For the fans who frequent the Marauders website, one name has continued to appear on the front page throughout the school year. No, it is not a point guard, an outside hitter or a quarterback. It is Sergio Raez Villanueva.
Villanueva is a rising star on the cross-country and track team at McMaster, and since arriving at McMaster from McGill following an illness, his name has been hard to miss.
The second-year biology major earned his third Pita Pit Athlete of the Week honours on Jan. 15 following a gold medal at Windsor’s Can-Am meet. There, Villanueva posted a converted time of 3:50.51 in the 1500m event, which is currently Canada’s third fastest time at that event and the fourth-fastest in McMaster history. Villanueva also ranks seventh in Canada in the men’s 3000m track events, the only Marauder to rank nationally in the top 12 in any category.
“I tend to not think much when I’m running,” Villanueva said. “I think it is partly because I do not want to get super nervous. I find my best races have been when I just went and I was like, ‘hey it’s going to be a fun race, I have no expectations, I’m going to give it my best shot’. I’m thinking right now of a 10km race that I did in 30 [minutes] flat, still my best time to this day. That race I was like I got nothing to lose, I’m just going to run and have fun. Turns out it was still one of the best races I have ever run in my life.”
His excellence in the indoor season is really no surprise to anyone as that is Villanueva’s specialty. The bigger change for Villanueva this year was adapting the uneven terrain of outdoor running.
“Sergio is a team leader, very accepting of everyone on the team. A very kind and thoughtful individual — there is no one like him.”
McMaster track team
“I’m more of a track guy since it’s just a flat surface, even ground,” Villanueva said. “I’m more of a top speed person that if it’s even ground, I can grind it out. However, when we started cross-country [coach Paula Shnurr] and I talked, and she said [I] should try focusing [my] off-day runs more on the grass. So that’s the one thing that I really changed this year. Every day I was just going to a park and [running] loops on the grass. And it seems to have done something because that was the best cross-country season I’ve had.”
The statistics back the deception up as Villanueva earned himself a Second Team All-Canadian distinction after running the 10km event in 31:43.42 at the U Sports Championships, good enough to place him eighth overall in the country. The drive to win starts at practice and is not lost on the team’s coaching staff.
“Sergio is very driven and focused but more importantly he just loves to run and race,” said Schnurr. “He is very talented and works hard in practice — at times I have to encourage him to slow down. Sergio is not afraid to lead races and make the pace tough for his competitors. He is fearless. His goal is to run faster than the last race and he is always looking to make each race his best.”
Villanueva has always said he prefers the longer distances, like 8km and 10km, with the 1500m being the shortest he likes to run. So it only makes sense he took a long road to get here. Despite his winding path to Hamilton, McMaster always managed to stay on Villanueva’s mind.
“Even before I went to McGill I was always between McMaster and McGill,” Villanueva said. “It’s funny because the summer before I went to McGill I had this placement at McMaster and I contacted Paula like, ‘Hey, I’m around so maybe I could join some practices’. To me this resonated from the very beginning — Paula was just so welcoming from the very beginning and the team was a so accepting, even though they knew that I was going to McGill at that point, they were just so accepting to have me that summer and train with them. I went to McGill and then that whole nonsense happened I recovered and contacted Paula, got back into training because I had a whole year before I started school. That year Paula got me in shape and I managed to do a track race on 10km, and I went to Poland for the World Juniors. So what I’d like to say is that it’s thanks to Paula and the team really — they were so welcoming. It was great being around those guys and we all work together and prosper together and get better together. Who I am now as a runner is thanks to them.”
The change in venue for Villanueva was never a rocky experience for the young runner.
“The only disappointment for Sergio was that he had to sit out a year before he could compete for Mac,” added Schnurr.
The fact that he could ease into the community coming from another program is a testament to the track team, and the university community at large.
“The McMaster community is great,” Villanueva said. “Not only the team but just the community in general honestly. The bumpy stuff was just like you know the paperwork for transferring. Once I got in and it was kind of smooth sailing. I don’t know what else to say to be honest. McMaster is a very welcoming community. I had no problems adapting or starting again at McMaster. So I’m very grateful.”
Villanueva grew up in Peru where he spent most of his time playing tennis. It was only in Grade 8 when his family moved to Canada that he discovered cross-country running. He began to seriously train after joining a club in high school and the rest is history. He even represented Ontario in the Canada Summer Games where he got to meet athletes from all sports.
While Villanueva has his sights set on making the U Sports Championships, he is focusing on improving in the 3000m race right now in addition to the 1500m. While he will focus on statistical improvements during practice, Villanueva also brings the intangibles to every training session.
“Sergio is a real pleasure to coach,” Schnurr said. “When he is absent from practice it is noticeable. He always has a smile on his face and is happy to be at practice. He is extremely supportive of his teammates and in general makes people feel at ease when he is around them.”
The team has only two more competitions to get their reps in before the provincial and national championship meets. When they hit the road towards Boston and then Toronto, the team will only continue to improve.
“The future’s pretty bright,” said Villanueva. “We’re really eager for the next coming years as the team’s progressing very, very well. We came fourth at U Sports as a team in cross-country recently, and we are really excited to try to get to the podium soon.”
Yet regardless of the results, the track team has proven with star athletes like Villanueva that they have a program that is welcoming to all new athletes, and they are successful because of it. In the seasons ahead, Villanueva will continue to be a mainstay on the Marauders home page.