Host James Rogers sits down with professional runner and former Michigan State standout Leah O’Connor for an expansive conversation. Now based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the 27-year-old discusses her hometown roots, decorated MSU career and pro running roller-coaster ride. Topics also include mental health, faith, writing, farm life, support systems and Harper (her dog).
At MSU, Leah captured multiple Big Ten titles—cross country, indoor track, outdoor track—and won a national title in the 3,000-meter steeplechase (June 2014) and indoor mile (March 2015). She was a member of the undefeated 2014 MSU women’s cross-country team coached by Walt Drenth that won the national title in dominating fashion.
Leah’s 9:18.85 personal record in the 3K steeplechase set in May 2016 makes her the fifth-fastest American ever in the women’s steeple. Now sponsored by HOKA and coached by Dathan Ritzenhein, Leah is a member of the Gazelle Elite Racing Team.
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The Michigan State University women’s cross-country team captured the NCAA Division I national title on Saturday in Terre Haute, Indiana, but I have to believe the MSU football team’s 42-point drubbing of Rutgers received more coverage over the weekend.
Regardless, I’m here to celebrate the cross-country title and the sensational 2014 season put together by the Spartans. A team from the Mitten taking home a national championship trophy makes me, a Michigan resident, proud.Continue reading →
“I was injured my sophomore cross-country year and my junior year, so I went two consecutive cross-country seasons of battling injuries, trying to help out my team to win Big Tens—it’s always been a back-and-forth battle between Michigan State. It’s been really, really tough. For some reason, I train too hard in the summer after track season, and I end up getting injured in cross-country. I think the hardest moment for me was my junior year when I ended up fracturing a bone in my foot after just months and months of trying to avoid that. And I did that at Pre-Nats, and the following weekend was Big Tens, and our team ended up winning [Big Tens]. It was really bittersweet for me, because I wanted to be a part of it, but I was so happy for them. And at the same time, I was like, ‘Gosh, you don’t get a championship every year.’ We’ve been battling the last two years, and we’ve gotten beat by Michigan State the last two years. I think my teammates wanted to share it with me, but at the same time, it’s different when you’re not in the race or you don’t get to run. After that, I was hungry—I wanted to help the team, I wanted to be a part of a championship. Finally last year, my senior year, I was healthy, and we almost won the Big Ten meet, but the biggest thing was that we got fourth at nationals. That was really, really incredible. That’s almost as cool as winning a championship. It was nice to finally share that with my teammates.”
“Describe that feeling of being fourth at nationals.”
“You know what, we got done, and we were so cold and so defeated in a way, that we were like, ‘Wow, that wasn’t good. Man, it was so tough.’ We’re all just freezing cold, and we got out, and everybody was like smiling and so happy, and we’re like, ‘What happened?’ And then we hear we got fourth, and we’re like, ‘There’s no way we got fourth.’ And we ended up actually getting fourth. We just were ecstatic—that’s what happens when everybody finishes a race and feels like they couldn’t have given anything else. It was defeating because we all were so tired, and we felt like it didn’t go well because it was one of the hardest races that we had ever run. It was 19 degrees, there was ankle-deep mud and water the entire race, so when you get done, you don’t know how you did, because the times aren’t fast, you feel like you’re drowning the whole time. … To share that with your teammates is something that you never forget. It’s hard to explain what it does feel like. It’s unlike any individual thing that I’ve ever accomplished.”
“What’s still on the running bucket list?”
“I don’t have an outdoor season anymore, but I specialize in the steeplechase, and I ran 10:02 last year. I would do anything to break the 10-minute barrier. I’d also like to go to USAs this year. I do think I’m going to give it another run.”