Five flights covering more than 11,000 miles delivered Toby Gillen from his home in Australia to St. Louis in late January, leaving him less than one week to recover and prepare for his first college track meet.
He slept, ran on his own, went through testing for medical clearance and then debuted at Notre Dame for a St. Louis University track team that included one person he knew and others he had met via Zoom.
Gillen won his heats in the 3,000 and 5,000 meters. Two weeks later he won his heat in the mile at Eastern Illinois. And less than a month after arriving in the United States, he was the Atlantic 10 champion in the 5,000, runner-up in the 3,000 and named the outstanding performer at the league’s indoor championships.
“I had never raced any of these boys and didn’t know their abilities,” he said. “I was just going to go in and see what everyone does.”
That was the easy part.
Rewind from St. Louis to Dallas to Los Angeles to Sydney to Melbourne to his hometown of Cairns, and then to Christmas, and all Gillen knew was that he had a scholarship to run for the Billikens.
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What unfolded until the morning of Jan. 28, when he departed for a new life on four hours’ notice, was an exercise in persistence, the likes of which SLU coach Jon Bell hopes to see over the next four seasons.
Gillen had to arrange for various documents, including a visa, at a time when Australia was funneling all applications through one office instead of two due to COVID.
“From Christmas to the end of January, it was like a nightmare,” he said. “People were working behind the scenes. It was crazy. My visa (application) was just sitting in a box in Melbourne not getting viewed. I also got told by SLU I had to be here by Jan. 28 or defer to the fall. I wasn’t putting my life on hold another six months to come over here. So this was it, otherwise I probably wasn’t going to come.”
The effort became a temporary full-time job. It required a leap of faith by Gillen and SLU, who was only known to coaches through team member Harrison Martinenko, who is from Brisbane, long-distance conversations and his times in events.
When it became apparent the paperwork was not going to move expeditiously, Gillen took action and sought to get others involved.
He did daily interviews on a local radio show to tell his story and update his status in hope of reaching someone who could help. A local elected official heard of the problem and offered assistance.
Gillen called the U.S. embassy numerous times every day even though his calls were going to a location out of the country with little information to be gained. He sent more than 1,000 emails to groups and officials, trying to shake loose something in the system to expedite his request.
Gillen asked SLU for extra time, all the while starting the spring semester via online classes.
Early the morning of Jan. 28, the day he was supposed to be on campus, he received a call that his visa was approved. He could pick it up that day in Melbourne, a four-hour flight from Cairns. Gillen boarded a plane at noon, had a relative pick up the visa and he was on his way to St. Louis via a detour south.
Running since he was 8, Gillen developed a solid résumé at home. He won the state cross country championship in Queensland, went to the national cross country championships and competed in the world cross country trials for the Australian team.
He had no understanding of how the U.S. college athletics system operated when he arrived, undergoing a quick lesson on the structure.
“I didn’t understand how the conferences worked,” he said. “There are a few little things I’ve learned. My first meet at Notre Dame was the first time I could see how my times correlated to the 50 or 60 guys in the conference who run my events.”
By winning the A-10 in the 5,000, Gillen set a SLU school record with a time of 14:22.51. He was second in the 3,000 the next day in 8:21.16. He shared his success with Martinenko, who was third in the mile in 4:12.68.
Gillen will compete in his first outdoor meet for SLU on Friday at the Billiken Invitational and has his first cross country season to look forward to in the fall.
“I definitely want to win conference championships for outdoor and take a crack at cross country as well,” he said. “I’d like to make nationals for sure. The NCAA right now is just stacked with so many good guys. I’m just trying to get better.”