In track and field, every event has its own set of challenges and its own special skill set. Sprinters deal with a slim margin of error and quick starts off a starter’s pistol. Long-distance runners face changes in pace, the claustrophobia of being stuck in a pack, and extreme fatigue. Jumpers learn to time their steps, and throwers hone their techniques to an art in addition to learning how to dodge javelins.
And then there are middle-distance runners. Darwinian in the way they weed out the faint of heart, the 800-meter and the mile—and every distance in between—require an uncommon blend of endurance and raw speed. There is a reason why for years the four-minute mile was deemed beyond the limits of human athleticism. But for fourth-year Emil Bojanov, men’s track’s quiet maverick, it’s the perfect fit.
A native of Bulgaria, Bojanov moved to Baltimore before high school and wasted no time making his mark on the track. He was a member of an All–American 4x800 relay team and enrolled at the U of C after being recruited heavily by coach Chris Hall.
Joining an emerging running program, he established himself as a fixture in the race results by the end of the season and earned All-American honors as a member of the distance medley relay squad. Showing a confidence belying his age, Bojanov impressed coaches with his willingness to take on any foe.
“One of my favorite moments came at the indoor conference meet, seeing him absolutely not afraid of the competition around him,” said Hall. “I looked and I said ‘this is a guy that’s gonna be special.’”
Any chance of a sophomore slump was dashed by his steady improvement on the cross-country course. On the track, his progress stood out even more as he took third in the 800 at the outdoor championships. The vast potential he showed in his first two campaigns was fully realized last year as he took the UAA by storm in all three seasons and capped things off with a triumphant homecoming in Sofia.
Leading his squad in both middle-distance events, he earned a clean sweep in the 800 at the indoor and outdoor championships and clinched his first trip to the NCAA championships. After advancing to the finals of the 1,500, though, things took a turn for the worse. In position for an All-American finish going into the final 100 meters, Bojanov was tripped up accidentally down the stretch and dropped out of contention, finishing in 11th place.
Returning to Bulgaria in June, he entered in the national championships as the number-two seed and pulled off the race of his life. Neck-and-neck with the top seed for most of the race, the two crossed the line together, and it took judges 10 minutes after the race to finally crown Bojanov the champion—by .01 seconds.
Taking that momentum into cross-country NCAAs, all signs pointed toward another dominant winter season with track. For the first time in his career, though, he suffered a serious injury as a result of overworking his flat feet. A partially torn tendon near his ankle kept him out of action for more than a month and took away valuable training time. The injury prevented a repeat championship in the 800 but gave him a fresh perspective on the team aspect of track and field.
“I realized how important my teammates are in running,” Bojanov said. “Their support in recovering from my injury was just as important as the doctors’ work. Not once was I critiqued for racing slowly.”
Their support—and Bojanov’s persistence—paid off this spring. Fully healed and running with his trademark confidence and aggressiveness, he returned to form emphatically, taking third in the 1,500 and posting a national qualifying standard with a split of 3:54.49. He didn’t stop there, knocking more than four seconds off that time by the end of the spring with a season-best 3:50.25.
Regardless of how he fares at NCAAs this year, Bojanov plans to return to the Balkans after graduation to defend his title and compete on the post–collegiate circuit.