BURNABY — Pardon the pun, but Middle-distance U is starting to make an even bigger splash at the NCAA Div. 2 national level.
If you know your Simon Fraser Clan track and field history, you’re well-versed in the national championship reign of its women’s middle-distance stars like Lindsey Butterworth, Helen Crofts and Olympian Jessica Smith, all of whom took turns dominating at 800m and 1,500m as the program both wrapped up its NAIA run and evolved towards its current station as the NCAA’s only non-U.S. school.
This season, however, you can’t help but notice the pronounced splash Clan runners are making in the water pit, as well as the 28 hurdle barriers they’ve expertly navigated in every 3,000m steeplechase event they have entered.
How successful have they been?
Nothing will be 100 per cent official until the national championship meet invitations are extended on Tuesday, but heading into this weekend’s GNAC championship meet Friday and Saturday at Monmouth, Ore., it’s looking very much like Simon Fraser could send a total of five men’s and women’s athletes to the national finals in the steeplechase.
On the women’s side, Julia Howley, Chelsea Ribeiro and Olivia Willett have already posted times which have them sitting in the Top 16 nationally.
And on the men’s side, Aaron Ahl and Pierre-Louis Detourbe have performances which place them in the Top 18 nationally.
While the entire quintet is skilled enough to compete throughout the entire canon of middle-distance’s more standard races, Simon Fraser head coach Brit Townsend isn’t making any apologies for a resourceful approach to enhancing her team’s overall ability to succeed.
“For a distance runner, there is a drastic jump from 1,500m to 5,000m, so the (3,000m) steeplechase is a race that falls somewhere in the middle,” says Townsend, who during the program’s NAIA-era produced both men’s and women’s national steeplechase champions in Ryan Brockerville and Meredith MacGregor.
“There is also not necessarily the same kind of depth as you might find in some of the other races,” Townsend continued of the steeplechase. “We’ve been able to convince some of our athletes that making the move gives them more of a chance for success at the conference and national levels. But with all of that said, it still takes a certain athlete in both personality and physical make-up to be able to run that event.”
A SWITCH INTO GLIDE
Julia Howley’s plan for her senior year of collegiate track and field was always to run in a pair of finals at the NCAA championships.
Two seasons ago, the St. John’s, NL native would likely have told you that her ideal double would include both the 1,500m and her specialty 5,000m.
Yet as she returned earlier this spring for her final collegiate outdoor season, one which has come after taking a redshirt refresher in 2018, that plan has changed… and for the better.
The 16:10.89 Howley clocked in the 5,000m on April 17 is D-2’s fourth-best this season and will in all likelihood give her the chance to compete at the distance when the nationals run May 23-25 in Kingsville, Texas.
And while her 4:26.01 over 1,500m, 13th best at D-2, is also worthy of a national championship berth, her decision to change gears makes her a true dual-medal threat.
Last season, Howley took a break from the outdoor season with the Clan, but still trained on her own as an unattached competitor.
As she contemplated her return to the Clan in 2019, she opened her mind to the words of head coach Townsend, who had earlier suggested that her gritty and explosive nature on the track profiled that of a top steeplechaser.
“I thought the steeplechase might be a good fit, and so if I was going to redshirt the year, it would give me some time to get used to the event before I used my collegiate eligibility on it,” Howley said Wednesday after practice. “I was a figure skater, so I was a good jumper back in the day, plus I had little experience with hurdles so it wasn’t completely unfamiliar territory. It went really well.”
That is an understatement.
Having never tried the event, she found instant success and by last June, at the PTF High Performance meet in Portland, she had clocked a personal-best 10:01.88. In early September, at the Canadian track and field championships in Ottawa, the rookie finished fifth in the country in her new event at 10:09.96.
With all of that in mind, it was perhaps no surprise to see just what kind of momentum Howley carried into the 2019 outdoor season for the Clan.
In what was her first crack at the distance collegiately, March 29 at the Stanford Invitational, Howley clocked a 10:03.19 which until earlier this month stood as the top time in all of NCAA Div. 2. It also broke MacGregor’s school record of 10:26.83 set in 2007. Last week, back at Stanford, during the Payton Jordan Invite, Alicja Konieczek of Western Colorado (9:52.32) and Eilish Flanagan (9:55.25) of Adams State each surpassed her time, bumping her down to third.
Yet Howley knows that if she is placed within a more competitive field of racers, she can potentially approach or better last summer’s numbers at nationals.
