Zach Wills was one of the most dominant runners in Ohio high school history, having been a three-time individual state cross country champion, and has gone on to do many great things beyond the athletics realm, such as raising money for cancer research and studying to become a doctor.
Wills, who ran for Mason High School in the late 2000s, won the division one team title in 2007 and went on to become an individual champion in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
"It was a really cool experience looking back on it," Wills said. "At that point in my life I kind of viewed it as the start of my running career."
Wills' performances earned him the attention of college coaches looking to bolster the strength of their programs. He shared that on the first day recruiters could contact potential athletes he received around 35 phone calls.
Wills, however, had his mind set on trying to be a professional runner, and to further that goal he chose to go to Oklahoma State University. The program at Oklahoma State was one of the best in the nation at the time, earning their third national title during Wills' senior year.
"Oklahoma State University was frankly the best distance team in the country at that time period, they had a lot of really incredible runners and I was part of two national championship teams while I was there," Wills said.
Wills' transition to the college circuit is similar to many other top prospects, having gone from being a standout talent and the face of his team to yet another face in the crowd at the next level.
""It was definitely a bigger transition than I appreciated at the time," Wills said. "One path of being really successful is surrounding yourself with other successful people, but it was definitely a big culture shock - to just be one guy out of all the other guys who have done so many incredible things."
Old and new injuries would continue to haunt Wills at Oklahoma State with him being in pain or unable to compete at his fullest for much of his college career.
"At Oklahoma State I came in with an existing stress fracture so I wasn't able to compete for a while," Wills said. "Shortly after I started getting really bad pain in my groin. It wasn't revealed until my third year there that I had a Bilateral Adductor Longus tendon tear."
The Adductor Longus tendon is located near the groin and thigh muscles and assists in rotating the hip joint. Due to the nature of the injury, it doesn't heal well if left alone and surgery on the Adductor Longus tendon is rarely done.
The injury was ultimately too much for Wills to run on and brought an end to running career. Wills no longer considers himself a runner and is still feeling the injury to this day with him being unable to run more than five miles at a time due to the pain.
College and Beyond
Coming into college as a business major Wills quickly realized it wasn't where he belonged so he transitioned to a Nutritional Science Premed major. After graduating college Wills joined the US Air Force and applied to medical school.
Wills currently attends the Ohio University Heritage College for Osteopathic Medicine and works at Firelands Regional Medical Center in Sandusky, Ohio. He is currently applying for internal medicine residencies in both the military and public health sector.
Wills is hoping to one day be a Hematologist-Oncologist, which is a doctor that specializes in diagnosing and treating disorders and cancers that affect blood. This choice was influenced by events in Wills personal life with his father being diagnosed with colon cancer during his last year at Oklahoma State.
Wills and his father had planned to hike a 90-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail, which is one of the largest hiking trails in the U.S., to celebrate his graduation from college. The diagnosis quickly put a stop to the father-son expedition but Wills was determined to do something.
Wills decided to put his life plans on hold and took a gap year from school. Instead Wills used this time to raise both awareness and money for colon cancer research with a pledge that he would hike the entire 2,650 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Wills mission raised roughly $10,000 for colon cancer research and Wills father is now cancer free.
"Even though I don't run anymore today, running shaped the person I am today. It allowed me to travel the world and represent the United States, meet incredible people across the world, helped pay for my education, taught me how to face adversity and setbacks in life, develop extreme discipline needed to excel in medicine, and gave me the opportunity to interact with people of all walks of life," Wills said.