For some who make it to the Olympics, the medal is all that matters. For others, just getting there is golden.
On Aug. 27, Kate O’Neill ’03 ran as one of two Americans in the women’s 10,000-meter final in the 28th Olympiad in Athens. O’Neill, who was one of the strongest female distance runners in the Ivy League while at Yale, was the first Eli distance runner to compete at the Games since Frank Shorter in 1976. O’Neill finished 21st out of 31 runners with a time of 32:24.04, only two places and about six seconds behind teammate Elva Dryer. The surprise gold medalist in the event — the longest distance race held on a track — was a twenty-year-old from China, Huina Xing. She claimed first ahead of three Ethiopians with a time of 30:24.36 by taking the final 1,000 meters by storm.
O’Neill, only a year out of college, said she was excited to be running against such accomplished distance runners, especially since many women hit their peak in this event during their late twenties.
“Standing on the start line with [Ethiopia's] Derartu Tulu, [the Netherlands'] Lornah Kiplagat, [England's] Paula Radcliffe, Huina Xing, and so many other accomplished runners was an honor,” O’Neill said. “In a way, I still can’t really believe I was there.”
O’Neill said she was also wowed by the number of people in the stadium and inspired by the men’s 200-meter medal ceremony, which took place right before her race and featured a U.S. sweep of the medals.
O’Neill, who earned second-place NCAA finishes in both cross-country and the 10,000-meter as a Bulldog, said she put her heart into this race — the hardest of her career.
“I had hoped to place a little higher, but I knew that I was racing the best women in the world,” O’Neill said. “I feel like I gave everything on the track. I left the track with no regrets.”
O’Neill also said being part of the Olympic team was an amazing experience, from living with athletes from all over the world in the Olympic Village to marching in the Opening Ceremonies to trading pins with other athletes.
She credited her Olympic appearance to her family, including twin sister Laura O’Neill ’03, and Yale track coach Mark Young ’68, both of whom traveled with O’Neill first to Crete for pre-training and later to Athens.
Kate O’Neill said she also felt honored to be the first Yalie to compete in a distance event in 28 years. Shorter ran the marathon in 1972 and 1976, receiving gold and silver medals respectively.
“I feel like I am at the back of the pack of the international scene right now, but Frank Shorter accomplished so many things on the international scene,” O’Neill said. “I would love to accomplish even a small fraction of all that he did.”
O’Neill said she will definitely work to make it to the 2008 games in Beijing and hopes to improve steadily. She will be working on developing a training plan with Young and Laura O’Neill in the next few months.