Former All-American sprinter Sawyer Pehkonen decided to trade the 400-meter run for five miles during his final year at Oklahoma Christian University.
After Pehkonen, a senior from Fort Collins, CO, utilized his four years of eligibility for track and field, he made the decision to join the cross-country team for the 2018-19 season.
“Why not join a team I love and do what I really love?” Pehkonen said.
Pehkonen joined the Oklahoma Christian track and field program as a sophomore for the 2015-16 season after he transferred from a Division I program at the University of Northern Colorado.
While at Northern Colorado, Pehkonen specialized in the 400-meter race and was a part of the outdoor 4×400 meter relay team that broke a 17-year-old school record with a new time of 3:09.2.
Despite his success, Pehkonen said he did not enjoy the pressures and difficult expectations of the Division I environment at Northern Colorado, so he looked for another school.
“I attended a state school my freshman year and quickly realized it just wasn’t a good fit for me and they didn’t have what I wanted to study,” Pehkonen said. “I honestly searched Christian engineering schools with track and field on Google and Oklahoma Christian was the first one that popped up.”
After doing some research, Pehkonen said his attitude and goals fit better into the program at Oklahoma Christian.
“In Division I, they always told us academics came first, but I didn’t see that within,” Pehkonen said. “To a lot of fellow athletes, track was pretty much everything to them. When I got to Oklahoma Christian, I found people a lot more involved in their academics and that’s what I was looking for. It was just like my entire life was running and I didn’t really like that. I loved running, but I didn’t want it to identify me. I wanted other things, too.”
Oklahoma Christian competes in the NCAA Division II Great American Conference for track and field, which afforded Pehkonen the opportunity to compete at a high level while also focusing on his academics as a mechanical engineering major.
“The coaches [at Oklahoma Christian] were awesome because they were really flexible with my schedule,” Pehkonen said. “That’s one thing I didn’t get at Northern Colorado. They wouldn’t work with my schedule, but the coaches at Oklahoma Christian supported me studying engineering and doing something really difficult.”
Pehkonen also ran the 400 when he came to Oklahoma Christian. He joined senior Landon Huslig on the 4×400 relay team. According to Pehkonen, the two of them created an aura of hard work and discipline, which led to their success on the track.
“Landon—him and I were extremely similar,” Pehkonen said. “We’re just kind of grinders. We love to get out there and run ourselves into the ground and really, really work hard. We just kind of fed off of each other in training and I think that kind of trickled down. I honestly think that’s my best accomplishment—just showing up and working really hard and then having a lot of the younger kids watch me work really hard, and that’s how we got a relay to Nationals— Landon and I just creating a culture of discipline.”
In his final season running track for Oklahoma Christian last spring, Pehkonen ran the third leg of the 4×400 indoor relay at the Division II National Championship meet and placed seventh, earning All-American honors for the second time in his career.
Now this fall, Pehkonen looks to bring his athletic talents to the cross country team. On Sept. 2, Pehkonen ran his first meet in the University of Central Oklahoma Land Run. He placed 55th out of 60 with a time of 24:35.7.
After finding success running the 400, Pehkonen said it was a difficult transition from sprinting to the long distance running required for cross country.
“Respect was my first thought after my first cross-country meet on Saturday,” Pehkonen said. “It probably was athletically the most humbling experience in my college career, which for me is cool to finish out that way.
Despite the challenges accompanying the change of sport, Pehkonen’s wife, Oklahoma Christian runner Rachel Meyers, said she knows he will work hard this season no matter the outcome.
“Sawyer is one of the most hardworking people I’ve ever met and most disciplined,” Rachel Pehkonen said. “He goes to bed early every single night. He eats all the right things. He is very structured and very competitive. If he sets his mind to something, he works so hard for it. Our coach just gave him a crazy training schedule this summer and said, ‘If you make it, you make it. If you don’t, it won’t hurt you,’ and he just jumped right into it.”