Featured Story

Fairytale finish concludes championship Concordia experience for Wren

By Jacob Knabel on Jun. 7, 2024 in Track & Field

When Coach Ed McLaughlin was first introduced to Chris Wren, he thought perhaps he was looking at a potential future Concordia distance runner. The high school version of Wren stood tall in stature but slender in build. Little did McLaughlin – or anyone else – know at the time, but Wren would grow into that frame to become a hammer throw national champion and husband to a Nebraska farm girl. Ironically, it was Chris’ father Michael who told McLaughlin that he wasn’t sending his son all the way from California to Nebraska to wed a farm girl.

But it was meant to be. Honestly, Michael Wren was only joking. He couldn’t help but look on proudly as his son celebrated a fairytale finish to his collegiate athletics career. Chris Wren wouldn’t have dreamt of anything more.

“I was just a kid coming out of California coming to a new state,” Chris said. “I had no idea what was out here. I didn’t know who I was when I left. I changed a lot from the time I entered Concordia to the time I left. I would not be the man I am today if it wasn’t for Concordia. I met my wife and I met all of my friends. I pretty much made a new family out here.”

Life for Wren as a Bulldog student-athlete spanned from the fall of 2019 through the spring of 2024 and included the turbulent COVID-19 era, hip and hand injuries, the introduction of his future wife, the birth of his son and a whole lot of personal and spiritual growth. The journey culminated with a national title at the 2024 NAIA Outdoor Track & Field National Championships in a storybook ending that not all athletes get to enjoy. Wren reigned atop the hammer throw podium while managing an incredible balancing act as a husband, father, student-athlete and bartender at Sparetime Lounge and Grill.

In the closing act of his Concordia Bulldogs chapter, Wren won an NAIA hammer competition that was truly a game of inches – even centimeters. Heading into the finals, Wren led the way with a throw of 208 feet. In round five, Marian’s Christian Rios took over the lead with a mark that landed at 208’ 4.” Incredibly, Wren regained the No. 1 spot while responding with the winning toss of 208’ 5.” In the immediate aftermath, Wren hugged McLaughlin and family and friends before being showered with water and ice by his throwing teammates. This was the goal for Wren, and he went after it with relentless determination.

Explained McLaughlin, “When we got to nationals, we were going for it. We weren’t going to just try to make finals. If he had scratched on his first throw, he had to be ready to come back and make sure he made finals. He said, ‘I’m ready for it.’ We trained it every day. The idea going into the meet was to go hard on the first one and put that thought into the other throwers’ minds – he knows he can win it. It was such a process to get there and for him to believe it was possible. To see it happen and to see the look on his face was so much fun. It never gets old watching kids do that and getting up on the podium.”

The crowning achievement of Wren’s athletic career was the result of his ability to manage a wealth of responsibilities. Life had changed late in the spring of 2023 when his wife Elle (also an All-American thrower at Concordia) gave birth to their son. Wren actually missed the 2023 outdoor national meet as Elle was due at the same time. Faith and family came first, and that’s the way it was always going to be for Chris. That could have been the end of Wren’s college athletics story. With one year of indoor and outdoor eligibility remaining, Chris wanted to keep the dream alive.

It wasn’t going to be easy. When Chris and Elle found out they were going to be parents, Chris went to McLaughlin’s house to discuss a plan for making it all work. There were going to be days when Chris wouldn’t be home for long as he went to classes, squeezed in time for practice and worked late into evenings at Sparetime. As the process wore on, Chris figured out how to manage his schedule. Sometimes he had to miss team activities in order to be a caring father.

“I can’t give enough glory to God for that,” Wren said. “It was not easy. It was a stressful time for me, as well as for my wife. I was gone from 7 o’clock until 3:30 and then I’d come home for maybe 30 minutes and have to go back to work as a bartender and work until around 1 or 2 in the morning. It was a grueling process and something we had to learn how to balance. Without God’s guidance, I don’t know that I would have been able to do it at all. I have to thank my wife for being willing to let me continue to pursue an athletic career, even though we were in a place where that probably would have been the thing to cut out first. She was still willing to let me follow that dream and finish the career that I started.”

