Tommy Warfel (senior) keeps the balance. Though his work ethic is strong, and he’s a natural leader, he also likes to keep the mood light. And he runs — constantly.
While Aaron Sugimoto (junior) said he was humble about his recent cross-country success, he does enjoy the newly ascribed title of “King Tommy” as co-captain and the number one runner on the men’s cross-country team — especially since he didn’t begin his career on the throne.
When others describe him, there’s a pattern: a glance upwards, a naturally wide smile, frequently followed by a pause and a big belly laugh. They all agree that if Warfel ever tried to attempt a bank robbery, he would leave at home what he needed most, like shoes, pants or car keys.
“Tommy? You can’t just describe Tommy,” teammate Miles Anderson (junior) said. “He’s complex. A mosaic.”
Head coach Rob Bartlett laughed long and hard when asked to pick a few adjectives.
“At the moment, confident and happy,” Bartlett said. “I think that’s why he’s running so well.”
Warfel, lanky and tall with messy brown hair, sat at ease on a sunny quad bench with an arm slung over the back and took a stab at describing himself.
“I’m a bit of a dingus, to be honest,” Warfel said. “But that’s fine, that’s okay. If people are stressing out a lot, I use it to settle them down.”
From long jogs through the Dutch countryside near his grandmother’s house in Bodagravin to participating in both the track and cross-country teams at Occidental, running dominates Warfel’s schedule. He’s reached the prime balance of athletic prowess, mental stability and confidence that is necessary to succeed in cross-country without losing any of the traits that make Warfel, Warfel.
“The journey he’s undergone since he first got here to where he is at the moment is a real testament to his character,” Bartlett said. “He started taking responsibility for his own performance and mentally just made a series of breakthroughs that allowed him to show up confident without taking [racing] too seriously.”
Warfel emulates Bartlett’s mantra that cross-country is ultimately a mental sport. His immense improvement in the past year came from mental adjustments, according to Bartlett.
Teammates saw Warfel’s physical talent early on, but it was during his sophomore season that he decided to change his approach to running.
“The main thing was to make the mental obligation to myself to be better and realize what I can do,” Warfel said.”You have to put yourself out there, and then [running with the front pack] becomes the new normal in a sense, and that’s the way you have to look at it.”
Warfel hit his stride last semester running track when he broke four minutes running the 1500 meters at the Pomona-Pitzer Invite. He has improved immensely since even last cross-country season, from 30th last year to seventh place this year at the SCIAC Multi-Dual at La Mirada Park last weekend. But such success didn’t come easy for him.
“It feels pretty scary to improve a lot,” Warfel said. “It’s a different feeling to be out there alone, it’s uncharted territory. I had to accept it, not fall when it got unfamiliar. And I try to use my success to motivate people as well. There’s the giving the speech aspect and the treating people like individuals, and then just mentally staying strong.”
As the current fastest racer on the team, Warfel takes encouragement and inspiring words seriously. Several teammates emphasized the vigor, dedication and energy that characterize his pre-race addresses. Anderson used the team’s patented “Tommy voice” to emphasize the concluding line of one speech on race day, which was Warfel’s enthusiastic reassurance that it’s completely okay to die within the first 1,000 meter — as long as they keep running post mortem.
Anderson spread his hands helplessly.
“We were like, that wasn’t even positive or inspiring or anything,” Anderson said. “He doesn’t overthink it, he just does, and as a result keeps people light-hearted.”
According to Sugimoto, Warfel has qualities beyond his enthusiastic rhetoric that make him a great leader, naming his goofy excitement for pre-race pump-ups and dedication to encouragement during practice.
“I’m probably kind of a dictator,” Warfel said regarding his leadership style.
But despite his innate goofiness, Warfel has the ability to immediately flip the switch and become a serious, competitive runner, setting the precedent for his teammates in the process.
“The young guys living in the ‘King Tommy’ era didn’t know him when he just kind of did everything wrong, just for years and years,” Anderson said. “Now he’s our number one runner and he’s throwing up after every race because you know that he’s given it 110 percent — he leads by example.”