Staying on track
Cross country senior Leah O'Connor has become one of the most decorated athletes in MSU history. But the runner, who most recently snagged the national NCAA indoor mile title, has come a long way in the last five years
There are a lot of “lasts” coming for MSU senior track star Leah O’Connor.
Whether it be last practices, last races or last classes, her days at MSU are numbered.
Her accomplishments are remarkable — 2014 outdoor 3,000 meter steeplechase champion, 2014 cross country national champion, 2015 indoor national mile title. The list goes on.
And as one of the most decorated athletes in MSU history heads into the last season of her college career, it’s hard to imagine how, in the span of five years, she’s gone from small town farm girl to a woman with a professional running career in the future. But amidst the trophies and medals and national championships, what many of her friends, family and coaches will tell you, is there’s also Leah O’Connor, the person.
Always a runner
O’Connor was born into a family of runners in the small farm town of Croswell, Michigan. Population: 2,447.
“It was just something that you did,” Leah O’Connor’s father, George O’Connor, said of running. “It was never a chore. ... It was just a fun thing to do.”
Given the circumstances, even though Leah O’Connor’s parents are quick to point out their children were never forced to run, it wasn’t long before all six of the O’Connor children fell in love with the sport anyway, participating in 5K races from ages as young as 8-10 years old.
“I thought they were so fun,” Leah O’Connor said. “It was just kind of my passion from the time I was a little kid.”
But it wasn’t until her junior year at Croswell-Lexington High School, when she won the Division II state titles in the 1,600 and 800 meter races, that George and Janet O’Connor looked at each other.
She might have a future in this sport, they thought.
It was also around this time that Leah O’Connor — who aimed to get a scholarship for running — realized if she committed herself, she could make her dreams a reality.
Not long after, MSU track and cross country head coach Walt Drenth came to her home for a recruiting visit. The only school, Leah’s parents said, who made such a trip.
As the O’Connors sat with Drenth for dinner, they found they could trust him and appreciated that he was straightforward and answered all their questions.
For George O’Connor, who served as an assistant coach for his daughter in high school, if there was one thing he was especially concerned about, it was the fear of her being injured from a drastic leap in mileage.
“I said, ‘You have to promise me that you will not work her too much too soon,’” George O’Connor said. “And I remember (Drenth) promised me. He said, ‘We’ll do whatever’s best for Leah.’”
That sold them. Leah O’Connor became a Spartan.
Path to stardom
O’Connor came to MSU in the fall of 2010, an athlete as raw as they come.
The talent was undoubtedly there. But it would take some time before the 17-year-old could make the transition from the 20-mile weeks she’d been running in high school to the 70-mile weeks at the collegiate level. To prepare for this, O’Connor would train as a redshirt her freshman year.
At some early point at MSU, O’Connor was introduced to what’s become her signature event — the 3,000 meter steeplechase, a seven-lap race whose participants jump over five barriers per lap, one of which includes a water pit.
The first time O’Connor tried the event, it took her close to 12 minutes to complete. But after four years of hard work, she blazed her way to the 2014 national championship in a school record time of 9:36.43.
At the time, many who saw the race thought she had come out of nowhere. But to O’Connor, it’s an example of what four years of hard work and great coaching can get you.
“My seasons, the way that it’s worked out, is every season of every year. I’ve made improvements and built upon the strength from the season before,” she said.
Later in the fall of 2014, the good times continued to roll, as she was a part of MSU’s undefeated women’s cross country team, which cruised through the season to the program’s first ever national championship.
“That has been the sweetest thing,” she said. “To be able to win a national championship with the girls I came in with as a 17-year-old ... It’s irreplaceable and it’s better than any individual title.”
It hasn’t always been this way during her career. However, if there’s a person who’s always been there when she’s needed it, it’s Drenth.
“I’ve gone through times of my career when I’ve been at a low and not feeling like a champion necessarily, and I’ve gone to (Drenth’s) office, utilized his Kleenexes and just cried my eyes out,” O’Connor said.
But the hard work and tough times would once again pay off, as she would take the 2015 NCAA indoor mile title in a meet record time of 4:27.18.
“That’s exactly how I pictured it in my head,” O’Connor said of the race. “I had this plan coming into the race but you never guarantee that it’s going to come together ... but it did ... just to have it all happen, it’s just this extreme feeling of gratitude.”
And for Drenth, it’s amazing to see all that she’s become through the years.
“She continues to get better every time she takes the track it seems,” Drenth told msuspartans.com. “Not only has she been an exceptional leader, but she’s been an equally great person.”
It’s a term tossed around so often in sports. But for O’Connor, she doesn’t necessarily care about her legacy, but rather the legacy of her team.
“If individually, people look at what I’ve done on the track and they’re inspired by that and that makes them want to chase after what they want to do, that’s awesome,” she said. “But I hope that it’s not about me, but it’s about what’s been accomplished as a whole these last five years.”
Of the long list of people she likes to thank, one of the first she brings up is teammate and training partner Rachele Schulist — a talented redshirt sophomore who placed fourth at the 2014 NCAA cross country nationals.
Schulist, who says her relationship with O’Connor began simply as them being teammates, has since blossomed into an amazing friendship. And after MSU’s group of seniors graduate this spring, Schulist said she only hopes to lead as gracefully as her predecessors have.
“(O’Connor) is such a good example of a woman who is not only an accomplished runner, but strong in her values and pure of heart,” Schulist said. “I do hope to be a leader for the team and be the type of role model that Leah was to me — someone who is kind-hearted, driven, compassionate and relentless in their quest for success.”
But for fellow senior teammate Sara Kroll — who’s been roommates with O’Connor for four of the last five years — while she recognizes their collegiate careers are coming to a close, she knows their friendship will live on.
“When it comes time for us to graduate and be done ... it’s going to be really sad,” Kroll said. “But I know for a fact that we’ll stay really close ... (O’Connor is) not only my best friend, but one of my closest friends. My sister, essentially.”
If there’s one more thing that’s important to bring up when assessing O’Connor’s career, it would be her unwavering Christian faith, which has kept her grounded all her life — whether it be through good times or bad.
“(My faith) reminds me that I’m more than just a runner,” she said. “No matter what I do, I want to make sure that I make it clear that God has control over this ... and I hope that my running and my life is a testament to my faith ... and if I can’t run another day in my life, I’m still going to be fine.”
It’s the last first week of outdoor track of O’Connor’s college career. And it’s on this sunny afternoon in East Lansing she enters the confines of Jenison Field House — the building where she’s logged countless workouts throughout the years.
Just four days have passed since she became the second fastest woman in the history of the NCAA. As she maneuvers her way through a swarm of high schoolers occupying Jenison Field House for a track meet that afternoon, it’s almost poetic. She was one of them five years ago.
“Hey, celebrity!” a friend says as they pass in a hallway. This is another one of those poetic moments.
“I knew I wanted to go to college for (running),” she said. “But I didn’t expect college to go as well as it has. I just wanted to see how good I could be and that was just an abstract thought.”
So yes, her days at MSU are winding down. But as Leah O’Connor works toward one last run at a national title in the spring, or takes her last runs with teammates along MSU’s Red Cedar River, she’s savoring every last second.
“I try to remind myself, soon enough you’re not going to have this,” she said. “I just want to soak up all the time I can with my teammates and my friends.”