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Cross Country’s Seal Hopes to End BU Career on High Note

Australian athlete reflects on his 10,000-mile journey

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At the start of freshman year, Alexander Seal had a question for his roommate and cross country teammate, Zach Prescott: “Hey, are we supposed to wear our thongs into the shower?”

“Absolutely not,” Prescott answered, perplexed by the mention of a thong. “I don’t know why you have those, but we don’t wear them in America.”

Seal (CAS’19), who had just arrived on campus from his native Australia, then proceeded to remove his flip-flops before stepping out of their Rich Hall room. “Oh,” said Prescott (CAS’19, Questrom’19), realizing that Seal had been talking about footwear, not underwear. He quickly amended his answer: “Wear those to the shower, 100 percent. The showers are gross.”

Coming from Wollongong, Australia, a small seaside city an hour south of Sydney, Seal never expected to find himself studying at a US university, much less with an athletic scholarship. But after a successful cross country and track and field career at Illawarra Grammar School, he started to field offers from American schools, though most were “really small and in the middle of nowhere,” he says. Given that, he didn’t think it was worth going all the way to America, especially with academics, not running, his priority.

That all changed when out of the blue senior year he received an email from the late Bruce Lehane, BU’s legendary cross country coach. The two began talking, and eventually, BU offered Seal a scholarship. “It was Boston University,” Seal says. “I wasn’t going to pass it up.”

When Lehane and Seal met after the young athlete’s 10,000-mile flight from Australia, the coach welcomed him in classic Lehane fashion, joking: “We only offered you a scholarship because a New Zealand kid bailed out at the last minute,” adding, “I hope you’re worth it.”

“I hope so too,” Seal replied.

He quickly proved worthy of Lehane’s trust: Seal finished eighth in the Patriot League cross country championships that fall, subsequently earning the Patriot League Rookie of the Year Award and a place on the All-League First Team. In the spring of freshman year, he won the Patriot League Outdoor Rookie of the Year Award in track and field and surprised even himself after recording a personal record of 3:42.25 in the 1,500-meter run at the Virginia Challenge.

Seal first took up running because he had to: his school required all students to run in an annual cross country competition. The top six students then moved on to compete against the top finishers from nearby schools, before advancing to the regionals and beyond.

“Most people don’t take it seriously, but when you get up to the top levels, we’re all taking it seriously,” Seal says. “I was good at it, so I just kept going.”

The Terrier says that the euphoria of winning a race is addictive, and that no matter how many times he struggles, those moments of success are worth it. “It’s just trying to get to those few times when you run really, really well,” he says. “Those couple of times are super-rewarding.”

Leading by example

Arriving at BU, Seal not only had to learn how to navigate running in New England winters, but also had to adjust to the competition. “I was used to being the best runner in my school because not that many people run in Australia,” he says. “Here, you’re surrounded by 15 really good runners, so it’s way better.”

The level of competition at BU drove Seal to work harder than most. He recalls standing at the BU Track & Tennis Center freshman year, waiting for his coach’s instructions. It was just him and Lehane—and Prescott, who had stopped by so Seal would have company. The rest of the team had completed the day’s workout, but it was clear Seal was doing something different: rather than having a set schedule, Lehane simply told him what was next at the end of each rep. It was a test of endurance. Prescott remembers watching his teammate complete rep after rep without an end in sight, hitting his time every time.

Now a senior and team cocaptain, Seal continues to inspire his teammates by example. With an especially talented group this year—the Terriers were ranked fifth in the USTFCCCA Northeast Region preseason poll, their highest ranking ever—players and coaches say he has an unerring sense of when to offer advice and when not to.

Seal runs in a race

As a senior who earned USTFCCCA All-Region honors last year, Seal is regarded as a leader by both teammates and coaches. Photo by Kevin Edelson

“It’s something I think a lot of college runners struggle with, especially collegiate leaders: recognizing that their peers are almost as developed as they are,” Prescott says. “He’s very good at being able to step back and say, ‘It’s time for you to figure it out yourself.’”

“We count on him to not only help lead teammates that he’s been around for two or three years, but also the freshmen coming in, because they’re going to look up to him as a leader and for how we do things,” says head coach Paul Spangler. “He’s going to be wearing a couple of hats. One: perform well athletically. Two: be a leader for our team.”

Asked about his own goals for his final season, Seal lists them in order of priority: first, help his team win the Patriot League championship and then advance to the NCAA regionals. It’s only after that that he mentions his personal goal—to finish in the top three—an accomplishment that he modestly says would be nice.

While his teammates have fueled his competitiveness, they have also been a source of community. “You’re working towards the same goal, and you have 10, 15 guys that are trying to achieve the same thing instead of doing it on your own,” Seal says. “That community is probably my favorite aspect of running.”

Although he’s long adapted to Boston, Seal, who’s studying environmental policy, plans to return home after graduation. He says he misses living near the beach and the relaxed environment, much more so than Boston’s. And he misses his family, especially his three younger brothers. One of them, James, is now a high school senior and is also a runner and a prospective student-athlete. He visited BU in April and may follow in his brother’s footsteps and enroll in a US college.

“Alex is doing something incredible for his family,” Prescott says, which is paving the way for coming to America on an athletic scholarship. His teammate believes that was one of Seal’s main reasons for coming to the United States.

During Seal’s sophomore season, Lehane revisited his joke of the year before, but this time it was with admiration. “Yeah, really lucky that kid bailed,” he told Seal, “because you’re definitely worth it.”

Seal and the Boston University cross country team will compete at the NCAA Pre-Nationals tomorrow, Saturday, October 13, at Madison, Wis., then it’s on to the Patriot League championships.

Jonathan Chang can be reached at jchang19@bu.edu; follow him on Twitter at @jonathanychang.

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