"We build. We fight."

That is the motto of the Seabees, members of the United States Navy construction battalions. The Seabees have been responsible for building bases and infrastructure for U.S. forces in war since the beginning of World War II.

It is also the military branch in which Utica senior hurdler Joe Pruckno serves.

Pruckno will head to Grinnell, Iowa for the Division III national championships on March 9-10. There, he will look to build on a lifetime of training and experiences, and improve his 2010 ninth-place championship finish.

He has been building to reach this point for a long time and traveled a long way. All the way to central Asia -- where he was a part of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan -- and back home again to a fresh start in upstate New York.

NATIONAL MEET PARTICIPANTS
Take a look here to see who will be competing against Pruckno at the 2012 Indoor National Championship Meet.
Participant List

In high school, Pruckno was a star hurdler and wrestler for Rome Free Academy in Rome, N.Y. Upon graduation in 2005, he chose to enter into military service because of a sense of familial duty.

“I have a strong family history of serving in the military,” Pruckno said. “Everyone served; My older brother served, so I knew I was going to serve.”

Pruckno spent four years with the Seabees, training with the reserves and attending Mohawk Valley Community College. During this time, he dominated the junior college track and field circuit, winning back-to-back outdoor 110-meter hurdle championships in 2008 and 2009.

In December 2009 though, Pruckno was deployed to Afghanistan. Throughout his tour overseas, he thought about returning home and life after the military. He thought about coming home to school and running.

When asked why he chose to attend Utica for school, he said, “I didn't want to be away from home again after being gone so long.” Utica was a natural choice, being only a 10-minute hop on the interstate away from Rome. Only one piece was still up in the air.

“I told a coach I had met before deploying, Jason Rose, that I'd run for Utica, and I promised to take him to nationals with me,” Pruckno said, “If he formed the team.”

Utica did not have a track and field team. But Pruckno knew Rose, believed he would be a great coach and wanted to be coached by him.

When Pruckno enrolled at Utica, the school had a new cross country team and was looking to expand to track and field. Rose, an assistant at Division II schools Tiffin and Heidelberg, fit the bill for the head coach position. Sure enough in the fall of 2008, Rose -- convinced by Pruckno to lead the team -- was brought on to start the track program. Yet, as Utica began its first season, Pruckno was being deployed into a war zone.

Serving in the military takes great physical strength and stamina, but it is not necessarily the best environment for specialized, hardcore athletic training. A day of work with the Seabees can be long and exhausting. Luckily, Pruckno had a solid support structure to keep him focused on building his success as a hurdler.

“I had a great group of buddies who would help me train,” Pruckno Said. “They knew I was going to run when I got back, and they kept me in shape.

“Even after a long day, even if I was tired, they would get me up and make me train. They'd run with me, or make me do something crazy like pull Humvees.”

Training this way made sure that he would not lose a step to the runners back home.

In December 2010, Pruckno returned stateside and enrolled at Utica where, initially, there was a bit of an adjustment period.

“The first two months were tough, especially being around the books and people all the time. It was strange.” Pruckno said. “But overall it wasn't too bad. By February or so, I was alright.”

Track and field offered a great environment in which to concentrate during the winter of his return. What he saw was a program building around him.

“At first, there were not many people on the team, but it's been really fun to see it grow. After that first year [when he was in Afghanistan] a few people joined and it kind of filled out. It was a really fun small group atmosphere,” Pruckno said.

“But after the second year, even more people joined, and it's been cool to see it grow so much.”

The team has not been without a few growing pains. Even now, Utica still does not have an indoor track. This can cause problems in the winter, when snow drifts in upstate New York can swallow an SUV.

The first two months were tough, especially being around the books and people all the time. It was strange.
-- Utica Hurdler Joe Pruckno

“We make do. We run in hallways or in the gym. Whatever works.” Pruckno said.

When he came to Utica, being with the team and training together certainly paid dividends for his performance. In his first six weeks after returning from active duty, he managed to shave off nearly half a second from his 55-meter hurdle time and qualified for nationals.

At the 2011 national meet in Columbus, Pruckno finished ninth in the preliminary heats. Unfortunately, only the top eight advanced to the finals. “ [It was] disappointing to just finish in ninth,” Pruckno said.  “But it was motivation to come out and do better this year.”

Pruckno's experience at Utica has been positive for his teammates as well. Having a mature, 25-year-old former soldier on the team certainly contributes to heightened discipline and better training.

“Whenever I can come on campus to train, it is certainly a little more regimented,” Pruckno said. “People follow what they see, so I always have a positive attitude, and try to be a good role model. “Not everyone always appreciates the drill sergeant being around,” he laughed, “But we have a great team, and a dedicated team that works hard.”

Being the older presence on the team though has not deterred camaraderie.

“They make fun of me for shaving my head because I'm old and going bald, and it's good. But most importantly, when you get out on the track, everyone is equal.”

This year has been a different sort of challenge than before. Pruckno has picked up a full-time job while continuing his studies, competing and still being in the military reserves. Though all that is certainly not anything he can't overcome.

Even with his loaded schedule, Pruckno has still found success on the track. “Overall, I've run good times. My goal was to run an 8.2 [seconds in the 60-meter hurdles], and I ran an 8:18 a couple weeks ago,” he remarks. “So I had to bump it down and now I'm shooting for an 8.10.”

Much of the success of this year can be traced back to an adjustment in his training. This past year, Pruckno focused on getting his legs stronger through intense lifting. He hopes this will let him compete at his top level even during the second or third trial runs in meets.

Along with Pruckno, the team as a whole has improved. Each year has seen Utica creep up in the standings within the competitive Empire 8, and Pruckno is certainly proud to stick out among them.

“Other schools were shocked at losing to us at first because they weren't used to it. We compete with some tough schools; they were not happy about it,” Pruckno said.

“They see some guy with tattoos flying down the track and beating them, it's pretty awesome.”