Family means everything to Cam Ponder. A fraternal twin, the Furman star’s family has been close-knit his whole life, with his dad taking pictures of him and his sister every step along the way.
“Literally since my twin sister and I were born, he just got into photography. He said, ‘I'm going to capture everything.’ On his website he has a family album and he has an album for every year of our lives, like Cam and Carly best of 2000, 2001, 2002, all the way. Until 2018 when we graduated and went to school.”
Thus, when it came time for the former Mount Tabor standout to pick where to attend college in 2017, that sense of family drove his decision-making process. Pursued by a who’s who of top distance programs–Northern Arizona University, Stanford University, and Ole Miss were among his myriad suitors–Ponder could have gone anywhere in the country.
Yet he opted for Furman University, a program he describes as a “David vs. Goliath.” Even though it produced top distance talents, with current professional runners Aaron Templeton (Tinman Elite) and Frank Lara (Roots Running) on the team when Ponder committed, it lacked the clout of the aforementioned universities.
Why did Ponder choose Furman? The answer’s simple: family.
“It’s a very small team and that just creates a very tight knit group. We do everything together… It just feels like a family, you know we all have really good connections with one another and we get along great,” explains Ponder. “And just the coaches, our women's coach is married to our men's coach like it's just one great big family, and we all get along great and really bring each other up when we're down and keep each other level-headed.”
Almost five years have passed since that groundbreaking commitment, and in those five years, Ponder’s decision has been justified–and then some. Under the guidance of coach Robert Gary, Ponder has qualified for NCAA Indoor Nationals in the 3000 meters twice and for NCAA Cross Country Nationals once, in addition to posting PRs of 3:59.34 in the mile, 7:50.97 in the 3000 meter race (on a flat track), and 8:44.63 in the 3000 meter steeplechase.
Furman has qualified for three straight NCAA Cross Country Championships, though Ponder still considers the program an underdog.
Along the way, as Ponder committed to the Paladins for their family environment, he contributed to it both figuratively and literally. The Furman senior credits the team’s egalitarian environment, in which everyone from seniors to freshmen is empowered to speak up, for both the team culture and his development as a leader.
“Every year, I think I’ve grown as a leader. Coming in, I was a freshman when Aaron [Templeton] and Frank [Lara] were seniors. So to have those guys as your leaders, the culture is going to be great, the guys are going to love each other. They really set the example,” details Ponder.
“That’s really just continued every year. Some of the older guys have stepped up to take that role, but in the same sense, I feel like I had a voice as a freshman, I had a voice as a sophomore. I think it’s just collective leadership, like we don’t have set captains on our team.
We feel everyone has a voice and, of course, you have those guys who are going to be the more outspoken, but I feel like we have a great balance where everyone has something to say, everyone can contribute in making our team culture better. It's definitely a group effort, but I think personally I move into that outspoken leadership role every year.”
Moreover, as Ponder has enjoyed his biggest triumphs, his biggest supporter–his dad–has been by his side, further creating a family atmosphere at a program in which the distance coaches are married. Continuing his photography hobby, Phil Ponder has taken pictures at Cam’s meets, emerging as one of the most prominent photographers in the track world. He even got to take pictures as his son crossed the finish line and broke the elusive four-minute barrier for the first time in the mile, a moment between father and son which Cam remembers fondly:
“He got a shot of me crossing the finish line. But then I ran over and he didn’t get the true aftermath [of the race] because I went over and just tackled him, just gave him a hug.”
Ponder considers it the “most special moment of my career,” fondly stating:
"That's something I’m going to be telling my kids and grandkids about.”
Though that first sub-four mile was a defining moment in the Furman senior’s career, it may only prove to be the tip of the iceberg. Ponder has great range, and though that versatility across events has proven to be useful for the Furman program, both the runner and his coaches believe that he might unlock another gear by focusing primarily on one event:.
“I told my coach I want to be a great. So he says, ‘Okay. You tell me that, I'm gonna tell you this: You’re a jack of all trades, but you’re a master of none. So let’s get you to master an event,” recounts Ponder of that conversation with his coach.
“So that's really what I'm working towards right now, the steeplechase. My training right now is being tailored to steeple. A couple days a week I'm going over hurdles, I’m doing all these steeple drills, and I'm learning from the Coach, who, I think, is the best steeplechase coach in the country.”
With this realization in mind, Ponder has large goals for himself and his team the next couple years as he spends his fifth year of eligibility at Furman.
“Next cross-country season, I want to go back to NCAA Nationals with the team and become an All-American. And then for track next year, I want to win a title in the 3000.
I feel like I'll be ready to do that with this experience I’ve had the past two years, and I want to be a national champion before I leave. I want to take a couple of teammates with me. I have a steeplechase partner who is already talking about kicking my ass in a couple weeks,” laughs Ponder as he recounts a conversation with teammate Carson Williams.
“And he is very capable of doing so and he's just a sophomore so if we can go like one-two [in the steeplechase at nationals], I think it's possible.”
What might the future hold for Ponder after his fifth year of eligibility? He is not yet sure, choosing to remain focused on his time at Furman. Nonetheless, the North Carolina native floats one lofty goal, a logical next step for the distance star.
“And then, if the opportunity presents itself I'd love to run professionally,” states Ponder with his characteristic quiet confidence. Before he does that, though, he has some boxes he needs to check off with his Furman family.