With less than 100 days remaining before the 2016 Olympics, hundreds of athletes are making the final push to represent their country in Rio de Janeiro come August. Track and Field takes its place in the spotlight every four years, but the preparation needed to reach the starting line begins long before the big moment. Running goes beyond just putting one foot in front of the other as fast as you can.
Ashley Higginson is a steeplechaser for the New Jersey-New York Track Club, which is headed by revered track and field coach Frank Gagliano. In May 2007, Higginson was named a Sports Illustrated Faces in the Crowd athlete. Just nine years later, she is on the cusp of making her Olympic dreams come true. Each month, Higginson will write a first-hand look for Sports Illustrated discussing her training, races, and preparation ahead of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials in July and the 2016 Olympics in August.
Greetings, readers! My name is Ashley Higginson. I am a life-long Jersey girl and a professional track athlete with hopes of making 2016 a special year that culminates with a trip to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Writing that and saying it aloud is scary, but I am excited to dare greatly this year.
In addition to my life on the track, I just graduated from law school. I loved the experience, and by striking the perfect balance (along with the help of a glass of wine at the end of some days) I was able to continue my studies and also keep doing what I love on the track.
Before going any further, I must address the first question that comes up whenever I mention that I am a professional runner: I am not a marathoner…not yet at least. I run the steeplechase, which is pretty much what horses do except I am the horse and the jumping takes place on the track. [If you want some vivid imagery and understanding of my event, searching “Steeplechase Fails” on YouTube or Google is a nice start.]
I started my running career at Colts Neck (N.J.) High School, where I was a four-time national champion and many-time state champion. I moved a few miles down the road to Princeton University to study politics and was fortunate enough to be a three-time All-America for the Tigers. In my senior year, I applied to several law schools and had every intention of moving to Colorado to pursue my studies. However, due to an injury in my senior year’s outdoor season, I felt I had some unfinished business on the track.
Instead, I did what every parent dreams that their child will do after graduating from Princeton…I took a part-time job at Lululemon and told them I think I should give this running thing a shot in 2012!
Enter Frank Gagliano and Tom Nohilly.
I met the famous “Gags” for lunch at a local sports bar, where I happened to work while in high school, in hopes of convincing a legendary figure of the sport to coach me as a post-collegiate athlete. Immediately, I felt comfortable with this man who seemed larger than life. He coached many of my role models and I couldn’t believe he was even willing to entertain the idea of coaching me. After one lunch, I felt like we were old friends and he said to start coming to practice once I was healed up from my injury and ready to train.
Training under Gags in 2012 brought along magic. I set personal bests in every single race the entire year leading up to the U.S. Olympic Trials. With the New Jersey-New York Track Club, I had the honor and benefit of phenomenal training partners in Julie Culley (the 2012 5,000-meter champion), Delilah DiCrescenzo (a member of the 2011 world championship team in the steeplechase) and countless others. Heading into the trials, I did not have an A-standard, which was needed to qualify for the Olympics in London. I ended up leaving Eugene, Ore., with a fourth-place finish and a personal best of 9:38.06, which met the qualifying standard.
For those unfamiliar with the qualifying process for the Olympics, the top three finishers in each event at the U.S. Olympic Trials make the Olympic Team, as long as they have the Olympic qualifying time. The three women ahead of me had the time and punched their tickets to the Games. I recall finishing the race, walking past the media and straight to my steeplechase coach Tom Nohilly. Tom had also felt the pain of fourth place—twice—at the Olympic Trials. We did not need to say much. We just left the trials proud of how far I had come.
The day after trials, I woke up and decided to run on my own. I finally let myself be upset and felt the sting of fourth place. I went home, packed up my apartment and prepared to start law school in Colorado. Before I left I made sure to have another lunch with Gags and Tommy. The lunch was not the “Thanks for the memories” get together that I had envisioned. Instead, they told me to think about what I was doing and really reconsider staying in New Jersey to continue running. I left teary-eyed and started my trip west.
The trip involved a stop in Michigan for a fun road race. I stayed the night with a host family and watched the opening ceremonies on television with them. As the United States walked into the Olympic stadium, I recalled watching the ceremonies in the past and thinking of the athletes as extraordinary superheroes. This time around, I saw a friend. I saw a teammate. I saw people that I personally knew in that group. These were the same people I watched struggle, hurt, and sacrifice for this opportunity. I saw people like me.
That same night, in the middle of the ceremony, I wrote a letter to the Dean of Rutgers Law School. Essentially, I groveled. I told him my story and I begged him to reconsider my original acceptance and let me start law school at home, in New Jersey. His response? “You are lucky I was once a runner.”
In short, I turned my car around in Indiana and reported to practice on Monday before student orientation started on Tuesday.
The last three years have been quite the journey. My sponsor, Saucony, took me on for the new Olympic cycle and I continued to train with Gags, Tommy, and NJ*NY Track Club.
The balance was not always fun:
In my L1 year I had to miss essentially every Monday practice with the team and most Fridays.
In my L2 year, I had to decide between a full-time internship and a summer of racing. However, with my coaches and advisors at school we made it work.
Before I knew it, the 2013 U.S. championships came around quickly. I was able to redeem myself from that fourth place to take second and earn a trip to Moscow as a member of the United States’ world championship team. Then 2014 brought another personal best. Most important, I graduated on time, took the New York and New Jersey bar exams, (I passed New York! We are now waiting with fingers crossed to hear from New Jersey.) Running has been there as my sanity through all the tougher times.
Since starting my career with Gags, I have lowered my personal best at 5,000 meters to 15:18. I have run a mile in 4:30. When it comes to running in circles, clearing barriers and hopping over water, I can steeple in 9:27. It just goes to show how far I have come since leaving college with 16:01, 4:40, and 9:52 as my best marks. Hopefully, we are not done yet!
My four-year journey has a lot of details but in so many ways it has come full circle to now.
I believe 2016 deserves finality—and a sense of urgency.
This is a year to take a break from the other side of my life and focus on running. It is an honor to have gone from a surprise fourth-place finisher to someone people are noting as a contender to make the Olympic Team. Of course, that also brings along the twinge of pressure and nerves, but it is exciting and feels like something my coaches and I have patiently worked toward.
Four years ago, I surprised myself but was unsure I was willing to voice what my goals truly were. I would blush when trying to explain my hopes of making an Olympic team. Now, I see that my goals and dreams have worth and value. I also need to confidently state what I want to accomplish on the track, if there is any hope of my dreams coming true.
Let’s do this. Team USA.