Next stop, Peoria: Cunningham, Gaan ready to run state


Cooper O'Kelly, Lead Sports Editor

Viking Cross Country runners, senior Theo Cunningham and sophomore Rory Gaan, have both qualified for the 2022-23 IHSA Cross Country State Finals. Fremd’s very own will race alongside some of the best high school runners in the state this Saturday, Nov. 5. at Peoria High School.

Making it to the pinnacle of competition for high school sports and activities in Illinois is always going to be an impressive feat, however for Cunningham and Gaan their individual circumstances make the accomplishment even more special.

At surface level, Cunningham making his way back to Peoria may not be all that surprising. Qualifying for state in both cross country and track last year, it’s safe to say the senior leader is an elite athlete. This season, though, has had its hardships.

What started as a nagging pain in his hip later developed into a major injury, resulting in Cunningham being sidelined for seven weeks worth of training throughout the season. When asked about the recovery process, the runner gave a lot of credit to the mental game.

“It was really hard,” Cunningham said. “But I stayed positive, focused on getting better, and just easing back into things.”

Coming back from an injury is one thing, but being able to return to peak performance is another. After not running for nearly the entire month of September, Cunningham battled his way back up to the top. Naturally, this is something he’s proud of, even if there was a little bit of doubt along the way.

“Going into regionals I was thinking, I don’t know if this is going to happen, but I’m happy it did,” Cunningham said with a smile.

As for Gaan, what sets him apart is his age. With a breakout sophomore season, the young runner was able to show what he can do. He has joined the exclusive club of being one of only eight sophomores to individually qualify for the State Finals this year.

According to head boys cross country coach Matthew Zaluckyj, Gaan doesn’t let his youth get in the way of anything.

“He’s not afraid to compete in the front of the pack, and he’s not satisfied with any of his races,” Zaluckyj said. “He wants to be better and I know he wants to be up in the front with those big names.”

Going along with that fierce competitive spirit, Gaan has a strong sense of confidence in his abilities as a runner. He’s certainly proven he can do it at a high level, but this is only the beginning in his eyes.

“It’s really exciting, because I have two more years to go,” Gaan said. “So you know, it’s only going to get better after this year.”

The journey involved a lot of hard work and resiliency for both Cunningham and Gaan, but now all roads point towards Peoria.

“We can realistically walk away with two all-state runners with these guys,” Zaluckyj said. “And if we don’t, I know they put in a great effort to do that.”