Andrew Gardner has seen and done just about everything when it comes to the life of a high-level collegiate runner. Now, he has returned to the city where his running career began.
He's a Spokane native looking to help take Gonzaga men's cross country and track and field to new heights as the first graduate assistant coach in program history.
Gardner spent his final year of track eligibility at GU last spring and fit in seamlessly with the culture that was about more than running. So, when the running portion of Gardner's career ended, it was the perfect fit for him to start his coaching tenure under Director of Cross Country and Track and Field Pat Tyson.
“Running is great but at the end of the day if you don’t have the community and team involvement and chemistry it’s not really worth it,” Gardner said. “The guys here do a great job with athletics, academics and involvement in the community.”
The Spokane community is something with which Gardner is familiar.
In 2003, at the age of 9, he was adopted and moved from Ethiopia to Spokane. His adoptive family had 12 children — six boys, six girls —and nine of them were adopted. In his family, all the children were pushed to be constantly active, which fueled Gardner’s passion for sports.
Running was not the first sport he was drawn toward. Soccer and primarily football cultivated the majority of Gardner’s and his friends’ interest through middle school.
Gardner did not commit fully to running until he was a freshman at Mead High School in Spokane. It was in the spring of that year when his mother, who always pushed Gardner to be active and try whatever sport he could, signed him up for the Junior USA Track Championships, which were held in Washington.
The event consisted of many runners going into college, but Gardner still finished 14th in the 8,000-meter race as a high school freshman. The result gave Gardner a taste of how he could perform against elite competition and draw attention to himself in the running community.
“I heard people clapping so, I thought I must be doing well so I started picking it up,” Gardner said. “Then, in the middle of the crowd, Tyson was there, yelling, ‘run for Ethiopia.’ It was really cool to hear in the start of my running career.”
In high school, Gardner was instantly one of the team’s top runners. He was guided by senior leadership and his head coach Steve Kiesel to learn the intricacies of competitive running to make him even better.
He finished his career at Mead with arguably the most accomplished career in school history. He took home countless honors and victories, which included sweeping the 1,600-meter and 3,200-meter state titles his junior and senior year.
Though Tyson is a presence in the Spokane running community, when Gardner made his college decision, GU wasn’t a real consideration, given the state of the program at the time.
“If he was a senior in high school right now, I think that he would be going [to GU],” Kiesel said. “He’s a Spokane kid that likes being around here and now in hindsight, he learned so much from Tyson last year.”
However, at the time, life in Spokane composed much of Gardner's memory and he wanted to venture outside the city for college. He opted to run for the University of Washington, a bigger program on the other side of the state.
At UW, Gardner became one of the best steeplechasers in program history. He finished fifth at the NCAA Championships in 2018 in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
This success has come with recognition and experience that Gardner can pass on to GU’s top runners, such as sophomore James Mwaura, as well as the talent the program hopes to attract as it continues to grow.
“Andrew has been on the podium, James and others on our team want to be on the podium,” Tyson said. “It’s made it easy for me to say, ‘Andrew, take care of James. Let’s let you have a lot of input in his training, psychology and racing strategy.’”
In addition to Gardner’s experience at the top of the sport, he is also very familiar with the general challenge of being a collegiate runner. The strenuous lifestyle that an athlete takes on both physically and mentally is something he wants to help with at GU.
As someone who lived and breathed running himself, Gardner knows how important balance is for student-athletes. When nearly his entire life revolved around running and that was taken away due to injury, he struggled.
Now a coach, he hopes to ease that struggle for those at GU.
“You have to reassess if something were to happen and you can’t run anymore,” Gardner said. “You can’t just live and breathe running, that’s a bad lifestyle to be in. You have to be well-rounded and run but not just be a runner. Have it be something you do but, just be a fraction of you."
It was in his later years at UW he began to realize that running can be worth much more than just competing for yourself. He wanted to be a nurse and received a public health degree in medical anthropology from UW.
With eligibility still remaining, he looked to transfer. He was interested in pursuing a career in athletics even after his time as a collegiate athlete ended. This led him to run for GU, while he studied for a master's degree in sports and athletic administration.
“I really found that I wanted to be a coach when I was hurt and was involved with the team and cheering them on," Gardner said. "I thought it was one way I can stay competitive without literally running.”
What drew Gardner most to the program was Tyson’s ability to care for his runners as more than just athletes. Gardner knows what it's like to run for a larger program. He can contrast that experience to sell the current athletes and future recruits on what they hope to continue to cultivate at GU.
“This is a different mindset and way of doing it than other programs,” Gardner said. “I think a lot of high school athletes gravitate toward gear and stuff, but you only realize your junior or senior year that stuff does not matter. The community and relationships the team provides are more important.”
Gardner’s experience with different programs allows him to be honest with recruits about what GU’s program offers and if it's right for them. Tyson can provide a similar pitch, but Gardner has fresh experience that he will not hesitate to share.
“He’s a quick learner and the one thing I don’t have to teach him is to make phone calls to recruits,” Tyson said. “If you are going to win, you need great athletes and Andrew Gardener is not afraid to [call] great athletes and tell them how amazing it is to come to Gonzaga.”
Through his experiences, Gardner also knows how important a coach is to a runner’s success. From having a relationship with his high school coach — where Gardner called him “dad” — to how Tyson builds similar relationships, Gardner is aware of how vital connections are as he enters his coaching career.
"If you want your guy to give you all they got, they have to trust that you are giving all you got to them,” Gardner said. “Schools will throw stuff at you and think, ‘this should excite you,’ … But at the end of the day, if you have all the gear you wanted, and things aren’t all that perfect with your head coach, you’re trying to boogie out.”
Along with support from a coach, support from a whole team is something Gardner emphasizes. Based on his personal experiences, individual success in running is great, but being part of a team that works collectively toward achieving success is most important.
“Runners are weird,” Gardner said. “Everybody’s a little different, but that difference is what makes your team unique. When you have 10, 20, 30 guys all committed to the same things, it makes it harder to quit on yourself.”
The experience and ambitions for Gardner lined up perfectly with the opportunity for Tyson to hire an assistant. Those who know Gardner saw the opportunity as a perfect fit for him.
“I think he has all the tools,” Kiesel said. “He’s got the knowledge; he’s been a successful runner, both at the high school and NCAA level. Take what you learned at UW, take what you learned in high school, take what you learned at GU, and mold into your own philosophy.”
With his ultimate goal held close to the vest, for now Gardner is grateful for the opportunity he has at GU to help the program continue its ascent.
“There is just so much positivity that is coming from Tyson, that If I could shadow him for whatever amount of time frame, I would love to do that," Gardner said. “We are doing so well and getting more recruits in to where I don’t see why we shouldn’t be a top-15 program in the country when we’re done.”