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They've Still Got It ...

Four of last winter and spring's national champions talk about taking their game to the collegiate level

By Kristen Holzherr

Kristen, a high school student in Pennsylvania, periodically writes about women's and girls' track and XC.  Spence, McCafferty, and O'Brien photos by Kristen Holzherr; Krais photo by Bob Diller

One was home-schooled.  One was crowned homecoming queen.  One was active in her high school church community.  One was able to teach other kids about how to become better at throwing.

Neely Spence, Ryann Krais, Katie McCafferty, and Becky O'Brien are different, but they all share one thing in common – they were national champions.

Each of these young women, as they competed in collegiate cross-country this fall or prepared for collegiate track, shared some of their thoughts on the past, present and future for them as they take the next steps in their careers.

These girls are inspirational and true champions.  They are able to hold their heads high in the midst of a whirlwind of other equally talented athletes, and whisk through the competition as if it were just another ordinary day.  They are able to overcome challenges that seem impossible to most, and they do so with heart and determination.  These girls have struggled through frustration, injuries, fear, and defeat, but being the people that they are, refused to back down.  They are not just physically tough, they are mentally strong. 

Neely Spence (Shippensburg University; distance)
Neely is from Shippensburg, PA and currently attends Shippensburg University.  As a high school runner, her top honors included winning the Foot Locker Northeast Regional twice (and placing 8th and 4th at Foot Locker Finals), winning the Nike Outdoor Nationals two mile, and taking the Pennsylvania state champion in the 1600 in 2007 and 2008.

Q) Going from being home-schooled to going to a public college, what was the transition like?

A) I actually made the transition quite easily.  The last two years of high school I have been taking college courses part-time.  I had 12 credit hours going into my freshman semester.  The biggest thing I remember from my first class during my junior year was the fact that the teacher might call on me and I would have to talk in front of the whole class.  Also raising my hand to answer questions took a lot of getting used to.

Q) What’s it like being coached by your dad?

A) He has been my coach since I first began training as an 8th grader.  I trust him and his style… he knows what I am capable of handling and what my limits are better than I do.  It is nice to know that he has gone through so much, because any question or problem I might have he can relate to.  I haven’t felt any added pressure or anything; it is just something nice that we can share together.

Q) What do you like to do for fun on campus?

A) Well, the majority of what I do on campus is study and go to classes.  I try to go to a Bible study or faith event each week for fellowship and they are a lot of fun.  The team will get together and watch movies or play games after dinner, or we will have pasta parties.  There is always so much going on, and never enough time to do it all!

Q) There’s been some speculation that after two years, you’re going to transfer to a Division I program.  Can you settle the rumors?

A) If I transfer, I will attend Baylor next fall.  I have until January 1st to decide.  Each day is different; I still have no clue what I will choose.  There are so many good things about each choice that there is no wrong decision.

Q) What do you miss the most about high school?

A) Probably the State meet… it was such a blast to go and run and then get to go out for pizza afterwards!  But outside of scholastic racing, I am really going to miss Foot Locker this year.  That was the reason I started running and now it’s just a memory!  I keep telling my sisters (who are freshmen) to start training really hard because I need an excuse to go back to San Diego!

Q) How did you train over the summer to prepare for XC this season?

A) I was in heavy training until the end of June because of NON.  I took about 10 days after that and then began working slowly back into it.  I increased my mileage but actually didn’t get over 40 miles per week until August.  Now I am at about 50-55 miles per week.

Q) What have your classes been like so far?

A) I have just the basic general education classes like all freshmen.  I am really enjoying my Human Communication class, which is my potential major, so that’s a good sign.  I also have World History, Human Bio (which would be for my coaching minor) and Sociology.  I had midterms last week and I was pleased with the results.  But I am thankful for fall break and the time to breathe freely!  Today was our first day back.
Ryann Krais (UCLA; 400 hurdles, multi)
Ryann is from Norristown, PA and currently attends the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).  During her four years at Methacton High School, Ryann won countless titles, including two USATF Junior and two NIN multi-event crowns, the 2007 and 2008 Penn Relays 400 hurdles, and the long jump, high jump, and 300 hurdles in the 2008 PA state meet.  She made two international teams, placing 3rd in the World Youth 400H in 2007, and 9th in the World Junior Heptathlon in 2008.

