In the fall of 1998, an accidental drive through Gatlinburg, Tennessee after attending AAU Cross Country Nationals in Knoxville, Tennessee first brought the idea to Coach Enrique “Rick” Torres about the possibility of a week-long training camp for cross country track teammates. The drive through the town and through the mountains captured his interest, but it was the drive to the top of Grotto Falls, over 3000 feet of elevation, that sealed the deal for his plan of action to return.
At the time, Torres was head coach of the Cross Country Track teams at Bishop Noll. The following summer in 1999, Torres and co. embarked on his very first Cross Country camp in the Smoky Mountains and it was an immediate success. The week-long camp was made up of challenging runs every day, and the experience granted the team a Regional Championship.
Almost 20 years later, Torres is still taking Cross Country teams to the Smoky Mountains for a weeklong summer camp. In fact, his next excursion embarked on Monday, August 13. As Athletic Director at Calumet College of St. Joseph, as well as recent Head Coach of the Men’s and Women’s Cross Country and Track and Field teams, Torres leads college athletes to the Gatlinburg mountainsides. The trip remains a successful athletic training experience, but it has evolved into something much profounder: an exercise of mind, body, and spirit. Through the rigors and diligence of running, Torres encourages the students to share their fears, goals, failings, and disappointments with each other, exploring the ways they engage in the sport and in life.
“It has been an incredible evolution from this simple sport we call Cross Country,” Torres said. “It does not matter what age you are: the levels of obstacles, fears, failures, successes, growth, disappointment, and a myriad of other values and emotions do exist; it all comes down to how we deal with each opportunity.”
Torres also encourages his students to face the transition from college to the working, social, and developmental world awaiting. Though never forced, the excursion comprises of a spiritual element that carries the teams beyond the main standard of perseverance.
“Even though we never force it on the kids, because they come from all different religious backgrounds, we always include that [spiritual] aspect, that we understand there is a higher being, that all of us believe in something and things don’t happen by accident, that everything happens for a reason and we cross paths for a reason,” Torres said. “I have a favorite quote, I always say, ‘People walk into our lives for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.’”
The quote proved especially true this year when Torres stepped down as Head Coach to both Cross Country teams, choosing to focus his energy on his Athletic Director duties (though he will still be assisting as needed.) Torres passed the Women’s team torch to his daughter and the Men’s team torch to his assistant. Both were among the very first to accompany Torres to Gatlinburg.
“How ironic is it that the people who are going to be spearheading this are people that have been with it for the longest—first as participants, then as coaches and leaders?” Torres mused.
Though the new coaches will be steering the camp and, as Torres described it, “putting their own twist on it,” the pair was adamant that Torres lead the group in sharing hours and discussion.
“I don’t know how it’s going to affect me yet,” Torres said, speaking to the bittersweet nature of the upcoming trip. “Because when you plant the seed, you see the growth, and you water it, then you’re able to sit back and watch these kids leave and step into new roles…That’s why I’m looking at how I’m going to expand this and seeing if this is something I can do on my own [in the future.] See if someday I can strike this thing on a much different level.”
In the past, Torres has invited parents and adults to accompany the students as chaperones and counselors. The emotional response of the adults was so overwhelming and positive that Torres knew he had tapped into a sort of spiritual retreat that some people simply need. Torres has toyed with the idea of directing the camp primarily for adults whenever he retires from Calumet College of Saint Joseph.
“Most people in their later ages that get into physical fitness, a lot of times something traumatic has happened for them to make a change like that in their lives,” Torres said. “What I’ve found from talking to them is that people move on with their lives, but they never really deal with the thing that brought them to that place. One guy in particular changed his whole career based on that moment. He was always afraid of making a change because he felt that he was too old, and something just happened. It was the third or fourth day of camp, and he said, ‘Rick, I got up this morning and something just hit me. I’m not a very religious guy, but I really think that some divine intervention happened here.’”
Torres himself came to understand the spiritual means of running gradually. For him, running as a student in high school began as a method of excelling at something; his skill led him to many successes in high school. Then, something personal happened in Torres’ life to motivate him to run with purpose.
“When I started to run, I only did it to be better than the next guy,” Torres said. “Then when certain things happened in my life, I started to understand, like, “Let me dedicate this race to this, let me dedicate this race to that.’ I evolved as an athlete.”
That revelation is one of the main themes of Torres’ camp. The night before the climactic run up to Grotto Falls, Torres typically sets the tone of the run by challenging the athletes to take their fears, doubts, and obstacles, and dedicate the run to someone they love, to something that has held them back, to a bad experience, or even just for the continued success of the camp.
“Everyone now had a purpose for the run, and with every step of pain involved, there was going to be a memory, a face, a vision, something that was going to keep them going until they reached the top,” Torres said, reflecting on previous trips. “One thing I’ve found out in all my years as a coach is that nothing changes. Whether you’re 10, 20, or 40, you run, and you run with a purpose.”
This time around, Torres is most looking forward to his daughter and former assistant taking the reins and growing alongside the camp. He’s also excited to see the camp continue to flourish, even as he takes a step back.
“I feel very blessed that [Calumet College of Saint Joseph] allows us to do this,” Torres said. “There are a lot of running camps that teach you things, like how to run faster or how to be stronger, but to be able to embody everything—mind, body, and spirit—that takes some planning and it takes some risks.”
The camp will be in action through Sunday, August 19. No doubt, Torres will inspire another round of high-quality athletes, but more importantly, as he explained, high-quality people.