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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“One of the things I’ve learned from these coaches is that you can learn so much through running that applies to your life. The skills of wanting to be excellent and wanting to work hard and be motivated are skills that you can learn in your work, in your relationships with people, in life after running. You’re building the person you want to be. Cross-country, for me, has helped shape the person that I am today.”
“My main advice [to high school runners] would be to have confidence in yourself, especially at their age, they don’t even know their potential. Not to be scared of working hard and committing yourself to the sport. Continue to enjoy it. In a race, don’t be afraid to say, ‘What can I do today? I just want to leave it all out there.’”
“As a head coach, there’s so much you need to balance, but the biggest for the athletes is that balance of being upbeat and positive but still having an intense, serious approach to the sport. I’m serious about my sport, so I want you to be, too. But cross-country is so unique, because you get so many different runners from so many different paths. … It’s important in life to have your fun, but then also, some days you have to get down and work.”
“My parents have motivated me the most, because they always said, ‘Do your best. Give your best effort, but always have fun out there.’ Before every race, they make notes of motivation, and I find them in different places. They started it this year, and I feel like I’ve done better because of them.”
“Coach Hart has definitely helped get me where I am now in running. Without her, I wouldn’t be doing cross-country now, because in eighth grade, I didn’t do it. She was my coach in seventh grade, and I didn’t like track, so I didn’t do it in eighth grade. She just made me want to try it again. All the advice she has given me and all her support has helped me do much better than I ever could have dreamed of right now.”
L: “One person that’s inspired me is my dad, because he was really good at sports in high school, and I’ve always wanted to follow up on him and be good at something. … His main thing was just do it for yourself. Running is a big mental sport; you gotta be really headstrong when you’re doing it, and he said, ‘Try not to think about it. Just go for it.’” R: “My middle school coach, Mr. Alspaugh, was the one who got me started with cross-country and encouraged me to run all summer and all year long to do really well my eighth-grade year. He then encouraged me to help lead the team and make other kids better, too.”
“I brought my time down every mile and finished faster than I did at the previous race, only I felt like 150 times better at the end of [today’s] race than I did then.” “How’s the sandwich?” “Oh my gosh, dude. Honey 9-grain oat for days!”
“I would say the biggest difference between high school and college running is, in college, everyone wants to be there. You’re doing it because you love the sport. Also, one advice I’d give to high schoolers is, even if you don’t think you can make a team, just try out. D3 running is so much fun; it’s the best decision I’ve made for college. Just being on a team, continuing my athletic career, it’s not much of a time commitment compared to like a D1 program. I can still do what I love and get my degree.”