Chris Rombough, a 2005 graduate of New London High School, was inducted into the Wisconsin Cross Country Coaches Hall of Fame as an athlete representative at a ceremony in Brookfield on Jan. 9.
Rombough’s high school cross country career may have ended with him leading the pack, but it began in relative anonymity. Bulldog cross country co-head coaches Terry Wetzel and Jim Ziegler had a strong group of runners, and Rombough’s talent seemed only to be slightly above average.
“We had a lot of good kids running when Chris got to high school,” said Ziegler. “Every once in a while, a group just has great synergy. That group had it, and it was marvelous to see it happening.”
As the Bulldogs grew stronger, Rombough ran at the middle of the pack.
“My focus was on hockey when I was a freshman,” said Rombough. “I ran on the JV cross country team, but my mind was on getting ready for hockey season. I didn’t train for cross country or track in the offseason because my focus was on hockey.”
Though Rombough was more focused on hockey, his cross country coaches could see that his competitive spirit might make him a great runner.
“We didn’t necessarily see anything exceptional about Chris—except for his work ethic,” said Wetzel. “Chris wanted to get better in the worst way.”
“I won a JV race or two my freshman year and then jumped up to varsity. It went well, and I thought I would be running at Sectionals, but my coaches held me back and designated me as an alternate. That was disappointing, but I stayed with it,” said Rombough.
A breakout season
By the middle of his sophomore year Rombough was still largely unheralded, though he helped the Bulldog cross country team qualify for the WIAA State Cross Country meet as a team in 2002.
“Out of nowhere, Chris took eighth place at State that year,” said Wetzel. “His time was a personal best, and it was definitely a springboard to more success. He was the highest finishing non-senior runner in the state in that race. After that, we said, ‘Wow, my goodness! We’ve really got a special athlete.'”
As Rombough’s talent began to take center stage, his demeanor remained quiet and humble as he looked to his coaches for guidance.
“Quite honestly, Chris was very easy to coach. He was cooperative, polite, and a class act when it came to his personality. We just didn’t want to push him too hard,” said Ziegler. “Sometimes you can destroy a kid’s love for running if you push too hard. We knew we had to back off and let his natural abilities cover for him.”
After his breakout sophomore season, Rombough began attending running camps during the offseason. By the time his junior year rolled around, Rombough was ready to storm the Bay Conference.
Leading the pack
“Once my junior season started, I was winning regularly. I usually beat the competition by 40 seconds or more. I’d just go out hard, take the lead, and then relax the second mile,” said Rombough.
“Chris won every meet he entered during his junior year. He was the Bay Conference Champion,” noted Wetzel.
Rombough qualified for State, though he was not projected to finish at the top of the Division 1 field.
“We asked him what his strategy was for the championship race,” recalled Ziegler. “He said he was going to sprint out, take the lead, and never give it up.
“Coach Wetzel and I told him, ‘Well, you have to have plans B and C. What if you find yourself in fourth or fifth place?'” said Ziegler. “And he said, ‘No, there’s only one scenario. There is no plan B or C. I’m going to do what I said I would do.'”
“I didn’t want to change what I was doing when I got to State,” explained Rombough. “When the championship race started, I went out hard like I always did. The other runners let me go, because they probably thought I’d come back—but I didn’t,” said Rombough. “I won the race by 15 seconds.”
Rombough’s big win proved that that his strategy was a good one.
“He wasn’t cocky about it, he just had confidence and he knew his abilities,” Ziegler said. “It’s hard to find kids with that kind of confidence, but for Chris, there was no doubt.”
When track and field season rolled around, Rombough performed well enough to earn a trip to State in the 1,600-meter run and 3,200-meter run. He took second in both championship races.
During the summer after his junior year, Rombough attended a cross country running camp in Colorado, but didn’t participate in any cross country competitions. He also participated in the Midwest Regional Track and Field Championships, but had a disappointing finish.
“The hardest part about watching Chris succeed was seeing the pressure build up after each race he won,” said his mother, Leslie Rombough. “The better he got, the more pressure was on him to continue to have high levels of success. So, the races got to be a little intense.”
A dominating senior season
When he returned for his senior year in 2004, Rombough knew other teams and runners would have him in their sights.
“He wore the proverbial target on his back as a returning State Champion,” said Wetzel as he recalled the 2004 season.
“We trained the same way as we had in the previous year,” said Ziegler. “We tried to get him to peak for the State Meet and for the National Championships.”
Rombough executed the training regimen to perfection, winning every meet he competed in during his senior year. He repeated as Bay Conference Champion.
“Everyone always wants to go faster and farther,” said Rombough. “But good coaches have to know when to pull back on the reins. I was fortunate to have coaches who helped me get better without overtraining me.”
After qualifying for the 2004 State Championship race, Rombough put together a very familiar race plan.
“I had the same strategy as I did the previous year,” said Rombough. “I thought the other runners would realize that or remember it from the previous year, but I went out fast and they let me go again.”
Though he was alone at the front of the pack, Rombough had reason for concern as he watched other runners closing the gap midway through the race.
“I looked back and I was nervous,” he recalled. “With less than a mile to go, there were guys closing in on me. Fortunately, I was able to reopen the gap over the last half-mile, and I won the race by 11 seconds.”
After earning his second straight cross country title, Rombough qualified for Nationals. He took fifth place at Nationals in San Diego, California, earning All-American honors in the process.
