MSU’s O’Connor chases Olympic steeplechase berth

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A former Michigan State Spartan turned pro will be competing in the Olympic Track and Field trials in hopes to make Team USA.

Leah O’Connor was one of the most decorated athletes Michigan State University has ever seen.

She owns the MSU record for the 3,000-meter steeplechase with a time of 9:36.43. She also holds the MSU and NCAA championship record at 4:27.18.

Now sponsored by Adidas, O’Connor won the Big 10 title in the Steeple chase each of her four years as a Spartan.

Steeplechase is a 3,000 meter race featuring barriers and water jumps — it is anything but a comfortable competition.

“They have got to be pretty fearless. There is an element of that kind of athletic fearlessness that really goes a long ways in helping define whether they are good steeplers or not,” said Walt Drenth, MSU director of Track and Field and cross country.

“Most people would not stick their neck out and run over a barrier and push off and try to clear 12 feet, essentially 12 feet of water.”

O’Connor has found the secret formula, but it has not always been smooth sailing.

“I have grown the most from my failures as an athlete. It has been a really tough and rewarding road. I would not be able to handle any of this without a team of people, obviously,” O’Connor said.

Following her collegiate career, O’Connor decided to pursue running at the professional level, staying in East Lansing to train.

A big reason for staying was her coach Walt Drenth.

“I trust him so much. If he says I can do something, I will blindly be like, ‘Yes, I can do that.’ All throughout college he would tell me in a workout, ‘You can do this.’ And even if I did not believe it, I would try,” said O’Connor.

After setting a personal record of 9:18 at the Nike Prefontaine in May, knocking over 13 seconds off her previous best.

Her next step is the Olympics trials to secure a spot on Team USA.

“She has been in a really competitive environment. She was a national champion in steeple two years ago, national champion in the indoor mile,” said Drenth. “She’s been in those kind of competitive environments so I don’t think the Olympic trials will be much of a difference for her.”

Qualifying round for the 3,000-meter steeplechase is Monday afternoon in Eugene, Oregon and the finals for the event are Thursday.

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