By BeLynn Hollers, BA ’21
In Louisville, Kentucky, the ground shook as she left the starting line – Anna Wilgenbusch, theology major from the Class of 2022, with 300 other female students running alongside her in the NCAA’s 2021 Division III Cross-Country Championships. Of the 40 slots available, she made 34th, making her the only student-athlete from the state of Texas to make “All-American,” finishing with her best time ever.
That race made Wilgenbusch a two-time cross-country All-American and the only two-time All-American in the university’s history. Now, Wilgenbusch is off to St. Paul, Minnesota, to get a graduate degree in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas.
Wilgenbusch is not just an accomplished runner, but also a writer and published author whose time at UD can be seen in her focus on her own body, soul and mind.
“I really did not want to choose a college based off of athletics.That just was not the college experience I was looking for,” Wilgenbusch says of her UD origin story, though she remembers that lack of resources at the Division III level brought its own challenges.
“I went through a period of questioning on whether running at the D3 level was really the experience that I wanted, but ultimately, I have found so much more in the college experience than just running,” Wilgenbusch said.
Part of such experience was turning to the student newspaper, The University News, where she worked as a contributing writer, sports editor and finally news editor. She interned for the Catholic News Agency in 2020.
“I realized that journalism is something that brings a lot of life; I just love embarking on a new story. It's like an adventure,” Wilgenbusch said.
In the student-led newspaper, her sports commentary has centered around the whole human person.
She wrote about her experience at the NCAA championships for the student newspaper in an article titled, “The Crippling Condemnation of Success.” In the article, Wilgenbusch shares how her athletic journey was plagued with success – failure frightened her the most.
She cites a quote from Father Jacques Philippe: “Modern man is condemned to success because without God there is no place to take his failure.”
“I had nowhere to go if I failed: no identity, no purpose, no worth. My only option was to succeed. I was condemned,” she writes.
Before the race began, Wilgenbusch and her coach bowed their heads in prayer. “I offer this race to you as a prayer, for the praise of your glory,” she writes.
By the time the gun shot off, Wilgenbusch chose success; stripping away all fear and the option to fail, she chose for herself.
“As I wandered around in the finish corral, gasping for air and looking for my coach, my eyes welled up with tears of joy. I was not condemned to this success. This success was freely chosen, and that made all the difference,” Wilgenbusch wrote.
Her gift for expression through words goes beyond her contributions to journalism and has flourished in Catholic children's books.
Teaming up with her illustrator mother, Wilgenbusch started a children’s book series called the “Secret Reliquary,” a series about a little boy who finds a reliquary in his home with relics that transport him back in time. So far, Wilgenbusch has self-published two books in the series: Adventures of Aquinas and Trust Falls with Therese.
Wilgenbusch says she just finished the third, with the fourth and fifth of the series in the works.
Her writing abilities and her athleticism bring a duality to her personhood: They are not separate, but integrated.
“Education includes the body and the soul and the mind, and the team has really been able to fill that need, in a way that I don't know how anything else could have really,” she explained.
Many of Wilgenbusch’s days started with 5:30 a.m. practices; that’s where she says her liberal arts education was fulfilled, running 15 miles and then unironically running to class.
Head coach for cross-country and track and field programs, Nick Schneigert, describes Wilgenbusch as a “coachable athlete.”
“One of the reasons she was very successful is because we always were able to keep an open communication. During the offseasons she always asked me what was needed to get done. During the cross-country and track seasons we worked closely and always had a strategy in place to become successful. No complaints from either of us. She just got it done,” he shared.
Wilgenbusch describes her conversations during bus rides and practices with her teammates as “profound,” and pivotal to her development as a full human person.
“It all is just integrated to me – having these conversations even with teammates, as we're running or on the buses,” Wilgenbusch said.
“In all aspects of team life it really is a place where a liberal education is really cultivated,” she added.
For her, running and faith are vehemently interconnected. The pain and suffering of a hard race brought her the opportunity to bring spiritual intention to the difficulty she faced.
“For a hard race, I would just call it to mind the agony in the garden like Christ’s premonitions of his own sufferings. I would unite myself with him in that anticipation, and then be able to offer the suffering that I experienced in the workout for a particular intention,” Wilgenbusch explained. “I can offer them as a prayer, making my breath the prayer.”
Wilgenbusch credits UD as aiding her in forming her whole person “beyond the identity of being a student-athlete.” As she mourns her identity as a student-athlete, she looks to the future with gratitude to her teammates, her coach and now her alma mater.