German-born Toepfer leads men’s cross-country

It has been a long and eventful journey to the Illinois men’s cross-country team for German-born Jannis Toepfer, and head coach Jake Stewart is just glad he made it.

“Jannis does so much more than just placing high for us,” Stewart said, “He’s a leader — a very mature guy with lots of real life experiences that the other guys can look to for advice.”

Toepfer, a graduate student, was born in Germany, where he lived until the age of five. At that time, he and his family moved to Japan for three years before moving to their current home in Bochum, Germany. It was on flights between Germany and Japan that a young Jannis developed an interest in airplanes, which led to his decision to go into aerospace engineering.

“Back in the day, you could go into the cockpit, and you were like, ‘This is awesome!’” Toepfer said. “So in the back of my mind I always wanted to be a pilot … but (eventually) that seemed boring to me, but I still loved planes, so a friend of mine said, ‘Why don’t you get started in this?’ So I did, and I love it.”

“I think the most impressive thing about him is that he’s an aerospace engineer and his ability to balance that academic workload with his training,” Stewart said.

Toepfer, who spent a year of high school as a transfer student at Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School in St. Louis, completed his undergraduate studies at the Delft University of Technology in Delft, Netherlands. He chose Illinois after his running coach from MICDS put him in contact with the Illinois cross-country program and liking the school after a recruiting visit.

Running is not Toepfer’s only sporting love, either. Toepfer said until he was 16, he wanted to be a basketball player. He trained more for basketball than he did for running.

It paid off, too. In high school, Toepfer played one stage below the German national team.

“I was pretty decent at basketball,” he said, “but some things just didn’t work out the way I wanted them to. Sometimes you need to make a choice.”

As far as the Illinois cross-country program is concerned, Stewart is convinced Toepfer made the right one.

“He’s important to us from an athletic perspective because you know he’s going to go out there and compete at a high level and place high for us,” Stewart said. “But he does so much more.”

Toepfer paced the Illini in their first competitive meet of the season at the Notre Dame Invitational, placing sixth overall with a time of 24 minutes, 36 seconds. The team placed 12th overall.

“Notre Dame seemed to be one of those races where everyone had a bad race, more or less,” Toepfer said, “That can’t happen, but generally, from what I’ve seen, especially compared to my teams back home, this is a very good group of runners.”

Toepfer has embraced his role as a leader on the cross country team and is pleased with the team’s progress this year.

“We’ve definitely improved a lot,” Toepfer said. “We’ve gotten much fitter and we’ve gotten closer together. We just need to put it all together in one race.”

Toepfer and the Illini will not run again until Oct. 18 and 19 at the Bradley Classic in Peoria, Ill., and the adidas Invitational at Wisconsin, respectively.

“We had a real good workout all together yesterday as a team,” Toepfer said. “I think we’ll be in good shape.”

Thomas can be reached at [email protected]