The beginnings of that career can be traced back to Wren’s California roots. He was born in Clovis before his family moved to Fresno and then to the Sacramento area. His athletic career became more serious once Wren got connected with Coach Mike Curry and the Golden State Throwers, a program that has produced numerous collegiate athletes. The GST funnel to Concordia included 2021 hammer throw national champion Jacob Cornelio. After first trying hammer as a freshman in high school, Wren was hooked.

He took to the event so well that he eventually began to draw interest from NCAA Division I institutions. However, Wren had made his commitment to Concordia, and he wasn’t budging on it. The Wrens had basically welcomed McLaughlin into the family. When McLaughlin visited Sacramento on a recruiting trip, the Wrens proved especially hospitable. The glowing reviews from other athletes within GST made an impression upon Wren as he laid out a path for his future.

“We (at GST) all kept on coming because Ed seemed to really know what he was doing, and he really cared,” Wren said. “It’s hard to find a coach like Ed who has such a good grasp on your event and is also so easy to talk to and very respectful of your time. He cares about you personally, not just what you can provide to the team. Those were the qualities I was looking for in a coach. I came and found out I loved it here.”

By the time his career ended, Wren collected five All-America awards and claimed 2024 GPAC titles in the weight throw and hammer throw. Not only a hammer throw national champion, Wren placed as the ’24 national runner up in the weight throw. Essentially, Wren was the best in the country at what he did. Wren didn’t stop until he broke past 200 feet in the hammer or until he came as close as he possibly could to perfecting his craft. This past season, he worked exclusively at the weight and hammer in order to maximize his potential in those areas. It’s not overwhelming physical strength that has made Wren great, it’s his attention to detail and an analytical approach to throwing.

“It all started to come together after we went down to KU Relays (this spring),” McLaughlin said. “Chris ended up getting fourth or fifth. We were driving home and I was like, ‘What’s the difference between you and those guys? On their throw, what’s the major difference?’ He answered that they all go through the ring faster. They’re all done in about 3.5 or 4 seconds. For Chris, it was taking 4.5 seconds and sometimes 5. He thinks about throwing differently than most people. He doesn’t look at it like a boxing match. He looks at it like a chess match. He’s not going in there to beat you up. He’s going in there to outthink you. He went and had literally the best week of practice he’s ever had.”

Explains Wren, “I showed up as a freshman weighing 195 pounds. I wasn’t strong in the weight room, and I’m still not really that strong in the weight room. Ed always sits down with his athletes at the beginning of the season and talks about what their goals are, and he told me he had a plan. I trusted him as a coach to get me to that level. I think I started hitting 200 feet my senior year (2023) in the beginning of the season. We didn’t get it done in a meet that year, but we knew it was possible and I was capable of it. For the last year, maybe two years, it’s been about making it consistent and making sure it happens at a meet. A lot of it had to do with refining that technique and making sure I’m hitting all my positions I need to be hitting without mistakes.”

Wren put all that training, physical and mental, into practice at the 2024 national meet. When he was passed in the finals, Wren calmed himself by saying a prayer. He was going to be at peace with whatever happened, but his competitive juices were flowing. It wasn’t in his nature to settle for second place.

“During the final when I got passed, I knew I had to do something,” Wren said. “I said a little prayer and asked God if it was His will to let me be able to get something. He gave me exactly what I needed. It was by an inch that I was able to get back on top. We were able to get that one inch farther. It was a very intense competition, that’s for sure.”

Academically, Wren continues to pursue a career in physical therapy. Chris, Elle and their young son have moved to Kearney, where Chris will attend UNMC for physical therapy school. He credits Dr. Connie Callahan, Associate Professor of Biology, for being a “miracle worker” in his life. In so many ways and for so many reasons, Wren is counting his blessings.

As Wren says in sum, “The teachers, the coaches and the people I’ve met that I’ve been able to integrate into my life as family have made a huge impact for me. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for Concordia. I’m just very grateful for the opportunity and to now be a Concordia alum.”