The story of Soren Knudsen sounds like the plot out of a Marvel superhero movie.
The Illinois native was a national superstar less than two years ago. His high school performances made his one of the best young talents in the country. The popularity of his YouTube channel helped Knudsen build a fan base that most college studs never experience. His commitment to run for a dynasty-in-the-making heightened the already large expectations he carried on his shoulders.
Then he disappeared to fight his inner demons.
Following the 2018 outdoor track season, it was clear that the Oregon men were approaching peak dominance. In fact, many would argue that they had reached a talent level that mirrored numerous aspects of their powerhouse group from 2013.
Despite losing Edward Cheserek and having Matthew Maton sidelined, the Ducks were still able to finish 6th at the 2017 Cross Country National Championships. During indoors, they put four men under four minutes for the mile and had four men under 3:40 for 1500 meters during outdoors. Meanwhile, Tanner Anderson and Cooper Teare were becoming the face of Oregon's long distance running. The duo began to establish themselves as national contenders, ripping off fast personal bests in the 3000, 5000, and 10,000 meters.
Simply put, life was good for the men of Eugene, Oregon. They had veterans at the top, a young supporting cast, and elite recruits on the way. What could go wrong?
Powell left. With him, he brought Mick Stanovsek and Tanner Anderson. The elite recruits? Gone. Brodey Hasty left for Northern Arizona while the Hoey brothers opted to sign professional contracts with Adidas. To add insult to injury, it would later be announced that Matthew Maton was no longer on Oregon's roster.
In the span of two months, the Ducks had their world turned upside down.
Soren Knudsen was one of the most highly sought-after recruits in the country less than two years ago. His 4:05 and 8:55 personal bests put him among the nation's young elites. When he made his commitment to Northern Arizona, it was far from shocking. The powerhouse squad seemed to be the perfect fit for Knudsen who fit the mold of a high volume mileage guy with a long-distance focus. On paper, it was a perfect match.
Then again, just because it looks good on paper doesn't mean it will always work out.
Midway through the 2018 spring semester, Knudsen opened up to the running community via his YouTube channel. He talked about his difficult transition to college and his battle with depression. Ultimately, Knudsen decided to step away from school to focus on his health and rediscover his passion for the sport.
In retrospect, the decision and announcement were admirable. It displayed great maturity and self-understanding, traits that are often still in development for someone as young as he was.
Nonetheless, the decision did spark a variety of questions. Would Knudsen ever return to collegiate competition? How long would it take him? Would he be able to maintain his fitness? We wouldn't have answers for quite some time...
The loss of a legendary coach, top-tier talents, and pivotal recruits would typically spell disaster for most teams. Of course, Oregon isn't like "most teams".
The Ducks would go on to have a respectable cross country season. They finished 15th as a team at Nationals and found themselves in a similar position in our Top 25 rankings. Still, the team lacked a spark.
Cooper Teare had strong performances, but he was unable to make up for the scoring gap left by Anderson. James West and Jackson Mestler both made notable improvements, but they lacked consistency relative to the rest of their lineup. There were plenty of promising results, but without Hasty or Maton, the Ducks didn't have the firepower to compete with Stanford, Colorado, or Washington in the PAC 12.
While they certainly didn't fall apart like some expected, the narrative that Coach Thomas is "more of a mid-distance guy" compared to Powell's long distance focus seemed to hold some merit (but let's give it time). The track season will be an interesting change of scenery as it should validate the idea that Coach Thomas can produce several elite milers (he had three All-American men in that event for Virginia Tech last year).
Still, if the cross country season proved anything, it's that the Ducks need another long distance ace to help catapult their team back into podium contention.
Enter Soren Knudsen.
That's how long we went without seeing Knudsen race. But when he finally did, it would be without any university affiliation.
The result? Encouraging.
At the 2018 Bryan Clay Invite, Knudsen threw down an impressive 14:03 for 5000 meters, proving to prospective coaches that he hadn't given up on his running aspirations. While many were distracted by record breaking performances in the 1500, observant fans made a mental note about the 12th place finisher in the 5k.
We would have to wait an entire month before we saw the former Lumberjack on the track again. However, the wait was well worth it. Eight days before his 19th birthday, Knudsen scorched the field to take home the statement win in a dominant time of 13:54.
The consensus was in. Soren Knudsen was back.
Knudsen would go on to find a new home in Eugene and the Ducks eventually realized that they needed additional help in the longer distances. It may have taken some time, but life is best when it's not rushed. Knudsen and Oregon are the perfect match.
Isn't it ironic? The Knudsen-Hasty dynamic? If there was ever a situation where the NCAA was able to trade runners like the NFL or NBA do with their players, this would be the best example. Hasty was a high school superstar who committed to Oregon, but is now at NAU. Knudsen was a high school superstar who spent one semester at NAU, but is now at Oregon.
As interesting as that storyline may be, it should not be the main takeaway from this saga. Both Knudsen and the Oregon Ducks were in vulnerable positions, but instead of sitting back and doing nothing, they opted to take action. They made adjustments, they worked with what they had, and they are now in a better position because of it. Knudsen is back with an elite program and Coach Thomas now has someone capable of being a lethal scorer in the 3000 and 5000 meters, as well as cross country.
Don't mistake Knudsen's return as the end of the story. In fact, it's just getting started.