June 13, 2014
EUGENE, Oregon - It was a banner night for Michigan State junior Leah O'Connor as she won the 3,000m steeplechase title on Friday at the 2014 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championship at Hayward Field. O'Connor set a school record with a time of 9:36.43 to become the first steeplechase champion in MSU history.
"It is quite an accomplishment for Leah. Today is her day," said MSU Director of Track & Field Walt Drenth. "Leah had a great approach tonight. The demands of the steeplechase are different, and she handled both the jumps and the running extremely well. Her efficiency over the last couple hurdles was the difference maker.
"Leah traveled in the lead pack the whole race and took the lead at about the 700m mark. With maybe 600m to go, someone tried to take the lead from her, but she responded right away and easily held her off. From there, she had a great chance to win and continued to pull away. Her experience in the mile at NCAA Indoors gave her the confidence and gave her perspective on how to manage her herself going into this week.
"Overall it was a great year of training for Leah. I hope a lot of people around Michigan State are proud of her."
O'Connor topped the field by over seven seconds, as Boise State's Marisa Howard was second in 9:43.82, and broke the school record by almost three seconds, besting Nicole Bush's time of 9:39.38, set in 2009. Her margin of victory was the largest at nationals since 2010.
She is the first Spartan outdoor champion since Sevetheda Fynes won the 100m and 200m in 1997, and just the fifth women's NCAA outdoor champion in program history.
It is her third All-America honor at the NCAA Outdoor Championships, following up a fifth-place finish last season in the steeplechase. Overall, O'Connor is a four-time All-American, also earning first-team honors in the Indoor mile earlier this season.
"So many things go into making something like this happen," said O'Connor. "I just think about all the people that have helped me out all year long. After last year's meet, Coach Drenth told me to start visualizing yourself doing a victory lap. He introduced the idea of gunning for the win and I have dreamt about it for so long now, and visualized everything down to the flowers they give you at the end, because I have really wanted it. So to be able to accomplish it, it is so surreal and amazing. I feel so honored and blessed to have the people that I do that got me to this place.
"I definitely took command of the lead with 700 or 800 to go, but I ran from the front from the beginning. I had the mentality from the get-go in the race that I wanted to be right in the thick of things at the front. The last 600 or so I utilized my final speed and all the training I did for the mile indoors and it just really paid off. It was my comfort zone and I ran for home at that point.
"I learned so much at indoors this year. I ran for the win which was so bold and valuable. Even though I came up short, it left me really hungry for a national title. It made me realize that there is nothing to be afraid of and that I belong near the front of the pack in a national field and that I can do that. It is something I have battled with since I got into college, just believing that I am capable of running at the front of a really talented field. To do that and come up just a little bit short, definitely motivated me. In my first race back after indoor nationals, I told myself I want to win the steeplechase title really bad and it gave me a whole new focus."
Franklin placed 13th in the triple jump with a mark of 12.76m (41-10½), earning herself second-team All-America honors. She is now a five-time All-American in the triple jump, including all three seasons in outdoors.
James meanwhile finished his season with a 23rd-place finish in the discus with a toss of 50.88m (166-11).
"I am anxious to talk to AJ and Tori to see what went wrong today," said Drenth. "The positives are that both are able to return next year and compete. We need to examine what needs to be learned from this experience and move on. Their objectives need to be coming back here and being better as seniors. Also, our goals as coaches is to talk about things we learned from this week and make them better."
Freshman Rachele Schulist will be the last Spartan to compete, running in the 5,000m on Saturday at 6:24 p.m. ET.