Leah O’Connor ran in two of the biggest races of the year this past month, but her track season is far from over.
The recent Michigan State graduate will head to Europe on July 6 and tour the continent for a month racing in various events before finishing her summer with some possible races in the United States. It’s much different than the past few years have been, when the NCAA championships marked the end of her season.
“There are a lot of races in a pretty short timeframe,” O’Connor, a 2010 Croswell-Lexington graduate said. “I’m going to milk my fitness for all it’s worth, and get as much international experience as possible.
“My season has never extended past NCAAs. I’m in uncharted territory.”
It’s easier to enter that territory while doing something you love, which is the case with O’Connor. Her professional running career has started, and she’s excited for the opportunity to continue her passion.
“It’s my dream job,” O’Connor said. “I have to pinch myself, because I love this more than anything. It’s very different going to USAs and walking up to the tent for the first time with all the pros, and sitting down waiting for the race to start and realizing I’m one of them. I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be, but I also feel like I’m the newbie.
“You walk around and see all these big names, these big, awesome athletes, and it’s humbling and exciting. It makes you feel like there’s so much more that can be done and will be done.”
O’Connor’s first post-collegiate competition was the United States Track and Field Outdoor Nationals, and she placed fourth in the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase with a personal best time of 9 minutes, 31.03 seconds despite falling on the final water jump.
While there was frustration with the fall, there’s plenty of hope in what she was able to do after getting back up.
“I think it’s an indication of good things to come,” O’Connor said. “I went back and watched the race, and what it really was, was me coming into it too fast and not gauging where the hurdle was.
“(U.S. champion) Emma Coburn took some time to talk to me after the race, and she’s a genuinely very kind person. She came up and encouraged me, and said she’s confident that when I can piece together a professional year where I don’t have to do all the collegiate stuff – not that the collegiate stuff is a bad thing – but when I can get myself into some faster, more competitive races, things will start to piece together.”
O’Connor will be in some of those faster races right away, as she will run the steeplechase in Switzerland and Belgium in the first half of July, and the 1,500 meters in a Diamond League race in London on July 24, a race she said she’s very excited about.
While each of her past two races have resulted in personal bests, as well as a third-place finish in the NCAAs and a fourth-place finish in the nationals, O’Connor said she’s happy to have more chances to run in the summer, as those races “left a lot to be desired” with the fall at nationals and a fall off the track the day before the NCAA final, a race many considered her the favorite in.
“Being the favorite is hard, and I think that you kind of have to be in that position once to realize how to manage it,” O’Connor said. “At the end of the day, though, I don’t think that’s the thing that got me. It was more the fall and the stress of that.
“But I was so happy that I was able to experience (being the favorite) and understand how those different pressures culminate and how they can affect you. The thing I learned from (MSU coach Walt Drenth) is to look at those as a learning experience.
“At the end of the day (being the favorite) is just people’s opinion. You have to keep it in perspective and run to get the best out of yourself and just enjoy the fact that you have the opportunity to compete.”
O’Connor will always be a Spartan, but her new affiliation is with Adidas, which she signed with prior to nationals. Signing with an apparel company was a process that she was largely separated from thanks to her agent Paul Doyle. But that doesn’t mean it was a stress-free process.
“You sign with your agent, then your agent – at least this was my experience – your agent goes around and talks to different representatives from shoe companies, and they put together contracts and numbers based on what they think that I’m worth,” O’Connor said. “I didn’t have a lot of control over the situation. My agent Paul Doyle is an incredible guy. He did a great job of keeping me calm. At the end of the day, everything with Adidas worked out perfect. I’m not going to lie and say it wasn’t kind of scary, just not having control over the situation.”
Signing with Adidas will cause an overhaul of O’Connor’s wardrobe, as Michigan State is a Nike school.
“Adidas sent me 20 pairs of shoes, and I tried them on and found one I liked,” O’Connor said. “Their gear is awesome. I won’t be in my Nike stuff, unless I haven’t done laundry in a while.”
Contact Paul Costanzo at (810) 989-6251 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PaulCostanzo.