In his sophomore year of high school, Chris Luciano was frustrated: his winter swim season did not go as well as he wanted it to.
“Man, this is annoying; let me try something else so I can stay in shape,” he recalled thinking to himself.
This internal monologue would lead to Chris testing out track that spring.
“I ended up being pretty good at it.”
So, he kept it up, experimenting with cross country that next fall. The season was a success, and he found that he preferred the course to the pool. He hung up the goggles…
“...and now, here we are.”
After years of languishing at the bottom of the Ivy League, coach Steve Dolan lifted Penn cross country out of the ashes to the middle of the pack — and higher. Now a more respected presence in the Ivy League, Dolan could attract stronger prospects. Luciano, who at this point was the star of Mountain Lakes High School’s cross country team, chose to continue his career with the up and coming Quakers.
From the moment he stepped onto that track in Franklin Field, Dolan knew he had a special runner in Luciano.
“With Chris, you’ve got one of those guys who loves to run and is always willing to work hard," the sixth-year coach said. "He’s had that since he arrived."
In Luciano’s freshman season, the Red and Blue finished third place at the Ivy League Heptagonal Championships. Luciano personally finished in 64th at the meet, narrowly missing out on the top seven for the Red and Blue.
His sophomore season, Chris would experience the low point of his Penn cross country experience: a heartbreaking second place finish to Columbia at the Ivy Championships.
“I remember that walk [after the race] so vividly. Everyone had their heads down. People were saying, ‘don’t be that mad, you did great.’ We were thinking, ‘no we didn’t’,” recounted Luciano.
Even though Luciano recalled this memory with a smile on his face, the intense emotional impact that the result had on him and the team was evident. The memory also helps illustrate just how far the program has come under Dolan.
Luciano put it in perspective:
“If you had told people a few years ago, ‘You’re going to come in second by four points and be devastated,’ they would have said, ‘What? We’re not last?’”
Next season, the Quakers would turn this heartbreak into motivation, training harder and with more grit than ever before.
“Every morning when you would wake up at 5:30 to run before work or class, when it’s cold or rainy and you really don’t want to, you just remember that,” Luciano said.
Oh, how it paid off.
In Luciano’s junior year, Penn cross country won its first Ivy League Championship in 43 years. In five years, Dolan’s Quakers went from rags to riches. Over the course of those five seasons, the Red and Blue were led by some truly incredible runners: Brendan Shearn, Thomas Awad, and Conor Nickel, to name a few.
Now, it’s Chris Luciano’s turn.
The team that Luciano joined possessed a maverick attitude — they were a group of men who fundamentally reshaped the expectations of Penn men's cross country. Luciano, one of the only remaining members of the team who was exposed to that attitude, considers it essential that the flame they ignited remains lit. When asked what it means to be an important leader of the team, he replied:
“It’s about carrying on the legacy of that original group of guys who decided: ‘Enough is enough. It’s time to be great.’”
To do this, Luciano leads by example.
“He’s very much a team guy, and he wants to take those around him on that journey to be great,” Dolan said. “Those attributes are tough to find.”
At this point in the season, the leadership Luciano and others have brought to the table have reaped massive rewards: the team won both the Blue/Gold Classic and the Main Line Invitational, and placed fourth in the Paul Short Invitational from a pool of 40 schools. The biggest meets — the Ivy League Championships and the NCAA National Championships — are still to come, and, despite the heavy weight of expectations that come from snapping a 43-year long drought, Chris could not be more optimistic.
“This year was that year where it’s like, ‘Alright, what’s going to happen with this team? Are you going to stay good, or are you going to regress into what it used to be? We’re going to be awesome,” he said, beaming.
College sports can be quite unfair. Four years is all athletes have to carve out a legacy, and any number of factors can derail an individual along the way. Luciano came at a time when the tides were shifting, stayed healthy, and now is ready to cement his and this year’s team’s place in program history.
“I think — being a little selfish on this one — I want to be the leader who was able to put the Ivy League and National Championships together, that is, win Ivy Leagues and go to Nationals and do well there… The legacy of putting the two together and carrying on what Penn cross country is all about would be the most satisfying for me,” Luciano said.
It'd be hard to bet against him.