By Bill Sheehan
As a high school senior, Sam Pimentel feared his competitive running career was nearing the finish line. He was the top cross-country performer at Katella High in Anaheim and the Orange League MVP, but his less-than-elite times had failed to attract the attention of college recruiters.
Katella coach Kristen Goossens, however, thought Pimentel could succeed at the next level if given a chance.
"I saw Sam as an unpolished diamond," said Goossens, a 2005 Cal State Fullerton graduate who competed in sprints and hurdles for the Titans. "When I started coaching him, he was doing 20 miles for his weekly mileage, which is something an 800-runner would do. It was just a matter of giving him the right workouts, getting him up to 50 to 60 miles a week.
"His times weren't that strong, but he had a love for running and a yearning to get better," said Goossens, who encouraged her former college coach to give Pimentel a tryout. "Kristen told me that Sam was untapped and had a lot of potential," said John Elders, the longtime Titan head coach for cross country and track and field.
Pimentel was allowed to compete with other hopefuls in a time trial. "I gave it my all to impress him," he said. And the effort paid off.
He earned a spot on the team as a freshman walk-on. Now a senior on scholarship, the 21- year-old is one of Fullerton's top distance runners and will lead the Titan's men team
Saturday at the Big West Conference Cross Country Championships.
Fullerton is hosting the event at Carbon Canyon Regional Park in Brea. The men's 8K race begins at 8:45 a.m., with the women's 6K starting at 9:30.
Fullerton has never won a Big West title in either men's or women's cross country, but Pimentel says the Titans can stay close with men's favorites Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and UC Santa Barbara. "We are definitely trying to make history. It's achievable," he said. "People shouldn't underestimate us this year. I really think we can make it big, both on the men's and women's sides."
The 21-year-old is having an outstanding season. He was the first Titan finisher at the men's four major meets, including a second place at the Mark Covert Classic at Carbon Canyon and a fourth place at the UC Santa Barbara Lagoon Open. And he ran a personal best 8K time of 24:44.40 this month at the UC Riverside Highlander Invitational.
Credit Bill Sheehan
'A really, really tough competitor'
"Sam is taking his running to a higher level," said Elders. "He is a really, really tough competitor. During his sophomore year at the Big West cross-country finals at Hawaii, he was in the top eight early in the race and finished 13th. He literally collapsed at the finish line. That's Sam – total effort."
Elders, who is in his 31st year at Fullerton, said Pimentel is a quiet leader. "Sam is a really well-liked guy. He has a real positive impact on the team. He isn't an overt, vocal leader. He has a great work ethic and leads by example."
Teammate Jorge Sanchez sees Pimentel as the de facto team captain.
"Sam is a great guy, with a smile and a positive attitude," said Sanchez, a junior from Fullerton. "He is genuinely caring. He gets to know every single one of his teammates and is always looking out for us. He pushes us and isn't afraid to correct things or make suggestions."
That's not to say Pimentel doesn't have a sense of humor. "Before a workout or race, he likes to mess around and keep things light," said Sanchez. "But when it's time to race, he gets us in the moment. If you see him race, every time he finishes, he's on the ground. You can see he has given it all he has."
The 5-foot-10 Pimentel also competes for the Titan track and field team, with personal bests of 14:44.22 in the 5,000 meters and 32:47.47 in the 10,000 meters. He redshirted his freshman year of track because of an injury, so he is eligible to compete in both the 2019 and 2020 track seasons.
He has enjoyed his relationships with Elders and assistant coach Alex Tebbe. "They are really understanding people. They let me incorporate my thoughts and strategies into practices and meets. They are respectful if I have something to say, and that works both ways."
From soccer to distance running
Pimentel was born in Mexico and moved with his family to Orange County as a 3-year-old. He grew up playing soccer but found himself enjoying the running and cardio drills during workouts more than the sport itself. "I met a friend in geometry class as a freshman, and he suggested I try out for next season's cross-country team."
He gave up soccer after his sophomore year at Katella, committing full time to cross-country and track. And he worked his way to the front of the pack both in high school and college. "At Fullerton, I've gone from being one of the last guys on the team to being one of the top guys. I'm really happy where I stand now."
His former Katella coach said Pimentel, who comes from a working-class family, has beaten the odds. "He has a good heart, and he has used running as a platform and opportunity in life," said Goossens.
Pimentel lives in Anaheim with his mother, Benita Olivares, older brother Ruben and younger sisters Ashley and Yeimi. Olivares works seven days a week, in multiple jobs, to provide for the family. So when Pimentel was awarded a full scholarship as a junior, it was a godsend to the family's financing.
"I admire her hard work and how much she has sacrificed for my siblings and me. She inspired me to never give up, and I never want to let her down," said Pimentel.
His brother describes Pimentel as an energizer bunny. "He never stops working. Literally, every day he will get up at 5 or 6 to get a workout in. He never takes any days off," Ruben said. "He's a passionate dude. Whatever he does, he's good at it."
An exposure to photography
Ruben and a friend, Alex Magaña, stirred Pimentel's interest in his other major passion -- photography and videography. "We would go out at night with a camera and begin shooting if something caught our eye, such as street photographs and portraits. And I would come home and show him," said Ruben.
"I was really intrigued by it," said Pimentel. "Since then, I have always been involved in photography and film," said Pimentel, who enjoys shooting informal portraits of friends with his Nikon D3400 digital camera.
Pimentel is a cinema and television arts major at Fullerton and eventually wants to become a film director.
"After taking my general education courses, now I'm getting to my fun classes," said Pimentel. "I'm taking a production class and we're learning directing, filming and editing. We're shooting scenes from movies but with our interpretation of them."
He hopes to land some internships and get his foot in the door in Hollywood. "I would like to get a job at the bottom and learn the whole production end," said Pimentel, whose favorite genres are rom-coms and horror thrillers. And he also would like to design his own clothing line someday.
But for now, helping the Fullerton cross-country team make history by winning its first Big West title is his No. 1 goal. Pimentel has been nursing a sore knee but says he will be able to go 100% on Saturday.
"It's really exciting for me to be finishing up but also kind of overwhelming and sad. Cross country is my favorite sport because of the team atmosphere and how close the team really is. In track, you split up and go to your main event. In cross country, you are all together and it's more of a family," said Pimentel.
"We occasionally train at Carbon Canyon, so we have an advantage. We know that we will get a home crowd. It's going to take the whole team having a great day to do it, but we are really confident."