SEATTLE — These days, Joey Bywater hasn’t always been leading the pack like he used to. But he’s certainly been the lead Dawg.
The senior leader, and top runner, on the University of Washington men’s cross country team has come a long way since his days at Lake Stevens High School, even if he hasn’t always beat the competition to the finish line.
One might say that UW’s team leader — both on and off the course — is still adjusting to being the chaser rather than the chased.
“In high school, I got used to running out in front,” Bywater said this week, as he prepares to lead the Huskies into Saturday’s NCAA West Regional at Jefferson Golf Course in Seattle. “It got easy for me to feel good and just build on that confidence.”
Collegiate cross country has both humbled Bywater and made him stronger. He has risen up on a UW team that needs to run its best race of the season to advance to the NCAA championships.
Bywater knows all too well that Saturday could mark the final race of his cross country career. A three-time state champion in track, as well as the state runner-up during his junior season of cross country at Lake Stevens, Bywater is unlikely to earn an individual bid to the NCAAs, and the unranked Huskies will probably need a top-four or -five finish in the team standings to advance as a team.
The fifth-year senior has entertained the thought that he might be running his final cross country race, but he has yet to get emotional about the prospect.
“The sensation hasn’t hit me yet,” he said earlier this week. “So it’ll feel just like any other meet.”
No matter what happens this weekend, Bywater can walk away knowing that he had a huge impact on the UW program. In a sport that is all about an individual quest, in which a runner spends most of his time trapped in his own head, Bywater has found a way to take the I out of team.
“He’s a fifth-year senior, and he’s the leader of our team,” said coach Greg Metcalf, whose Huskies are hosting the NCAA West regional for the first time. “This is Joey Bywater’s team. He’s had a fantastic fall, and it’s a big goal for him is to end his cross country career with a bang at the West regional this weekend.”
Bywater, who was UW’s top finisher in each of the Huskies’ four meets this season, said being a senior team leader was a role he relished.
“I guess it’s something I envisioned, a little bit,” he said. “I wanted to be the guy that had been around for awhile, that people had looked to as a valuable member of the competition.”
Competition is what first got him into the sport during Bywater’s sophomore year at Lake Stevens High. A basketball player and distance runner on the track team as a freshman, Bywater turned out for cross country in the 10th grade and had enough early success to dedicate himself to the sport. Although the sport of cross country wasn’t love at first sight, Bywater knew almost immediately that it was for him.
“Honestly, I think I just fell in love with winning and being good at it,” he said. “It was just fun to compete. It’s a big rush when you win a race. In high school, it gets addictive, and you just want to keep winning. Then you really get obsessed with it.”
Bywater won enough to earn a scholarship to UW, where he has been a key member of a team that hasn’t been to nationals since 2009. He’s the only runner on this year’s squad to have competed at that NCAA meet, and his experience has been a valuable part of UW’s season.
But moving past regionals is no guarantee for a UW men’s team that took sixth at the Pacific-12 Conference meet late last month. Bywater and the Huskies struggled the last time they were at regionals, with his 71st-place finish helping sink UW to an 11th-place finish in the team standings last fall.
Bywater said this week that his mind wasn’t in the right place the last time he ran at regionals.
“One of the hard things about being a student-athlete is that you have to put a lot of emotional energy into a lot of different things,” he said. “At that point, when I was standing on the starting line, I hadn’t thought about running in awhile. The stresses of life just kind of wore me down, and I just kind of freaked out.”
Bywater added that he’s more confident this year, and he has both maturity and a home-course advantage working for him and the Huskies.
He has spent his five years of college training for this moment, putting in 70 to 90 miles per week. He sacrificed a lot, whether that meant early bedtimes on the weekends or the countless hours of training.
It’s almost over and already Bywater can feel the void cross country will leave in his life.
“When you’re in a season, you’re always kind of excited for a change,” he said. “But during the summer, the whole time I’m excited for cross country. I’m not looking forward to it being over. But then once (the offseason) is here, it’ll be nice to chill a little bit.
“But, yeah, I’m excited for regionals. I’m looking toward the race right now.”
Bywater is just living in the moment. Because after eight years of running cross country, that might be all he has left.