Rombough added track and field State titles in the 1,600-meter run and 3,200-meter run. His time in the 3,200-meter run broke a State Meet record. Rombough returned to the Midwest Regional Track and Field Championships, taking third place in the 3,200-meter run.
Despite earning so many accolades, Rombough maintained a classy, unpretentious demeanor.
“Chris was such a quiet and humble kid,” said Wetzel. “It was almost in contrast to his unbelievable toughness. He was so shy about everything, but his overall toughness as an athlete was incredible. He did not want to get beat.
“He had absolutely the same work ethic in the classroom,” continued Wetzel. “He got very good grades and managed all aspects of his life. We always taught our participants that they were student athletes, and the student part came first. Chris understood this and worked hard at everything he did, not just athletics.
“On the course, Chris was respectful, courteous and honorable—but he was also a fierce competitor,” Wetzel said. “He was always modest and humble about his accomplishments. He never overtly celebrated, and always set a good example for our younger runners.”
Going to the next level
After his senior year, Rombough competed in the Gerry Lindgren Invite, taking first place while facing national competition. He also competed in the Nike Outdoor Nationals in North Carolina, taking third place.
“Somewhere in there, Coach Ziegler and I got a call from the University of Minnesota coach and several other collegiate coaches,” said Wetzel.
“When the Minnesota coach saw Chris run, he said, ‘You haven’t developed his potential yet!'” recalled Ziegler. “I said, ‘Why would we do that here? That’s for the next level.'”
Rombough eventually chose to attend the University of Minnesota, piling up several more accolades throughout his collegiate career. He was a three-time cross country All-American, as he placed 14th in 2006, 29th in 2007, and 17th in 2008. He was also a four-time All-Midwest Region cross country runner, placing 14th in 2005, second in 2006, fourth in 2007, and second in 2008.
Rombough also was a three-time First Team All-Big Ten cross country athlete, taking first in 2006, fourth in 2007, and third in 2008. In addition to his Big Ten Championship, Rombough was named Most Valuable Player in 2006, 2007 and 2008. He served as a cross country team captain in 2007 and 2008.
Additionally, Rombough was the Big Ten track and field champion in the 10,000-meter run in 2008. He also earned First Team All-Big Ten honors in track and field once, and was named to the Second Team All-Big Ten three times. Rombough also earned All-American honors three times as an indoor track athlete.
“Running at the collegiate level was a great experience,” said Rombough. “The University of Minnesota had a great program. The administration supported cross country and track and field. They allowed us to travel to a lot of meets. They made sure the opportunities were there for us, and it was our job to make the most of it. Looking back, I’m proud of my performance in most of those races.”
“We went to many of Chris’ college meets for cross country and track,” said Leslie Rombough. “We’ve been to Oklahoma, Iowa, Indiana, Arkansas, and Oregon. We couldn’t go to all of his meets, but we got to see a lot of them, and that was really nice.”
Words of wisdom from a champion
Rombough offered some advice for student-athletes who want to succeed in academics and athletics.
“If you don’t have your academics in order, you can’t compete. You can’t take advantage of opportunities if you’re ineligible,” Rombough said. “That usually isn’t a huge problem at the high school level, but it can be more of a challenge at the collegiate level.
“For me, sports helped provide the structure I needed. In college, I was so busy with athletics that I couldn’t afford to procrastinate when it was time to do my academic work. When you have too much free time, you tend to push things off. Athletics forces you to structure your time and get everything done during its designated time slot.”
Rombough said he trained for about 1.5 hours per day in high school and about 2.5 hours per day in college.
“When it comes to athletics, many runners don’t think they’re doing enough in high school,” said Rombough. “But your coach usually has a plan that is laid out a month in advance. You have to trust the system. Don’t go against it, because it will hurt you in the long run.
“Running takes consistency—it’s not like riding a bike,” added Rombough. “Taking a week off can really set you back.”
Immortalized in the Hall of Fame
Rombough was inducted into the Wisconsin Cross Country Coaches Hall of Fame as an athlete representative on Jan. 9. He thanked his parents, coaches and teammates, crediting them as partners in his tremendously successful high school and college careers.
“I want to thank my parents for being at all of my high school meets. I think my dad only missed one meet in four years because he was out of town for work,” said Rombough. “They always supported me and paid for me to travel to camps at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and two camps in Colorado.
“Coaches Wetzel and Ziegler knew my focus wasn’t on running when I started, but they stuck with me and believed in my talent,” continued Rombough. “They also made it fun. They kept the big picture in mind and made sure I was working on a gradual progression so I wouldn’t burn out. Because of that, I had a chance to excel at the college level after completing my high school career.
“I also want to thank all of the upperclassmen who helped open my eyes to how good I could be,” concluded Rombough. “I had great teammates and training partners, and our friendship extended far beyond athletics.”
“Despite his massive success, Chris is still a very humble, shy person,” said Wetzel. “I thought he might be a bit uncomfortable having to give a speech at the induction ceremony, but he did a great job giving credit to so many people, including his family, teammates and coaches.”
“Kids like Chris come along once in a lifetime for a coach,” said Ziegler. “I feel very fortunate to have overlapped with his time as a New London High School runner. We didn’t make him great; he already had the talent. We just tried to foster a love for running. The only credit I take is that I didn’t ruin him.”
“We always told Chris just to go out there and do his best and to remember that there will always be someone who is better at it than he is,” Leslie Rombough said. “I think that helped him keep everything in perspective and have a humble, good attitude about it all.”