Leo Castillo '12
Leo Castillo '12 credits track for opening doors to a better life
In elementary school, Leodan (Leo) Castillo ’12 relied on his classmates to help translate his assignments. Today, he is a graduate of Willamette University.
Though he was just 5 years old at the time, Castillo clearly remembers the challenges his family faced when they moved from Mexico to Hood River, Ore.
“My siblings and I sometimes missed the bus because we didn’t know which one to get on — and we couldn’t ask because we didn’t speak English,” he says. “It wasn’t until fifth grade that I knew the language completely and was able to do things on my own.”
Now a professional runner, Castillo attributes his achievements to the confidence he gained as a high school and then collegiate athlete.
“Running opened up a lot of opportunities for me, coming from a family that didn’t know about college,” he says. “If it wasn’t for running, I probably wouldn’t have gone to college and I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Finding the Best Fit
Castillo says choosing where to attend college wasn’t easy, especially as a first-generation college student.
“Here I was — this kid with a Mexican background and no sense of how this whole recruiting thing worked — getting letters from schools all over the country about going to run for them, a lot of them from Division I schools,” Castillo says. “But the feeling I got when I visited Willamette and talked to the coaches — I just knew it was the right choice.”
Willamette had everything Castillo was looking for: a welcoming campus environment, rigorous classes and a history of developing great runners. There was one problem — how could he afford to attend a private liberal arts college?
“My parents didn't have any money saved for me to attend college, so I had to carefully consider the packages that each school presented to me,” he says. “The scholarships and financial aid at Willamette made the final cost of education comparable to the state schools — or even better.”
Not only did Willamette’s Financial Aid office offer Castillo a variety of scholarships, including the Willamette Compass Scholarship and Willamette Merit Award, the Athletics department also helped him find job opportunities on campus.
At Willamette, Castillo often juggled two or more jobs. He was a teaching assistant for the psychology department, resident assistant in Doney Hall and kitchen aide at Alpha Chi Omega sorority.
Castillo also sought off-campus job experiences, working for State Farm Insurance as a bilingual translator and performing summer research in the entomology department at Oregon State University.
As he balanced his demanding academic, athletic and work schedules, Castillo says he often turned to his professors for support.
“When I came to Willamette my freshman year, not knowing the college system, my College Colloquium professor Dave Craig guided me with what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go,” he says. “Willamette is a small school, so I knew my professors and they knew me. They were always willing to work with me.”
Leading the Pack
“My professors would help find ways to work with my traveling schedule, even when I went to nationals and had to miss a few lectures,” says Castillo, who majored in international studies.
Competing at the NCAA Division III National Championships became a regular occurrence for Castillo — as he qualified for nationals four times in cross country and in the 10k in track and field. At nationals, he placed 15th in the 10k, and his best cross country finish was 52nd overall.
Throughout his racing career at Willamette, Castillo also earned multiple Northwest Conference titles: Men’s 1500m and 5k Champion in 2009, Men’s Cross Country Champion in 2010, and Men’s Cross Country, 5k and 10k Champion in 2011.
Castillo vividly remembers his first conference meet as a freshman, where he surprised the competition by winning the 1500m and 5k.
“My coaches believed in me and they had a standard that they believed I could meet,” Castillo says. “Before the race, my coach (Matt McGuirk) told me to go out there and win it, so I just went out there and won it — which was pretty awesome and fulfilling.”
McGuirk attributes Castillo’s many successes on the track to his tenacity and his unwavering commitment to the team.
“I encourage students to make the most of their opportunities because they only have this four-year window to be a collegiate athlete,” McGuirk says. “Leo set the standard for work ethic, and others followed suit.”
Castillo says the team always found ways to keep practices fun. And despite the many pressures of college, he never saw running as a burden.
“Being on the track and cross country teams made me a happier, more well-rounded student,” he says. “If I was stressed out by homework or a project, it was really nice to go run and think about something else.”
Chasing His Dream
When he graduated from Willamette, Castillo decided he wasn’t ready to give up his passion for racing.
“Even though I knew chasing my dream was a risk, I wanted to see how far running could take me,” he says. “I packed my bags, said goodbye to my friends and family and moved to Boulder, Colorado.”
Within a few weeks of arriving in Colorado, Castillo was invited to train with coach Brad Hudson at the elite running club, Hudson Training Systems.
Today he races professionally in a variety of events — including the 5k, half marathon and competitive trail running — with the goal of improving his times and qualifying for the 2016 Olympics.
On top of his intensive training regimen, Castillo works in the compliance division for Emerson, a global manufacturing and technology company.
“Finding time to run competitively and work full-time is a lot like balancing my sport and academics at Willamette,” he says. “Racing at Willamette taught me to be persistent and goal oriented, and it gave me the confidence to compete against professional athletes.”
• Story by Katie Huber '13, politics major