UMO’s Michael Muñoz: An Inspiring Journey Rooted In Cross Country

UMO’s Michael Muñoz: An Inspiring Journey Rooted In Cross Country

From UMO Media Relations

MOUNT OLIVE –  It takes a remarkable and unique person to accomplish the great victories Michael Muñoz has in such a short time. A first-generation college graduate, an NCAA Postgraduate Award Recipient, and now a successful administrator, Muñoz is an alumnus the Trojans remember for his resilience, determination, outstanding character, and athletic excellence.

Muñoz was born in Mexico and came to the United States at the age of six. In Los Angeles, California, Muñoz struggled early on in life. He had to adapt to an entirely different lifestyle and ran into the inevitable language barrier from the start. It was athletics that helped Muñoz acclimate to the English language and communicate with the people around him.

At first, soccer was Muñoz’s sport, and it was by playing soccer that he started to make friends and speak English. Though soccer was his first love, Muñoz found a new interest and talent in cross country that took over during his high school years. In time, Muñoz decided it was cross country that he wanted to pursue and used it as a resource to continue his education at the collegiate level.

The cross country coaching staff at the University of Mount Olive (UMO) found Muñoz first and reached out to him with interest in having him join their team. Muñoz explored his options division wise before discovering that UMO was the school for him. In Muñoz’s eyes, UMO was the best all-around offer that he was presented. Seeing where the UMO cross country team was at the time, where they were headed, and the new level of competition they were striving to succeed at, Muñoz knew UMO was the school he was meant to attend.

Athletically, Muñoz was an outstanding runner and accomplished some of the most demanding challenges cross country runners can face. Muñoz is a member of the UMO Top 32 in the 8000 meters (m) and the 10000m, scoring within the top 10 in the 8000m with 24 minutes and 45 seconds and the top 20 in the 10000m with a time of 32:21. Owning a school record is a supreme accomplishment that runners strive for and are happy settling with, but Muñoz set out to accomplish one of the most formidable challenges in the running world. 

“The challenge is to race (and score) in every distance event in the conference championship meet. We named these challenges The Legend (indoor track) and The Gauntlet (outdoor track). One day, Michael raced and scored in the 1200m leg of the distance medley relay, 5000m, 800m, Mile, and 3000m. Over two days at an outdoor track, Michael raced and scored in 1500m preliminary and final, 800m preliminary and final, 10000m, 3000m steeplechase, and 5000m,” Coach Jackie Kirby said.

At UMO, Muñoz is remembered as an exemplary runner yet. This is but one aspect of his reputation that the Trojans who knew him to remember. Muñoz accomplished numerous successes as a student, including being a member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), a Student Ambassador, an Honor Student, and an Appellate Board member, to name a few. Perhaps his most memorable role was being an intern for the athletic department during his senior year. This opportunity let Muñoz work closely with Vice President for Athletics Jeff Eisen, and Associate Director of Athletics / Compliance Coordinator Dr. LaToya Greene Lindsey.

Being an intern gave Muñoz a taste of what being an athletic administrator is like, a job Muñoz considered pursuing post-graduation. Muñoz worked in compliance, advancement, and game management and was exposed to an athletic administrator’s daily tasks.

“I liked it because … at other universities like the big [division I’s] … if you’re in a department, you’re only in that department and that’s all you’re doing all day. [At UMO], I think I got an overall better exposure and experience than a lot of other interns elsewhere,” Muñoz said.

Today, Muñoz is a Central Operations Coordinator at Sports for Learning, a company that provides economic, social, emotional, and educational programs through all elementary and middle school schools. Though he is not in the Athletic Director position he initially sought in school, Muñoz strives to continue to grow professionally and seeks management positions in the future.

The experience Muñoz had and the connections he made during his internship in the athletic department at UMO opened him up to exploring this career path. Muñoz decided an advanced degree would make him a competitive candidate in this field and decided his next step after graduating UMO was to pursue a Master’s Degree in Sports Management. This decision led Muñoz to apply for the competitive National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Postgraduate Scholarship. This award is rewarded to only 126 student-athletes annually for their excellence academically and athletically during their undergraduate years.

Muñoz was awarded this prestigious scholarship his senior year. The grant opened up doors for Muñoz and allowed him the flexibility to choose where he wanted to attend graduate school. He chose the University of San Francisco and headed back to his neck of the woods out west.

Muñoz credits his experience at UMO and the community he was a part of to his success. Muñoz reflects on the people who made his time at UMO extraordinary, including the prior President and First Lady of the UMO, Dr. Philip P. Kerstetter and Mary Kerstetter. 

“…[The Kerstetters were the] second parents that we had while we were all away from home… if we needed anything or if we were struggling with any part of life or school, they were reachable, and I think that you don’t really get that at any other university,” Muñoz said.

The cross country coaching staff also made an impact on Muñoz, specifically, Coach Jackie Kirby.

“…my senior year, I remember Coach Kirby would drive next to me as I was trying to get my practice in because I couldn’t make it to physical practice at 3 p.m. … I was doing my training or my mileage at 10 or 11 p.m. and she [said] ‘you know I’ll drive with you…I’ll drive next to you,'” Muñoz said.

Having coaches who understood Muñoz’s aspirations to pursue interests he had other than cross country allowed Muñoz to branch out and expand his experiences at UMO.

 “…not any coach or any person would do that or would be flexible with that. I definitely think that [my coaches] being understanding and flexible…allowed me to be a part of other things,” Muñoz said.

The foundation Muñoz built at UMO serves as a basis for his future success, and the legacy he leaves behind is an inspiration to many, especially his family. Muñoz was the first person from his family to graduate from college. This incredible accomplishment is something he hopes will inspire his younger brother Charlie to pursue his own goals and aspirations academically and athletically.

“While I was in high school, we had a surprise baby in our family and… I am older than him by 15 years, so… the choice to finish college…was to set that up for him. To kind of show him that it was possible,” Muñoz said.

The desire to help others through his success is one aspect of the “student-athlete mentality” Muñoz has practiced all his life.

“…as an athlete… you’re looking to win…or you’re looking to beat your time… now maybe it’s not so much about beating others…but it is always about improving and…becoming more efficient in the workplace,” Muñoz said.

The student-athlete mindset Muñoz means knowing how to manage teammates, being disciplined, working well with others, being competitive with others, and yourself.

“I think that together collectively, not one single person can do that on their own. Especially when you’re out on the road running 10-12 miles on your own, that’s crazy…I don’t think I would have done that if Coach Kirby wasn’t driving with me at 10 at night,” Muñoz said.

Muñoz’s legacy is something not only his family looks up to, but what his Trojan family remembers and admires about him.

“Michael always worked very hard, and he always did everything we asked him to do. He was a great teammate and a big contributing factor to our team culture. He has created a great reputation for himself at UMO and in the NCAA,” Kirby said.

Looking back on his time at UMO, Muñoz advises current student-athletes at UMO to, “…take up all the opportunities you can to talk to all of the administrators and all of the staff members and just get to know them…don’t be afraid to become involved even if it’s minimal… talk to your coaches and don’t be afraid to tell them if you have any doubts… on what you’re doing, or if you feel like you can improve on something…”

Muñoz also encourages the next generation “…to enjoy it because… it’s a quick four years, and before you know it, you’re no longer a student-athlete… at that level anyway.”

Muñoz currently resides in Orange County, California.