Breaking all previous Ivy League records, Kate O’Neill ’03 took second place in the NCAA national championship race Nov. 25 with a 19:45.9 time. It was her third appearance in the national race.
Not only was the race familiar to Kate O’Neill, but even her major competitor had remained the same since high school. University of North Carolina runner Shalane Flanagan, who placed first nationally in 19:36.0, ran in high school for Marblehead High School, a rival of O’Neill’s Milton High School.
“I’ve had a couple interviews, mostly with the local TV channels back home,” Kate O’Neill said. “But that might be just because the first place runner [Flanagan] was from there, too.”
O’Neill’s finish was the best by an Ivy runner ever. Cornell’s Pam Hunt held the previous high mark, placing sixth in 1991.
O’Neill’s twin sister Laura O’Neill ’03, also competing at the national meet for her third time, placed 13th in 20:05.8. The sisters were the only Yale representatives, male or female, at the national meet, which took place in Terre Haute, Ind.
Placing so high was a possibility, Kate O’Neill said, but a possibility she had barely thought about before.
“I still can’t really believe it,” Kate O’Neill said.
Head coach Mark Young was there to cheer them on and provide support, she said, although the rest of the Bulldogs did not attend.
“We talked the night before about what to do and what to expect,” Kate O’Neill said. “He wanted us to stay with the front pack, and then give it all we’ve got at the end.”
O’Neill followed this strategy precisely. With Flanagan leading practically the whole race, Stanford runner Alicia Craig started a strong kick to overtake the lead with one mile left to go. O’Neill then gave chase, and eventually prevailed.
“Laura [O’Neill] and I both decided to leave this game with no regrets,” Kate O’Neill said. “It’s our last cross country meet at Yale.”
O’Neill said some teams from California arrived bundled up warmly, trying to protect themselves against the temperature in the 30s.
“It was cold, but that’s what we were expecting,” Kate O’Neill said.
Because the location of the national championship changes every year, O’Neill had no experience at Terre Haute. Still, due to the course’s flat terrain, her 19:45 was her best time of the year on a 6-kilometer course.
O’Neill said the outcome of any race depends a lot on the runner’s attitude before starting.
“I went in hoping for a higher position [than last year], which affects the race you’re in,” she said.
Last year in the NCAA championship, Kate O’Neill placed 11th in 20:58, and Laura O’Neill finished 26th in 21:13.
Kate O’Neill said she plans to run track this spring and compete in the 3-kilometer and 5-kilometer events.