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DAYTON – Faith is having the courage to let go and let God have control. Junior Emily Sreenan, a member of both the University of Dayton women’s cross country and track teams, believes that her faith is the most important element of who she is. Already so strong in her faith, running for the Flyers has helped her grow it even more.
“Running is one of the main ways that I grow in my faith – running with the team and that experience of being in community with other people who really care about you, it’s very comforting and creates a bond with my teammates and with God,” said Sreenan.
Her race day always starts with praying the rosary first thing in the morning, as soon as she wakes up. At the course as she is warming up, just as important as going over the race strategy with coach, is her talk with Jesus.
“Hey, Jesus, I’m about to run a race and it would be wonderful if you would run with me and give me the strength to make it through this race and help me put everything I can into it. Please guide each of my teammates to run their best race. Please help them to stay healthy. Help all my teammates who were injured to heal and to be back out here with us soon. Be with my family and our team as we’re traveling home.”
Finally, as everyone gets to the starting line, often with several of her teammates, moments before the gun goes off, Sreenan will say a Hail Mary and then “Our Lady Queen of Victory. Pray for us.”
And then as hundreds of runners bound off the line, Sreenan channels her faith to running with a determined competitiveness.
“Emily is stalwart in her faith and readily offers to lead a prayer before competitions, and team meals and she has organized many outings to Mass,” said Jason Ordway, UD director of track & field/cross country. “She really has become a true team leader and a solid rock for us.
“She is a fierce competitor that puts her faith in her beliefs and races fearlessly in His hands.”
Sreenan recently led the Flyers at UD’s 5k time trial earlier this November in 17:18. If it had been in a sanctioned event, it would be the third-best 5k time ever at UD, nearly a minute better than her previous PR (18:15.2) that she set at the 2019 Queen City Invitational.
Sreenan finished 11th at the 2019 Atlantic 10 Women’s Cross Country championships as a sophomore to earn all-conference honors.
“I really look up to Kelly (Wilker) and had really worked the whole season to make sure that I could at least see her during this race. So right when we got off the line I found Kelly’s back. It was a bumpy start and then it came together narrow and then cut into the woods right away. And so a lot of people were tripping over each other and falling.
“We were leaping over people and I was really focused on Kelly and not falling and then eventually I realized, oh, ‘I’m in the top 15 already. I just have to stay here.’ It was really a cool race, a fun atmosphere with the whole team, and definitely one of my favorite memories for sure.”
One of her other favorite races is the National Catholic Invitational at University of Notre Dame because it reminds her of the Midwest Catholic meets she raced in high school at Indian Riffle Park..
“Those were my favorite meets because everyone on the start line is praying, a Hail Mary, and it’s just like a roar of prayer from every team and it’s such a defining thing of what cross country is,” said Sreenan. “The Notre Dame meet is kind of like that because everyone’s praying on the start line and it feels intense.”
Sreenan holds the ninth-best 6k time in UD program history with her time of 21:25.2 set at the NCAA Great Lakes Regional and was a leader of the Flyer squad that won the 2019 Women’s Cross Country All-Ohio Championship.
She was one of six student-athletes, and the only sophomore, named to the 2019 Atlantic 10 Women’s Cross Country All-Academic Team, earning the honor on the merits of her conference finish and her 3.902 cumulative GPA in religious education.
Born in Lima, Ohio (just 75 miles north of Dayton), she grew up in Catholic grade schools. Her parents JJ and Mary signed her up for all kinds of sports and kept Emily and her brother John, who is now a freshman at the Air Force Academy, busy with outdoor activities as well. Sreenan played T-ball as a youngster, basketball from second to seventh grade, and volleyball from third to seventh grade, but cross country soon became her passion.
She was introduced to the sport at her grade school which holds an annual Positive Addiction Week filled with workshops on positive activities like karate, golf, and tennis. At the end of the week there is a 5k that brings all three Catholic grade schools in the Lima area together. All the younger students cheer on the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders competing in the race.
“I remember my dad trained with me all the way up until the race,” said Sreenan. “We started the race and I left him in the dust and just kind of took off. And then after I finished the race ended up being a pretty good time. And then the rest was all history from there. That race got me started, and the supportive atmosphere helped me fall in love with it.”
She attended Lima Central Catholic High School, a very small school she noted. She was the only girl on her cross country team her senior year. That can have its benefits as she was involved in a lot of activities, but it also created anxiety for her and she pushed herself to the brink.
Sreenan has always held steadfast to her Catholic upbringing, but there have been times she tried to take on everything as opposed to relying on her faith. She put an immense pressure on herself and the results were isolating.
“I was under a lot of pressure – in really tough classes, I was getting recruited, so definitely I was really anxious, all the time,” said Sreenan. “I pushed myself way too hard and my classmates expected a lot for me and that mattered a lot to me. So I felt very isolated. I felt like no one understands how much pressure I’m under right now. I didn’t really let faith help and then when I got injured that actually kind of forced me to pull back a little bit and realize like, ‘Wow, I really didn’t rely on God when I was having these hard times’.”
