O'Connor Enjoys Journey En Route to Becoming an Elite Runner
Senior distance runner Leah O'Connor has built quite a resume, winning 10 Big Ten titles and two NCAA Championships.
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - The late-morning sun filtering through her windswept blonde hair, Leah O'Connor looks as though she should have the Southern California coastline as a backdrop, not busy Grand River Avenue.
She couldn't picture herself in a better place, however.
Looking no worse for wear from an easy 10-mile recovery run she completed an hour or so earlier, O'Connor sips an iced-coffee beverage as sirens blare and noisy trucks rumble by the sidewalk café a short jog away from where she and the Michigan State women's track and field team won a Big Ten Championship for the first time in 33 years.
"Coffee's a big part of my life, it really is," O'Connor says.
O'Connor is enjoying a break - albeit very brief - from a training regimen that at Sunday's conference meet lifted her to victory in the 5,000-meter run with a time of 16:03.98 not long after defending her conference title in the 1,500 (4:14.19), on Saturday produced her fourth-straight league title in the 3,000-meter steeplechase (9:51.38) and will propel her into the upcoming NCAA Championships and beyond.
Although she is the reigning National Champion in both the indoor mile and the outdoor steeplechase, and is still flush from the national cross country championship the Spartans won last fall in Terre Haute, Indiana, O'Connor listed her triple crown in front of a standing-room-only crowd at MSU's Ralph Young Track the highlight of her career.
"Winning national titles was pretty cool and doing it in Terre Haute or Eugene is nice, but you're kind of disconnected from this community," O'Connor says. "Being able to win as a team after so long, and to do it where it kind of all was born and this idea grew into this huge accomplishment, I'm still really happy about it.
"Us seniors have kind of been lost in the process of it all. We've just been behaving according to our character, sticking together as a family and working really hard. Going into it every single year, it wasn't about proving anything or bringing back MSU track. It was more or less getting the most out of each other and ourselves, and it's evolved into this amazing journey."
Michigan State director of track and field Walt Drenth entered O'Connor in the 5k as an insurance policy in the event the Spartans needed the points to secure the second women's Big Ten Championship in school history. O'Connor's final 10 points boosted MSU to a comfortable 31-point winning margin over second-place Nebraska.
"We had a little bit of a cushion going into the 5k and I didn't really know how I was going to handle it, to be honest," O'Connor says. "I got done with the 1,500 and I was like, `Wow, I guess I'm pretty tired.' I looked at Coach and he just encouraged me to have a good attitude about it and have fun with it, and that's what I did.
"I went into the race without the pressure of feeling like I had to win. I walked to the track with my teammates and we were just smiling and excited. Once the race got going the pace was manageable and my competitive nature started to show. It was a good test of my strength and my will and being competitive under fatigue. I know our team could have done it without me doing that 5k, but I'm glad I did it."
O'Connor's program-high 10 conference titles sets her apart as one of the Big Ten's all-time greats while adding to her credentials as one of the nation's elite runners.
"I've got to go back and look at 30-point scorers, especially with the distance runners, because it's pretty rare," Drenth says. "If it's not the greatest performance by a (Big Ten) distance runner, it's got to be up there pretty high. I say that because the competitors in the field, not only Rachele Schulist, Sara Kroll and some others from her own team, but the Michigan women, the Indiana women, the Ohio State women - there were a lot of nationally ranked kids in those fields, and she did what she did.
"Four races, three finals (and a qualifying heat in the 1,500), and three victories - pretty amazing."
What's more, O'Connor is just getting started.
"She's considered one of the better distance runners in the country and one of the best coming out in recent years," Drenth says. "I would expect she'll have a very, very good professional career ahead of her, but she's got some more fish to fry in a Michigan State uniform."
O'Connor's next steps will be taken at the NCAA East Regional meet in Jacksonville, Florida (May 28-30), with the hope of qualifying to the national finals in Eugene, Oregon (June 10-13). After competing as an amateur for the final time, she'll sign a contract with a shoe company and compete for a spot on the 2016 U.S. World Championship team with an eye aimed toward to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
O'Connor, who is so focused on the here-and-now she often has to be reminded of when she needs to be at the starting line, isn't daunted by her ambitious objectives in front of her.
"I'm not going to put a cap on what I want to do," she says. "I'm also not going to get ahead of myself, but I feel like the potential is there and I'm confident enough now to say that's a realistic goal.
"But I also know that first and foremost, I just have to get through tomorrow. I'm not going to just assume these things are going to happen. They're really tough things and to make it to the Olympics you have to be in the top three in that event on that day. I don't want making it to the World Championships or the Olympics to be the be-all end-all because the things I'm learning from running and the experiences that I'm having in this process is where the good is. That's where all the lessons are."
