Patriot senior Ronnie Saunders crossed the finish line of the Wheeling Park Fall Classic on Aug. 25 well before any of his cross country competitors.
In fact, no one had ever finished the 5K course with a better time. Saunders set a course record with a time of 16:58.69. However, only a year earlier he was unable to run, and a serious illness had him wondering if he would compete in cross country, his favorite sport, ever again.
In January of 2017, doctors initially believed Saunders was suffering from Pneumonia. His condition was actually much worse.
Saunders was ultimately diagnosed with a vascular disease called Granulomatosis with Polyangiitis. The autoimmune disorder caused his body to attack itself, and it resulted in swelling of the joints, painful rashes and kidney complications. His condition resulted in two multi-day stays in the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Yet, he made a full recovery. Saunders even managed to compete in the last races of the 2017 Patriot cross country season. And, what he went through with his illness reshaped his approach to cross country and life.
“It opened my eyes,” Saunders said. “I won’t be able to do this all of my life. I have to take advantage of it while I can. It showed me that I need to do the best I can while I can. It changed everything.”
It seems Saunders is keeping his promise to do his best. In addition to cross country, he also is a member of the Patriot track team. Saunders is a strings student who plays cello and bass. His favorite subject is mathematics, and he maintains a 4.5 grade-point average. Saunders has established high academic standards for his senior year at Park.
“I’m going to pass all three of my Advanced Placement tests and finish my senior year at Park with all As,” he said.
Saunders has big plans for his future, and he is now considering his college options. Currently, his top choices are St. Francis University, Marietta College and West Virginia Wesleyan College. Saunders also believes he will pursue a career in engineering.
“I love math and science, so I’m looking into petroleum engineering,” he said. “Because of the oil and natural gas industry, petroleum engineering now has the highest projected growth of college majors.”
Wheeling Park High School is a special place for Saunders, and he is enjoying his senior year as a Patriot. He said he has had exceptional teachers, and he lists Pat Durkin and Sue Hvizdos as two of his favorites. Saunders also said Wheeling Park cross country and track coach Jacob Galik has been an inspiration to him.
“Park has meant so much to me, and even more now because of what I’ve been through,” he said. “My coaches and teammates care so much, and it means so much more to me now. Before, (cross country) was just any opportunity for me to run and have fun. Now, it’s my way of life.
“Coach Galik came to see me in Pittsburgh,” Saunders added. “Not all coaches would do that. He’s harder on me because he knows I can be what I want to be, especially after what I’ve been through.”
Galik described Saunders as a “truly special” student athlete. The coach said Saunders’ determination has had a positive impact on the Patriot cross country team.
“Plenty of talented kids have run at Park, but few have the determination of Ronnie, and few have faced the life circumstances he’s had to endure,” Galik said. “He’s worked so hard to be the best he can be, and that commitment has been contagious to the rest of our team. There’s truly no limit to what he can accomplish athletically, academically or in life.”
Saunders is now focused on the remainder of his cross country career at Wheeling Park High School. He has a clear vision of what he wants to accomplish as a Patriot.
“I can see myself doing great things in the OVAC, the region and the state,” Saunders said. “In the first week, it meant a lot to me to be back on the home course and set the record. I knew with my training and motivation that I would be able to win. My goal is to stay undefeated every week.”