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Avila on track for SOU

ASHLAND — A high school runner has a successful prep career and goes on to an NCAA Division I school.

The beginning of Eric Avila's story is the classic jock-made-good tale.

And then it gets interesting.

The Cliff's Notes version goes something like this: athlete from southern California flunks out at Northern Arizona University, returns home, gets a job, stops running, rekindles passion and comes to Southern Oregon University. Progress is slow. He's out of shape and confidence and has forgotten how to race.

Avila slowly grows into the runner and man he'd hoped to be. He ultimately etches his name among all-time Raider greats.

The 24-year-old Avila has won a cross country national championship and two indoor national championships. The same Avila who earlier was mowing lawns, planting apple trees, breaking up concrete with a jackhammer and serving appetizers at open houses owns the top 800-meter time in the NAIA. The same Avila who sheepishly joined a running club as a New Year's resolution after stomping out his dreams of being an Olympian is now revisiting those aspirations.

Late Friday night, Avila blew away his own SOU record and set the nation's fastest time in winning the 5,000 meters at the Stanford Invitational. His time of 13:43.05 was 20 seconds faster than his previous best and nearly six seconds faster than the next-best time at any level.

Avila's journey is better, and perhaps stranger, than fiction. Older and wiser now, he's thankful that the path had bumps and potholes.

The adversity made him hungrier, he says.

The collegiate road will come to an end this spring when Avila's eligibility runs out and he graduates.

The All-American's story starts in sunny southern California.

The highly recruited Avila won the two-mile state title at Bonita Vista High in Chula Vista, Calif., and signed with Northern Arizona University his senior year.

Things didn't go well in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Overwhelmed by the competition and lacking focus in class, he was asked to leave by the school after less than two years because his grades were so poor.

Looking back, Avila sees a 17-year-old freshman who was in over his head.

"I am very competitive, but I remember being overwhelmed by how competitive everyone was," says Avila, who was roommates with Olympian Diego Estrada. "It was a lot to handle. A year before I was winning and having fun and then I wasn't."

A 19-year-old Avila returned home.

"To put it bluntly, that sucked," he says.

Avila worked for a real estate company and lived at home for around two years. He was a lifeguard during the summer and spent many nights sleeping in his truck on the beach.

"I was a leading a life to nowhere, and that's all I wanted at the time," he says.

But that life eventually got old.

"It felt like it was taking time off my soul," he says. "Beating my body into oblivion."

By then, running had become an afterthought.

"I lost my fire," he says. "It sizzled down and went away."

Jeff and Julie Phair, the owners of The Phair Company where Avila worked, took notice and encouraged Avila to pursue something bigger. Parents Bob and Suzie provided similar encouragement.

Avila went to Southwestern College in his hometown and began running with a San Diego club twice a week.

"I would do a walk jog," he recalls with a laugh.

During the spring of that year, he and friends visited Eugene to see the USA outdoor track and field championships.

"I recognized a lot of faces as guys I raced in high school or saw at invites," he says. "These guys didn't stop racing. Some had sponsorships. And more than anything, it looked fun."

While in Oregon, Avila visited SOU. Unbeknownst to him, the Phairs had called then-Raider head coach Brent Ericksen and set up a meeting with the two. Avila knew about the successful program and was also cognizant that he'd only have one year with an NCAA school should he take that route. All those days working were on the NCAA's clock, and time was running out.

But was he ready?

"When (Ericksen) offered a scholarship on the spot, I couldn't believe it," Avila says. "Are you serious? I barely broke 17 minutes in the 5K. I was like a JV kid."

Thankful that someone saw something in him, Avila arrived in Ashland during the fall of 2011 around the same time new coach Grier Gatlin did. Avila had to be cleared academically before competing at SOU.

"We sat down and talked about expectations," recalls Gatlin, who had taken over for Ericksen when Morehead State hired him. "It had been a while for him. He needed a year or two to get back to form. We had to take a long-term approach and it's really paid off.

"It would have been very easy for him to walk in and say, 'Hey, I'm so and so,' but he didn't. He's very, very coachable."

By the fall of 2012, Avila had recorded As and Bs and was working more with Gatlin.

And he was getting faster.

The only problem was, he had forgotten how to race.

"He was very, very rusty," Gatlin recalls. "It would come and go. There is something to be said about racing on a consistent basis. He would go out too fast, go out too slow ... there was no real rhyme or reason.

"The first year, we weren't giving him a lot in terms of training. It's like learning how to swim."

The one thing Avila needed no lessons in was competitiveness.

"It could be fantasy football or whatever, he will compete," Gatlin says.

In his first appearance in the NAIA cross country championships that year, Avila placed 52nd.

Track season yielded more positive results.

"He runs a couple races and he runs fast," Gatlin says. "You could tell there was a lot of talent. The times became exponentially faster."

A year later, the junior erupted: he won the school's first national cross country championship in 35 years and the Raiders took second as a team. His time in the 8,000-meter race was 24:02.45, a full 19 seconds better than the runner-up.

He, Zach Boyd-Helm, Jonz Olander and Kevin Jorgensen won the national indoor distance medley relay in record-breaking fashion last spring. Avila was second at the NAIA outdoor finals in the 1,500.

This indoor season, the same group defended their national title in the distance medley relay in Geneva Ohio. With Avila running the 1,600 portion, they were nearly a full 10 seconds better than their competition.

Avila says his main focus this season will be on the 5,000 and the 1,500.

Avila's time of 1:50.89 in the 800 this spring was easily the nation's best and it punched his ticket to the NAIA outdoor championships, beginning May 22 at Gulf Shores, Ala.

"I had been begging coach to put me in sprint events," Avila says. "In distance races, it comes down to being a good distance runner and sprinter to win races. You have to be able to shift another gear. He finally said, 'OK, let's do it for fun'. Two weeks ago he said, 'Don't get mad at yourself if you don't run fast.' I even told him, 'You know I'm going to go for it.' I'm not a big guy, but I don't back down."

After the first lap, the leader of the race began to slow down.

Avila thought to himself, "'Well, I'm not tired, I'll go around you.'"

Says Gatlin with some disbelief: "The 800 was an afterthought. His best event is the 10,000 meters."

Meanwhile, Avila's GPA has continued to rise. He will graduate with a degree in political science later this spring and hopes to pursue a professional running career after college.

"Eric is very bright," Gatlin says. "I don't throw that compliment out often, either."

The best part of Avila's story may yet to be told.

"I think I can shock the world," he says. "The fire in my chest couldn't be burning hotter."

Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email djones@mailtribune.com. Find him online at twitter.com/danjonesmt

SOU senior Eric Avila set the nation's fastest time in the 5,000 on Friday.