Tiger with an American dream

In the middle of a day-long hike in the expansive San Gabriel Mountains last summer, Eric Kleinsasser briefly stumbled. He wasn't sure what the consequences might lead to from his unexpected mishap.

While walking on a slight incline on a dirt trail near Claremont, a rock popped out of the ground and bruised Kleinsasser's left ankle. Kleinsasser didn't feel any sharp pain initially, but his ankle eventually swelled and bruised.

Stumbling or even taking a spill on a course isn't something that's been customary for Kleinsasser, a former Crescenta Valley High standout cross-country runner now excelling at Occidental College. Yet, it happened, and concerns arose leading up to the cross-country season.

"I was very concerned," Kleinsasser said. "I knew that I would have to look at things objectively with the season around the corner.

"When I was hiking, I didn't anticipate anything like that happening, but it did. That's just the risk you take."

Kleinsasser met with the Occidental training staff, who treated him and got him prepared for his sophomore season — one that would see him go on to dominate in the conference and net All-American status in Ohio. The injury was nothing major and Kleinsasser spent time putting in extra practice miles and catching up on his training before enjoying a breakthrough campaign after suffering the injury.

"Things just started going well for me and it was a process from meet to meet in going over what I needed to do with my coaches," said Kleinsasser, who clocked 25 minutes 24.47 to capture his second straight Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Assn. championship on Oct. 31 at Prado Regional Park in Chino. "Putting in the extra miles helped me go on to win conference.

"[Occidental cross-country Coach] Rob Bartlett and I came up with a specific strategy in the conference race," continued Kleinsasser, who was named the conference's runner of the year for a second straight season. "We came in and were able to break it down mile by mile.

"I was able to pull away early between the second and third miles in the 8K race. Then I was able to estimate the distance and build the lead little by little."

Things didn't stop there for Kleinsasser, as he made the trek to Pomona College for the NCAA Division III Regional on Nov. 14. Kleinsasser finished second in 25:26.81, catapulting him to the Division III Nationals near Cleveland.

"I did what I needed to do and that was qualify for the National Meet," said Kleinsasser, a geology major and also a member of the college's track and field program. "I was happy with the way I ran in that race."

Kleinsasser's ultimate goal of achieving All-American status was achieved. Needing a top-35 finish, Kleinsasser turned in a mark of 26:08.04 to take 35th place in the 8K race at Highland Park Golf Course in Highland Hills, Ohio, on Nov. 21.

Kleinsasser's career came full circle in Ohio, his slipup and injury just a faded memory.

"It was one of my top goals to get All-American," said Kleinsasser, who finished 132nd overall in the meet in 2008 in Indiana. "It was like a zoo with all of the runners and it was a matter of me finishing between 30th and 40th place.

"When I found out I got All-American, I was excited. Rob was happy and excited for me."

While Kleinsasser said he won't forget the events that unfolded last season from California to Ohio, there's still the task of the 2010 season close at hand. The Tigers will kick off their season in the UC Irvine Invitational at 9 a.m. Sept. 11, followed by the Aztec Invitational in San Diego on Sept. 18. Occidental's first conference dual meet will be Oct. 16.

He's already begun to prepare for the upcoming season.

"Now, it's time to look to the future," said Kleinsasser, one of three Occidental captains. "It's pretty much about the mental approach and the strategies and putting the miles in.

"I want to have things fall into place. By the end of August, I'll put together a list of goals for the season."

Bartlett, who took over both of the college's cross-country programs in 2006, said Kleinsasser has continued to make strides. He said he expects Kleinsasser to build off his watershed season.

"The more he runs, the better he gets," said Bartlett, who was named the 2007 Division III West Region Men's Coach of the Year in cross-country. "His whole career, both in high school and here, have been about consistency.

"In my five years here, he's been one of the more unique and special athletes. The ultimate goal for him is to become an All-American once again. We want to see him finish higher in the nation."

Before arriving at Occidental, Kleinsasser proved to be a formidable runner at Crescenta Valley. Kleinsasser teamed with Zack Torres to help the Falcons win the Pacific League title in 2007, before advancing to the CIF-State championships.

Crescenta Valley cross-country Coach Mark Evans said Kleinsasser provided the Falcons with experience and joined the list of accomplished runners that the Falcons have had in their program's history.

"He ran well for us and he had the leadership skills that helped us out," Evans said. "Occidental was the perfect place for Eric to go because it's a great academic experience for him and they have a fine tradition in both cross-country and track and field.

"He's still got those leadership skills and he can show them how good their program is and help continue that tradition."

Kleinsasser will look to lead an 18-member Tiger team that's not expected to feature any seniors. He'll do so without having to recover from any unusual injury, too.

"It's going to be one step at a time for the team and I," Kleinsasser said. "I appreciate the way things have been going for me.

"I know that I just have to keep improving."

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