Former Laker greats represent GVSU at track and field championships


Zach Panning, GVSU graduate, represents the Lakers. COURTESY | AL STEBILE

Jerod Fattal, Sports Writer

Four former GVSU track and field athletes competed in the 2019 Toyota USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships on the Drake University campus in Des Moines, Iowa. Sarah Berger, Zach Panning, Darien Thornton and Rachael Walters all participated in the three-day meet, which was held July 25-28. 

The Laker alumni graduated from GVSU this past spring and the transition from collegiate to professional running hasn’t been an easy one, Walters said. 

“It was kinda hard for me to start the transition, and I had a really hard time after nationals being done with Grand Valley,” Walters said. “I put all of my heart and soul into it for five years and I didn’t realize being done would hit me as hard as it did. But it made me realize how much I loved the sport and wanted to continue with it.” 

Panning led the way for the former Lakers, finishing ninth place for the second year in a row in the 10,000m race with a time of 28:23.86 seconds. Panning also ran the 5,000m race, finishing in 15th place with a time of 14:01.55 seconds. 

“I went in hoping for a little bit more,” Panning said. “But at the end of the day, it’s been a really long season for me and to try and peak at the end of July is really difficult.” 

The race marked Panning’s first time representing Hansons-Brooks Distance Project after recently signing a professional running contract with the team a week prior. 

“I’m a bit of a homer, because I visited some places pretty far away and I just don’t think you can beat the Midwest and Michigan,” Panning said. “Brooks is very blue collar and it reminded me a lot of Grand Valley. Just like Grand Valley, they rely on a lot of hard work and grit.” 

Berger also finished 15th place, with a time of 10:19.77 seconds in her event, the 3000m steeplechase. Thornton was the only one participating on the field events side, placing 11th in the hammer throw with a throw of 67.76m. Walters rounded out the performances with a 2:08.39 second 800m race, earning 29th place. 

“Last year, I was in a heat with some really good girls and I wasn’t sure where I stood, but afterward I saw that I could compete with the best,” Walters said. “So this year, I really just wanted to compete to the best of my ability, knowing it was my last race in a GVSU uniform.” 

The competition is tougher on the professional level than it was in the collegiate ranks for all four of the former USTFCCCA All American’s, but they are looking forward to the challenge. 

“I enjoy having nothing to lose — if I were to bomb at USA’s, who cares?” Panning said. “It’s great having more guys to chase after during a race and it’s extremely encouraging for me to continue to push to get better.” 

With their college careers behind them, the goal of holding an NCAA National Championship trophy in Laker Blue has shifted to representing the red, white and blue for the United States in the Olympics. 

“My goals have shifted from NCAA nationals to USA nationals and trying to make either the world or olympic team,” Walters said. “Just being able to race at the USA’s for the past two years has shown me that I can compete at this level.” 

Following the USA Outdoor Championships, the four former Lakers will be taking a much needed break from competing before returning to the track in the fall, and although they won’t be wearing a Laker uniform anymore, they will never stop representing GVSU.