Q) What was it like moving (going to) a college that’s on the opposite side of the country?  How have you adjusted?

A) I really enjoy being in California right now.  I’ve been getting a kick out of hearing my little sister complain about going to the bus stop in 50 degree weather while I’m sitting out by the pool.  The whole transition has definitely been an experience, but I feel pretty adjusted.  I miss my dog, though!

Q) How do you feel the coaches at UCLA will impact your track and field performance?

A) The coaching staff is one of the main reasons I chose UCLA.  This is the team that I feel can take me to the next level.

Q) What is your roommate like?

A) My roommate is pretty awesome!  She has quite the sense of humor, so we get along very well.  Everything has worked out nicely in that we are both really messy (you don’t want to see our dorm!) and go to bed around the same time. 

Q) How did you train over the summer?

A) I took a month off after finishing my summer season.  Then I started on a six-week program which involved cross training, track workouts, and lifting.

Q) UCLA has produced many great athletes recently, such as Nicole Leach and Monique Henderson.  Do you aspire to be like one of these great athletes?

A) Yes, I definitely hope to be as successful as those two, but I realize it takes a lot more that just hoping.  I am definitely surrounded by good company, though.

Q) You placed 9th overall in the heptathalon at Juniors in Poland.  How do you plan to work at adding more points to your impressive hept score?

A) I know I have a ton of room for improvement in the throwing events.  For the others, I plan on taking it one step at a time.

Q) What things do you miss about PA the most?

A) Like I said earlier, I really miss my dog, Taz!  Obviously, I miss my family, friends and coach too!  The main thing is just the comfort of home and the feeling of familiarity.

It happens: you lose just at the last second, you are out-thrown, you don’t have that last kick to win the race, your trail leg catches a hurdle and you fall.  But no matter what, they were able to stick through, and learn one of the most important lessons an athlete can: It’s not just about what an athlete does or wins that makes them who they are, it’s about the times when they fall or come short and how they get back up again and keep going that defines them.
Katie McCafferty (Georgetown University; distance)
Katie is from Summit, NJ and currently attends Georgetown University. At the Oak Knoll School, Katie won the emerging elite mile in 2007 at the Nike Outdoor Nationals, then made Foot Locker Finals in the fall.  In 2008, she won the Nike Indoor 2-Mile and the 3000 at the Penn Relays, and placed third in the 2 mile at the Nike Outdoor Nationals. 

Q) How did you arrive at your decision to go to college at Georgetown?

A) Well, I visited a number of schools, including Princeton, Duke and Wake Forest and Columbia.  I also spoke with the Stanford coach, but I never ended up applying there because I realized that it was just too far.  I really liked all of the schools that I visited but Georgetown, for me, had the complete package.  It was a great school academically and also had the big-time Division I program that I was looking for.  The team was really welcoming on my visit, and I just knew when I left that this was where I wanted to go.

Q) What training schedule do you follow at Georgetown, and is it more intense or about the same as you’re used to?

A) On average, I run about 55-60 miles per week, which is more than I ran last year.  Last year, I ran about 40 miles per week and then tapered to about 35 when I was racing.  Tuesdays are typically strength-based workouts, like a tempo run or longer repeats.  Mondays and Wednesdays are usually two easier runs, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, strength training in the weight room, and drills and strides on the track.  Thursdays are usually just longer runs on our own.  Fridays are our anaerobic threshold workout like repeat 1000s or a ladder type of fartlek workout.  Usually I have Saturdays off and the Sundays we do our long run.  Overall, besides the increased mileage, it’s pretty much the same type of schedule I followed in high school.

Q) What are your team and coach like?

A) My team is a really close group of very talented and motivated girls.  We are constantly pushing each other in workouts and motivating each other to be our best; it’s a really awesome team to be a part of.  Coach Milt is really great.  He, like the team, is very motivated and uses the phrase “fired up” a lot to describe how he feels about our team and our future together.  It’s really nice because he ran here as well, so he knows what it’s like to be a student-athlete here and can identify with everything we’re going through.

Q) What do you miss the most about running at a high school level?

A) Well, of course, I miss my old team and coach and that’s probably the hardest thing to get used to.  Besides that, I guess I just miss the smaller dual meets and also the attention that running receives by locals in high school, like in the papers and all of the fans at meets.  It’s different in college because everyone running at the Division I level is outstanding, so it’s hard to really stand out.  Also, because there are less meets, every meet is really competitive, so you have to be aware of that each time you step onto the starting line.  The stakes are just much higher now.