It's almost as if O'Connor was programmed for a successful running career from birth. She grew up with five siblings in a running family in Freemont Township outside of Croswell, located in Michigan's thumb about 30 miles north of Port Huron.
"My nearest neighbors were a field away from us, and they were also my grandparents," she says. "I grew up in the middle of nowhere, but the people in Croswell are just very good people and very supportive. The amount of love and encouragement I got there made me feel really special."
Her father George is a dairy farmer by trade and a two-miler in high school. Mom Janet was a middle-distance runner and hurdler in high school and junior college. Younger brother Andrew is a member of MSU's men's track and field team.
Drenth recruited the self-proclaimed "no-name" prospect out of Croswell-Lexington High School more on her competitive drive than her four state titles.
"My times weren't very fast," O'Connor says. "I also didn't run very many miles and didn't know how to train. I was just a very raw athlete, but when I would get into competitive situations, like at the state meet, I would find ways to win.
"I always had the will to win, I just didn't have the work in the tank to do anything incredible. I couldn't break five minutes in the mile when I got out of high school and I was not very good in cross country. When I got into college, I was looking around at the girls who were at the top and better than me, finding examples and learning from them.
"My first job was to try to break five minutes as a freshman, and I did -- I ran 4:59 or 4:58. I love to compete, so being in a competitive atmosphere was an outlet for me. Running is very social and it's where I make all my friends. At first, running was my source of family and connection."
However, O'Connor didn't become a world-class athlete - her meet-record time of 4:27.18 in the mile at the NCAA Indoor Championships on March 14 is fourth-best in the world - until she fell in love with the sport.
"Early on, I just wanted to go fast," she says. "I would run because I wanted to win races or because of different motivations like to get a scholarship or because you have to because you're a part of this team. There were times I needed encouragement to get out the door because it was hard for me to want to train.
"With me, when I get things I really get them, but sometimes, it takes me a while. At some point, I understood that everything I put into running is going to come back to me like tenfold, so I just realized that if I took ownership of what I'm doing, worked really hard and found a way to fall in love with the training aspect of it, I would be much better off. I've learned how to just love running. If I take a week off, I miss it. When I go out for 10-mile runs in the morning, that's where I find my clarity."
When O'Connor toes the line, she isn't consumed by the thought of winning or the dread of losing.
"When it gets to races and competitive atmospheres, I know that I've done the work, I'm passionate about what I'm doing and I don't need outside motivation," she says. "It's coming from an internal place of just wanting to do more and try harder, and holding myself accountable. I've learned to appreciate the strength training and the miles."
O'Connor embodies the ideals demonstrated by other Spartan greats - Kirk Cousins, for example, came to the MSU football team as an unheralded quarterback and many believed basketball Coach Tom Izzo wasted a scholarship on Draymond Green - over the years.
"I had options to go to other schools and what drew me to MSU the most was the humility and the blue-collar atmosphere," she says. "I liked that there wasn't this aura that we were better than anybody else or that anything should just be handed to us because of who we are.
"We just work very hard, we're honest and we're humble. We give glory to God and understand where we stand in the scheme of things. It's just a really good place. When I came to MSU, our program wasn't that strong, but I saw great leadership, great character and I saw something I really wanted to be a part of and help grow. That was all I really needed."
O'Connor can't quite conceptualize being in the midst of a career that will undoubtedly land her in the MSU Athletics Hall of Fame the instant she's eligible.
"No matter what I'm doing, I never feel anything is just a given because in running, everything that comes to you is dependent on your ability to seize opportunities, stay healthy and continue to press and try harder," O'Connor says. "Coach Drenth reminded me that what has gotten me to this point is just doing the next thing; it's not getting too caught up in what-ifs or making decisions based on fear or anticipation. It's just kind of like, `What do I have to do now?' and trying to be the champion of that."
"Even at this point, every time I accomplish something I take time to enjoy it, but I'm always reaching for more. And I have people and coaches around me that are pushing me to reach for more. I have to keep things in perspective, stay humble and keep grinding away and doing all the hard work because that's how you continue to improve. My work is not close to done."
There's no doubt in MSU volunteer assistant coach and former Spartan All-American Nicole Bush's mind that O'Connor has what it takes to finish the job.
"I think she draws from everyone around her, and they draw from her, too," Bush says. "She has a gift that keeps on giving, corny as that sounds. She does a really good job of bringing the people around her up. It's really cool to see what she can give to her teammates and what they can give to her.
"We're not always the biggest recruits, but she is exactly what Michigan State is proud of, to bring someone in from, quote-unquote, nowhere and help them make something of themselves and others. I certainly think she has `it.' Obviously stuff has to play out and life happens, but I think it could be pretty special for her."