“As that race approached, I knew I would have to run it on my own,” she said of her performance at the Stanford Invitational. “Once the heat sheets came out and I was not in the fast section, I realized that I would have to run the race out of the pack and I approached it the right way. I got my (national) qualification done.”
Yet for all of her accomplishments, Howley isn’t taking anything for granted as it relates to the final meet of her university life.
“I think that it’s very easy to get caught up in the now, but when I take the time to reflect on my entire collegiate career, thinking of even qualifying for nationals when I was a freshman seemed so unattainable,” says Howley. “Vying for a national title… I think it’s a testament to what can happen when you keep showing up because I was not a top recruit when I came here. I’ve worked hard and I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by the right people and the right resources. Now, it’s exciting to go after that first-place finish.”
“…THE MENTAL BARRIER IS THE BIG THING”
Chelsea Ribeiro, a redshirt junior from Surrey’s Semiahmoo Secondary, has run the steeplechase since ninth grade and now eight years in, she is experiencing big breakthroughs.
Last season, she put together a personal best 10:58 at the Azusa Pacific meet, but this season, she shaved 20 seconds off that mark when she clocked a 10:38.40 back on March 23 at the Willamette Invitational in Salem, Ore.
“It was definitely a bit surprising to start out the season like that,” Ribeiro said in reflection Wednesday. “But at the same time, I knew I was in good shape going into the season. Unfortunately, I have tended to get injured late in seasons, so I wanted to make that my moment and really go for it.”
While Howley made a late switch to the steeplechase, Ribeiro has embraced it throughout her career.
“I just randomly tried it at a meet and I instantly fell in love with it,” says Ribeiro, who initially started her career at NCAA Div. 1 Eastern Washington before transferring to SFU. “Some people might see it as an easier event to do, but I completely disagree. Not everyone can do it. You have to be aggressive right off the start. In a straight 3-K you can pace yourself and get into a groove. In steeple, part of the challenge is you are constantly jumping over things, and if you’re in a big group, that can be difficult if you find yourself in a bad spot. Honestly, I’ve just loved the challenge that has come with it.”
Additionally, PoCo-Riverside Secondary grad and Coquitlam native Olivia Willett, a sophomore, has enjoyed a banner season.
Willett, as late as April 19 at the Bryan Clay Invite, had clocked an 11:15.47. Yet at the Portland Twilight meet on May 3, she may well have booked her national tourney berth, turning in a personal-best time some 33 seconds swifter at 10:42.19.
On the men’s side, Clan teammates Aaron Ahl (9:02.10) and Pierre Louis-Detourbe (9:02.73) have near-identical season-best times and each is looking forward to the prospect of wearing Clan colours at the national championships.
Ahl, a sophomore from Calgary, has been running steeplechase since his days at William Aberhart Secondary.
To him, the essence of the event is doing all of the little things right because it’s a race littered with potential momentum killers.
“I think in steeplechase, the mental barrier is the big thing, because not only are you getting drained from running a 3-K race, you have to make sure you’re getting over the hurdles without falling,” he says. “And then the water pit is the most important one, because every lap it’s the one you have to focus on. Screwing up there can screw up the whole race. It can take you down or it can give you a big injury. Fall off your pace or trip on a barrier and it’s so hard to get your rhythm back.”
For his part, Ahl has saved his best for last.
He went from a 9:31.08 to start the season at Willamette in early March, to a 9:07 a week later in San Francisco, to his signature 9:02.10 at Azusa Pacific late last month.
A CLASSY QUINTET
Simon Fraser had previously qualified just two steeplechasers for nationals over its first eight post-season eligible NCAA campaigns.
In 2014, freshman Oliver Jorgensen qualified as first Clan male track and field athlete to make Div. 2 nationals in any event.
Last season, senior Reta Dobie became SFU’s first female national meet qualifier in the event.
From all of that to five in the same season?
“Having so many of us, there is a true group mentality,” says Ahl. “You really know where you are at when you have that training partner who is going to help you through workouts. It’s really helped us all relate to one another better. We’ve been able to help each other get better and it’s just given us all a better chance to get to nationals”
Adds Howley “I think this is a statement to our group and our program. We’re all chasing the same goals and now we could have the chance to really support each at nationals.”
And who knows, maybe this big splash is the first wave of a new cult of steeplechase excellence atop Burnaby Mountain?
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