It’s the first groggy Monday back from Thanksgiving break and Kate and Laura O’Neill ’03 are smiling in the dining hall. Indoor track practice, Kate has just mentioned, begins today.
For the O’Neill sisters, who are history majors, seasons change according to the contours of their daily run.
Indeed, just a week ago the twins and their cross country teammates attacked a Greenville, S.C., course to anchor Yale’s 13th place finish at the NCAA Division I Championships. Kate’s 11th place finish is the best in the history of Yale women’s running. And Laura’s 26th place snagged her All-American honors, too, as it finished the foundation of Yale’s 423 point total score.
Lindsay Mitchell ’03, Amanda Brewster ’03 and Alexandra Sawicki ’04 completed the score that earned the Bulldogs yet another prominent ranking among America’s best teams.
“People who don’t know about cross country don’t know that it’s a team sport, but it really is,” said Kate.
“The season has been so much fun. Nationals were always in the back of our minds, and it’s technically the climax of the season, but that’s not what the sport is about,” she said.
Both sisters emphasized the excitement of the team’s unity over the impersonal allure of Nationals. But what of Kate’s awesome performance there?
“Whatever somebody accomplishes individually doesn’t change what happened in the meet or how everyone supports each other on this team,” she said.
“But in some ways, Nationals makes you more free [as an individual runner],” Laura added. “You’re running in this sea of uniforms, not all of which you recognize from other meets.”
As they close another season with coach Mark Young, who has guided a string of nationally ranked Yale teams to the NCAA finals — including a record-setting third place finish in 1987 — loyalty and love of their team will carry the O’Neills into winter. Most of the cross country team also runs indoor and outdoor track, and Young coaches.
“I remember hating cross country the first time I tried it in high school,” recalled Laura, and she laughed. “But then the team experience was just so great, and it’s even better here.”
The junior and senior runners on this year’s team have been together three years now and have seen the team grow closer and stronger with each season.
“Two of our seniors have been hurt for most of the season, but they have been full of spirit and inspired us by putting so much effort into their cross-training,” said Kate.
“Lindsay [Mitchell] always gets everyone fired up,” said Laura.
She recalled the first big meet of 2000, in her sophomore year. As usual Yale was pitted against several schools with big names in Division I athletics.
“[Mitchell] overheard someone saying ‘what’s Yale doing here?’ and told us that we just had to prove them wrong,” she remembered.
“That’s a whole different kind of pressure,” added Kate.
Yale proceeded to rise from seventh in its league to seventh in the nation following that meet.
“The change was mental,” said Laura.
Neither sister wanted to pursue the mysteries of team chemistry and progress any further.
They have five more seasons to do that, in action if not in words.