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Cross country, track star earns honors for academics and athletics

| Judy Berthiaume

 While Josh Thorson has always been a successful athlete, it wasn’t until high school that he discovered his artistic side.

“Unlike a lot of design and art majors, I wasn't someone who always had a passion for art,” Josh says. “Or, I suppose, you could say I didn't always know I had a passion for art.”

Growing up in a family of engineers, the track and cross country star assumed that his success in math and science would take him down a similar path.

Then, during his junior year of high school, Josh was introduced to the field of industrial design. He was intrigued by the profession but soon learned that because it’s a niche job market, none of the universities he was considering attending offered academic programs in it.

Through his research, Josh learned that a degree in graphic design — a field he describes as a cousin to his dream job —  would provide a nice foundation for a master’s in industrial design.

So with hopes of earning a degree that would help him achieve his career goals while also giving him opportunities to nurture his passion for running competitively, the Plymouth, Minnesota, native began his collegiate career at the University of Minnesota.

Two years later, frustrated that he wasn’t finding the success nor the fulfillment that he was looking for at the University of Minnesota, Josh transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, a midsize university with a national reputation for its academics as well as its track and cross country programs.

“I decided that a school with a combined art and design program would push me in ways a pure design education couldn't, and that's exactly what UWEC provides,” Josh says, noting that he also decided a smaller school would be a better fit for him. “I wanted to explore more avant-garde solutions and strategies, and I felt a design program that was connected to UWEC’s art department would foster that kind of individual development.”

Athletically, he was ready for a change as well so transferring from a DI collegiate athletics program to a DIII program felt right, Josh says.

“I was incredibly unhappy after suffering through several seasons of overtraining and falling short of even the lowest of my goals,” Josh says. “I was ready for a coach like Dan Schwamberger, who adapts to each athlete and each season, and really makes you feel like he's trying to make the training work for you, not you work for the training. I saw immediate results when I transferred, and haven't looked back.”

That’s not surprising given the academic and athletic success he’s enjoyed as a Blugold.

Josh — who earned national honors for his academic achievements as a Blugold athlete — is an Honors student who will graduate in May with a bachelor of fine arts degree in graphic design.

In the fall, he will begin pursuing his master of fine arts degree in industrial design at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.

When he graduates from UW-Eau Claire this spring, he will carry with him many individual and team titles that are reserved for only the most successful student-athletes, including the title of national champion (multiple times).

This spring, Josh helped lead the Blugolds to its second-consecutive NCAA Division III National Indoor Track and Field Championship title.

Earlier this year, he helped the UW-Eau Claire men’s cross country team win the program's first national championship.

“There have been great UWEC athletes who ran hard their whole careers and ended up being short of a national championship, so to be able to win multiple titles is really humbling,” Josh says. “I think the most exciting part of it all is looking forward and knowing my records won't last very long, considering the coaching and future talent at UWEC.”

The U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association also recently named Josh the Scholar Athlete of the Year, the first time a Blugold has received the honor. Josh — who maintains a GPA of 3.87 — received the honor after finishing no worse than third at four of the five cross country meets in which he competed, including a second-place finish at an NCAA national meet.

A few of the other honors he’s earned as a Blugold athlete include:

•    The USTFCCC awarded him the Outstanding Performer of the Meet honors during the 2016 NCAA Division III National Championships.
•    The USTFCCC named him the National Athlete of the Week in October 2015.
•    Josh won the UW-Eau Claire cross country team’s Most Valuable Award for the second year in a row.
•    Josh anchored the men's cross country distance medley relay to a national title.
•    He was the outdoor 5K national champion in track in 2015.
•    He recently won the 5,000 and 3,000 meter races at the indoor track national competition.

Josh found so much joy as a Blugold athlete that it’s difficult for him to identify just a few highlights from his career at UW-Eau Claire.

“There were many special moments just being at practice every day with Dan Schwamberger and the team,” Josh says. “One of those moments was last fall at our last hard workout before nationals. Everyone just runs amazingly and it was a great workout, but as we're about to start the cooldown, it starts pouring on us. But it was warm and we were so pumped that I think it was the best workout of the season.”

While those small moments with his teammates and coach are special, so too is the success he and his fellow Blugolds had competing at the national level.

“The distance medley relay at nationals was a pretty amazing race to be a part of,” Josh says. “It was day one of the meet and we needed some momentum going into day two, so for the relay to pull off the win with everyone running great (we were only ranked eighth going in) and to finish that race and run into my teammates’ arms was a pretty amazing moment.”

At the nationals this year, the team points came down to the 3,000 meter run and the 4x400 relay; the Blugolds had to score 18 points to win the meet. All three Blugold runners in the 3,000 meter race had to finish in the top 8, and the team had to score points in the 4x400 relay for the team to win.

“All of the UWEC athletes were tired from doubling back from races the day before and so when the race went out slow, we were totally fine with it,” Josh says. “We were running closer to 10K pace for the first five laps and then the race started to pick up, and with four laps to go I took the lead.

“Little did I know, Nick Petersson and Darin Lau went right to my back so we were practically running 1-2-3. The last two laps were incredibly hectic because the race had gone out so slow and most of the field was still close together, so when I finished and turned around I had no idea what I would see. Nick and Darin finished, and Darin, a pretty quiet guy, just screams and fist pumps as he crosses the line because he knew we'd done it. I looked over to Chip Schneider, our head coach, and he was yelling the loudest because he'd done the math and realized we had just sealed the meet by getting 18 points.”

While his running career as a Blugold is coming to an end, Josh will continue with his sport next year at the Academy of Art University, where he will use his last year of athletic eligibility.

Josh’s BFA degree is giving him the academic credentials he needs to continue pursuing a career in industrial design, but his experiences as a student-athlete have helped him develop the kinds of skills that will help him be successful in graduate school and in his future career.

In addition to being a student-athlete, Josh already has completed two internships, one as a graphic designer for the UW-Eau Claire Student Senate, and a second as a graphic design intern in the university’s Integrated Marketing and Communication Office.

“At both, I learned professional practices and how to work under tight deadlines,” Josh says. “I also learned how to push myself to make something great.”

Through his competitive running, he learned many other skills that will serve him well in the future, both professionally and personally.

“Athletics takes a huge time commitment, and you have to learn how to use your time wisely, so it forces good habits,” Josh says. “It was easier to get into a routine — class, practice, study, sleep — than if I’d had a lot of free time. I also felt much more connected to the university and invested as a student-athlete.

“Also, running taught me to deal with failure and with struggle. Running is a harsh sport, and sometimes so is life. Working hard even when things aren't going well has been a good lesson to learn. Even more importantly, is learning to assess when a problem just needs more time and when you need to make a change.”

For Josh, change meant transferring to a new university midway through his college career to find a place that gave him the opportunities to excel in his studies and in his sport.

“I’m just really thankful for the team and coaching staff for adopting me into their family as a transfer,” Josh says. “From the first day of practice, I felt like a Blugold, and that’s something I'll carry with me for the rest of my life.”

Photo caption: Josh Thorson runs in the 2015 DIII Men's Cross Country Championship race.