Q) Was it hard to adjust to life at Georgetown?  Explain.

A) Yes, it was hard to adjust to life here at Georgetown and, in fact, I think I’m still trying to adjust now!  I’ve never been away from home for a long period of time before, so for me that’s the hardest part.  Other than that, the campus is great, the area is great, and the team and the coach are really welcoming.  It’s just hard not being able to see your family for so long.

Q) What is your favorite part of being in college?

A) I guess my favorite part of being in college is the feeling of independence.  Although it’s hard sometimes being away from home, other times it is really empowering to know that I made it to this point in my life and have the opportunity to study and run at such a prestigious institution.  I know that graduating from here will open a lot of doors to me and I am also eager to see how my running progresses in the coming years here.

Q) Are you planning on participating in any clubs or organizations on campus?

A) Well, at the moment I am a member of the Georgetown College Republicans, the right-to-life group, and I actually auditioned and was accepted into the Gracenotes, an all-girls acapella singing group here on campus.  Singing is also of my favorite things to do besides running and before I began running, I sang and acted all the time.  For a while, I really wanted to be on Broadway!
Becky O’Brien (University of North Carolina; shot-put)
Becky is from Greeley, ME and currently attends the University of North Carolina (UNC).  Becky was the nation’s leading high school shot-putter outdoors last spring, winning Nike Outdoor and placing 2nd at USATF Juniors to make the World Junior team.  She had just missed a medal at the World Youth meet the previous summer.  She also claimed the New England shot-put record and won the Maine state title.

Q) What’s life at UNC like so far?

A) Life at UNC has been amazing so far.  I’ve really enjoyed the two months that I’ve been here.  The college town atmosphere is unlike any other university I have visited!  It’s beautiful and I’m loving the weather compared to where I come from in Maine.

Q) How have you been training since the World Juniors in Poland?

A) Training since World Juniors has been going really well.  I was quite disappointed with my performance in Poland, so that had provided an extra motivation in each and every training session since.  I trained with a few football players for the rest of the summer and am now into full training with my team here at UNC.

Q) Last time we spoke, you had just broken your future coach’s record in the shot-put.  What’s it like to be around that same coach?

A) Being coached by Laura has been awesome so far!  It’s been great learning from someone who has gone through everything that I’m going through now, and has achieved what I hope to achieve in the future.  To be training under the person that you’re working to be like is just an amazing scenario.

Q) Do you still face some of the challenges that you faced as a high school athlete in track and field?  Explain.

A) So far, everything has been very different from high school track and field.  One of the biggest adjustments is needing to get things right in the 1 to 3 hours of practice.  In high school, I would be at the track sometimes 5 or 6 hours either by myself or with my dad, working until I got things right, but you don’t have time in college so you focus on quality even more.

Q) Have you met or hung out with any of your teammates yet?  If so, what is the team like as a whole?

A) Yes I have met most all of my teammates.  I hang out with the throwers quite a bit.  It’s a great group of people.  When you get to know about Carolina track and field it is commonly referred to as the Carolina family and I definitely agree with that statement.  The team as a whole is seeming to bond really well.  There are a lot of close friendships on the team.  It’s a really nice thing to be a part of!

Q) What do you do for fun around campus?

A) One of the best things is going to the Carolina football games.  It’s an incredible experience!  It really brings out the Tar Heel in everyone, no matter if they are a student, alumni, fan, whatever.  Carolina fever just takes over on game day!

Q) If you could set a goal for yourself this season, what would it be and why?

A) My goal for this season is to do as much as I can for my team.  I’m really big on team concept and I tried to do as much for my team in high school as I could.  I feel blessed to have the opportunity to be here and wish to do the absolute most I can with that opportunity!  Hopefully that will mean scoring on at least the conference level.

An athlete who truly loves what they do will never give up on it, and will keep going no matter how many times they think they have lost.  Anyone who witnesses these four athletes compete cannot help but notice what drives their efforts, what makes them who they are every time they step out onto the track or go to throw at the pit – love.  These girls are not just good at what they do, they don’t just love everything about the sport, they don’t just hold national records… they define greatness.