal Poly cross country team.
Journey to the Division I team
Although he has been running track since sixth grade, Boyal did not think about a future in running until the latter part of his high school years.
“It didn’t really seriously hit me until junior year when I was thinking, ‘Man, I like running, I don’t think I can be done with this; it just feels so natural,’” Boyal said.
But when he did not make it to the state meet his senior year after going the year before, he started doubting if he could make it as a Division I athlete. That is when he decided it was in his best interest to go to a school for academics and see if he could make the team once he got there.
Sounds simple, right? In short: no, not at all.
Boyal emailed head coach Mark Conover at the beginning of the summer before his first quarter at Cal Poly, asking for a tryout. The problem was the Division 1 team already had a full roster. The team had been training since August and Conover gave the first tryout sports to individuals with faster times.
Conover then advised Boyal to join the club team first and see what he could do there. After spending his freshman year with the Cal Poly Distance Club and having a good cross country and track season on a team where he was featured as the number one male, Boyal was invited to come up the following year in early August to train and have a shot with the Division I team.
However, due to housing complications, Boyal was unable to come to campus early, causing him to run into the same problem: too many athletes trying out and only a few roster spots.
With his goal of making the Division I team in in greater jeopardy than ever, he decided to trust the process and continue his grind.
With a chip on his shoulder, Boyal crushed a five-by-one-mile workout the first week back from summer that caught the eye of the Distance Club’s head coach, which earned him a shot with the Division I team.
It was not long before he went from joining the team to practicing with the top group and eventually getting a jersey and competing as a Division I athlete.
The Division I life
Boyal reached his goal of joining the Division I team but he knew this was not the time to get complacent, as he could easily be cut if there was no improvement in his times.
Within a year, he doubled his mileage from running 60 miles per week to 120. He knew this kind of effort was required if he wanted to stay on the team and eventually be able to compete with the best of the best.
“I know to make up for my lack of talent I have to push the boundaries to its limit of make it or break it,” Boyal said. “I feel like, for me, I can easily run 70 to 80 miles a week and be average, but I want to be the best I can, and if that means I have to push my body to the extremes, being super dedicated, I’m willing to do that no matter what it takes.”
After hitting a 14 minute 22.51 second time in the 5k on the track his sophomore year, Boyal knew he could be one of the best. He followed that performance with a 14:02.40 the next year and eventually won the Big West Conference Championship in the 10k with a time of 31 minute 35.59 seconds the following year.
Now, after three years of being on the Division I team, Boyal’s times are in the top nine in school history for the 10k and top six for the 5k on the track. Boyal also finished in 10th place at the NCAA West Region Cross Country Championships this year, earning all-regional honors with a 10k time of 29 minutes 47.2 seconds, and a spot in the highly coveted NCAA Division 1 National Championships.
“Yeah, I’ve been overlooked, but I love the underdog story,” Boyal said. “It pushes me, because I’ve been told, ‘You can’t do this’, there’s even stuff that I do now where people are like, ‘You’re not going to be able to do that, your body is not going to last, you can’t run that many miles’, and it just fuels me.”
Today, Boyal’s goal is to make it to Nationals and acquiring All-American status in his final track season where he wants to go out with a bang. However, setting big goals is no strange thing to Boyal, who is focusing his post-graduation efforts on his job and his running career with the semi-professional Hoka Aggies in hopes of making it professionally one day.
“I feel like anything you do in life, you should always set yourself up for big goals as long as you’re willing to work hard to achieve them, because you only have one life to live,” Boyal said. “You better live it on your terms and do everything you can to achieve what you want to do.”