Oct. 15, 2013
Editor's note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Thursday, Aug. 8, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2013-14 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Jon Michael Brandt was destined for distance, selecting the outdoor activity was the question.
Brandt, a senior on the University of Iowa men's cross country team, loves sports and being outside. Those are common traits in the Brandt family: his father coached cross country skiing and is an avid road racer; his brother is a professional cycler.
"We were big into soccer when I was younger," Brandt said. "Later, my brother got into cycling and cross country skiing and my dad ended up becoming the high school coach. I was dragged to practice as a fifth-grader and would ski around while they were having practice."
When Brandt reached middle school in Winona, Minn., his focus was competition, not participation. The challenge wasn't there, so he contemplated a break from sports, specifically soccer. The notion of inactivity didn't fly in the Brandt household.
"My parents didn't want me coming home right after school and bugging them," Brandt said. "They told me I needed to do something to stay engaged and not sit around. I had to do an after-school activity; it could be chess club or whatever I wanted. I randomly picked cross country. The first year was successful and rewarding, and I fell in love with it."
While in junior high and high school, Brandt competed in cross country skiing and cross country for six years and track & field five years.
When it came time to select a college sport, Brandt once again had a difficult time picking between skiing and cross country. Then he wondered what level he could reach if he specialized.
Brandt took an unofficial visit to the UI on a day the men's cross country team was packing the bus for a pre-national event in Terre Haute, Ind. Head coach Larry Wieczorek still toured a potential walk-on around Iowa City.
"That stuck out to me that Wiz would take time before they left and showed me how passionate he is about the sport," Brandt said.
That settled it. Brandt would compete in cross country -- as a Hawkeye.
"You see something in some athletes you are counting on, but you know it's going to take some time," Wieczorek said. "Jon Michael Brandt is one of those athletes. Through his hard work, development and love of the sport, he has made himself into a Division I Big Ten athlete."
And team captain.
"It is a humbling experience being selected as captain to guide the team," Brandt said. "It has been a fast and fun journey. It has been filled with adversity, overcoming injuries and my personal motivation, but it has been a rewarding time."
As a freshman in cross country, Brandt ran a season-best 10K time of 32:13 at the NCAA regional. Less than a month after his personal record, he shut it down because of a stress fracture.
"That's pretty cut and dried," Brandt said. "You have X amount of time in the pool and you're out. All of a sudden I'm not competing in the spring and it takes a lot to stay motivated for a long period of time."
Brandt summoned support from Hawkeye teammates and coaches to help him keep the faith.
"We're a big family and help each other out," Brandt said.
In the fall of his sophomore cross country season, Brandt again made the conference and regional team. He made it through an entire indoor and outdoor track and field season. As a junior, Brandt was the top Hawkeye cross country finisher in 3-of-6 races. During the indoor track season, he won a 3K race at the adidas Classic in Lincoln, Neb., in a collegiate-best time of 8:30.55 and was 15th in the Big Ten in the outdoor 10K (30:54.14).
Then came an adductor strain in the groin. Brandt's patience and motivation was tested again. There were workouts in a pool and on an anti-gravity treadmill. More significant to Brandt, it was time removed from the cross country team he expected to lead.
"You try to keep everyone motivated and enthused," Brandt said.
Meanwhile, it was the team captain who was left looking once again for light at the end of a tunnel.
"It's a waiting game with injuries," Brandt said. "I'm looking forward to getting back out there."
Wieczorek knew Brandt came from a tough, endurance background. He has demonstrated commitment to the program over the past three years. Even when sidelined by injury, Wieczorek watched Brandt lead.
"I like a captain to be the type of person that preaches the message, but uses words only when necessary," Wieczorek said. "Jon Michael's example of how he has persevered through injuries, lack of success early on -- he has earned respect by his example."
Love of outdoors and recreation is also reflected in Brandt's academics: he is working toward a degree in recreational therapy. In the summer of 2011, Brandt completed an internship as sports specialist at Camp Ronald McDonald on Eagle Lake in Susanville, Calif.
"It was an awesome time," he said of working with people with physical and mental disabilities. "I want to get people involved in recreation, no matter what it is. It could be arts and crafts, it might be taking people out on a canoe. I like getting people involved in recreation in their own leisure time and giving them something rewarding to do with their spare time."
Brandt's competitive season and career is not over. "We're getting there," he says about the groin strain.
"My No. 1 goal is to get back for the cross country team," he said. "I feel I need to get in there and help them. Getting elected captain is extra responsibility for me to be in there and contributing."
As of Oct. 15 the Hawkeyes are rated 11th in the Midwest region. The addition of Brandt could make them stronger.
"We're underdog contenders to be at the NCAA cross country championship this year," Wieczorek said. "I would like to see Jon Michael lead this team to that next step: either to nationals or making a run at the national championship because he feels like he developed this team."