The pressure-packed times were met with a very joyous one. Sreenan won the OHSAA Division III Girls Cross Country individual title her junior season, which added more pressure, but it was a day and race she’ll never forget. Her coach Mike Griffo was in his 25th year of coaching at LCC and Sreenan thought he would most likely retire when she graduated. In all his 25 years, he’d never had a state champion. Griffo knew Sreenan was special and she had a chance of winning it all. He rode his bike with her all summer on her long runs to help train her for the moment. The majority of her family helped filled the grandstands.
“A big motivating factor for me was that I wanted him to have a state champion. I really believed that I could do it from the very beginning. Very first race. I was like, ‘This is it. This is the year, I’m going to get it.’
“It was the perfect race: one of those races that are pretty rare, but you just kind of feel like you’re floating the whole time,” she added. “I just remember the gun went off and I started fast – probably too fast because I always did. I remember I came around the corner to the last 600 meters and my coach was crying and screaming and jumping up and down. The atmosphere of the day and having all that support system there, and also knowing a lot of the runners, created the perfect storm for a really awesome day.”
Sreenan was injured her senior season she thinks due, in part to, pushing herself, physically, and also not taking care of herself.
“I know in high school I pushed myself way too hard for a couple years,” said Sreenan. “That season was a really big lesson and also helped me rely more on God, which ended up being part of why my senior season ended up being so fun.
“I was actually fully enjoying the sport because I was doing it with God and because I was doing it with my teammates versus just going out there trying to win everything all the time,” she added. “Running is very comparable to life and you have to push yourself in both. There are always ups and downs, and even during the downs, those painful moments make you stronger. There’s always a finish line and you’re always going to get through it.”
A lot of that pressure was lifted when she finally found her college home at Dayton. But leading up to her decision there was a different kind of pressure: both her parents went to Xavier, her mom’s identical twin and her other aunt, one of her uncles and three of her cousins all went to Xavier
She knew she wanted to teach theology and knew Dayton had a strong education program. UD was the first school she visited, although she did not meet with UD coaches at that time.
“With it being my first visit, I had nothing to compare it to, but I do remember I knew, the second I stepped on campus I said ‘I love this campus and the community feeling is so real’.”
After visits to Bowling Green and Xavier, Sreenan was able to speak with Coach Ordway who was promoted into the role as director of the men’s and women’s cross country programs, as well as the women’s track & field program. Previously, he only coached the men’s cross country team.
“The first time I talked on the phone with Coach Ordway it was the most comfortable conversation I had with any coach,” she said. “I don’t think I ever clicked with anyone like I clicked with him. He was just very supportive. Very easy to talk to and he clearly really cared about all of his athletes.”
On her official athletic visit she was hosted by Kaci Bornhorst (Minster, Ohio) and Kelly Wilker (St. Marys, Ohio) who raced in the same area as Sreenan.
“We didn’t know each other well but there was a connection,” she said. “I fell in love with the team. All the elements came together and it was UD for me.”
In her time at UD, Sreenan has already gotten involved in many aspects, in addition to running year round for the Flyer cross country and indoor & outdoor track teams. As an education major, it’s only natural she enjoys working with children.
Her freshman year she was part of College Mentors for Kids, which invites students from Ruskin elementary school to Dayton’s campus to meet for two hours a week for tutoring and also to see what opportunities could be available to them in college. She’s also helped out with Girls on the Run.
She’s heavily involved in Athletes in Action, leading the cross country small discipleship group in a Bible study. She also attends the Athletes in Action meetings for all student-athletes.
“We get to know other athletes and talk about our faith and get to know each other really well,” she said.
She’s currently volunteering with the Salvation Army Dayton Kroc Center this semester and she is also on the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.
She’s a liturgical Eucharistic minister at the UD Chapel of the Immaculate Conception where she lectures and does readings at Mass. She has sung with the choir, plus she is also signed up for altar serving. She attends Catholic Life events and is also involved in peer discipleship ministry.
“She has such a pure heart, calming persona, and an incredibly caring personality,” said Ordway. “She sets everyone at ease and is the first person many of her teammates come to if they need help.”
And she feels like the team is there for her too.
“I love our team. One of the main parts of why I do what I do and when I get up at 6 a.m. on Wednesdays to go run outside when it’s freezing out is my teammates are definitely there,” she said. “They’re there for any kind of struggles that I would face, my personal life, they’ve become like family.”
Following graduation, Sreenan wants to teach in a Catholic school in the Dayton area and coach high school cross country and track, plus get involved with campus ministry.
“I want to teach theology and then I have a second concentration in history as well. I really enjoy having discussions and deep conversations that I felt like you can definitely get in a high school setting,” said Sreenan. “I feel like I would be able to have an impact and be able to help kids have self-confidence and believe that they can achieve anything.
“I want to meet new people and build relationships with as many connections as I can. I love God. I love the community,” she added.
She has even considered religious life, especially when she was in high school. She visited the Dominican sisters, a teaching order, in Ann Arbor, Mich. following her high school graduation.
“They’re out in the community and then there is a group that are teaching in the high school and in the grade school there,” said Sreenan. “I could definitely see myself doing that, but whatever God has planned. I’m sure it will come along.”