Vincennes, IN – Head Track & Field/Cross Country Coach Chris Gafner just concluded his 13th season at the helm for the Trailblazers. When Gafner took over in 2003, the program had had minimal success on a national level, and remained relatively unknown to athletes, even on the local level. Little did the administration at the time know, 13 years later, Chris Gafner would build one of the top-10 Junior College programs in the country, and one of the most competitive programs in the state of Indiana.
Gafner was born and raised in Lansing, Michigan. He originally wanted to be a basketball player, but as his high school career progressed, he realized he had the ability to be a good runner at the next level. After graduating from Holt High School, Gafner contacted Denny Meyers, the Head Coach at Lansing Community College about running track. Coach Meyers said that he believed Gafner would benefit from running cross country, and he agreed. Gafner competed for two years at Lansing Community College where he was a vital part of their mid-distance core.
From there, Gafner would attend Central Michigan for a brief period of time before moving on to Sienna Heights University. Coach Tim Bauer said of Gafner during his time as an athlete for him at Sienna Heights, “If I had to pick a guy to run a race, I would pick Chris every time. He was always up to the challenge, he always was up to the task, he was always consistent, and you always knew you were gonna get 100% from him. He time and time again proved to be a great role model and leader for our team, and I knew he was going to be special should he decide to continue to stay in the sport”. During his time at Sienna Heights, he met his wife Linzie, who was attending neighboring Hillsdale College. After graduating from Sienna Heights University, Gafner moved to Utah with his wife Linzie where he coached cross country, women’s basketball, track and field, and he served as a teacher. After a year in Utah, he & his wife Linzie headed back to Lansing where he served as an assistant coach for Lansing Community College.
After 2 seasons at LCC, Gafner followed his old coach, Denny Meyers, to Vincennes University. Gafner was brought on as a full-time assistant coach, a position that he served for 2 seasons before Meyers left to take the head coaching position at Rend Lake College. Gafner was promoted to interim head coach for cross country and track, and eventually, the full-time head coach. “I never really planned on staying at Vincennes for a long time, but once I was here, my family enjoyed it, and I really fell in love with the athletes, the process, and what I was building here at Vincennes.” Said Gafner.
Prior to Gafner taking over the track and field program in 2003, the team had produced 4 national champions over a 42 year span. In the 13 years that Gafner has been at the helm for VU, he has coached 28 national champions, 3 NJCAA national record holders, over 70 All-Americans, and 214 athletes that have scored points at the NJCAA National Track & Field Championships. Female athletes have made 85 changes to the all-time indoor list, and 85 to the outdoor list under Gafner. Male athletes have made 64 changes to the indoor list, and 46 to the all-time outdoor list. There are hardly any athletes left on the all-time list that were not coached by Chris Gafner. However, Coach Gafner has not only had great success on the track, but also with his athletes on a personal level, and in the classroom.
Over 90% of Gafner’s athletes that come in as freshmen walk across the stage to get their associates degree at the conclusion of their 2 years at Vincennes University. Not only that, but the incredibly long list of athletes that Gafner has coached rave about having the opportunity to compete for him, and the immense, positive impact that he had on their lives. Former athlete Nathan Dugger, now at Butler University said of Gafner, “He was one of the most patient coaches I’ve ever had. After a good race, he’d celebrate with you. After a bad race, which I had a lot of, he would help you to roll it right off your shoulder, and move forward. He would talk with you for however long it took for you to overcome your self-doubts. That time spent investing in our lives speaks to his success.”
However, it wasn’t just his athletes that enjoyed being around the positive attitude that he brings to the table; other coaches had the same sentiments. Brian Herron, Head Cross Country and Track & Field Coach at Lincoln College said, “He’s one of the best guys in the business. He goes out of his way to help his athletes, his sport, and other coaches.” Head Cross Country and Assistant Track Coach of NJCAA national power house Iowa Central Dee Brown also said of Gafner, “Chris is an upstanding coach, and an upstanding person. He always does right by his athletes, and is a tireless worker. I look forward to connecting with him each and every national meet; we have very similar values.”
Without a doubt, Head Coach Chris Gafner has left his mark on VU track and field, Vincennes University, and the hundreds of athletes that he has coached. Over the years, the tremendous success, tireless work ethic, reluctance to give up on his athletes, and his positive coaching style have made his name synonymous with the program. Chris Gafner took a solid program to a national and state-wide power in a handful of years, and most can’t imagine a Trailblazers team without him at the helm. Gafner has several All-American plaques that line the walls of his office, but that isn’t what serves as his driving force. He ended by saying, “You know, having the opportunity to coach all of these All-Americans and National Champions was great, but I get more excited about what they do after VU. I want my athletes to have success, but ultimately my number one concern is that at the end of their two years, they walk across the stage at graduation, they get their diploma, and they either continue on to get their bachelor’s degree, or they find a job in the work force that they truly love doing. Nothing makes me happier than seeing a kid who I helped grow here at Vincennes to continue to have success at their next program, or to see on social media that one of my former athletes is doing something that they really, truly enjoy. That is why I do the job. That is what keeps me going.”