As members of the Yale cross country and track teams, sisters Kate and Laura O’Neill ’03 rarely faced many runners of their caliber. But after standout performances last weekend, the twins will get a chance to compete against the very best athletes in the world.

Last Saturday, the O’Neills competed in the USA Cross Country Championships held in Indianapolis, Ind. Both qualified to run in the World Cross Country Championships in Brussels, Belgium Mar. 20-21.

The O’Neill sisters ran in the longer of the two open women’s races. Kate O’Neill placed fourth, covering the 8K course in a time of 27:38, seven seconds ahead of Laura O’Neill who placed sixth.

“I just tried to have fun with it,” Laura O’Neill said. “The places didn’t change too much after a mile so I thought I’d qualify.”

Colleen De Reuck won the race in a time of 26:16, 31 seconds ahead of runner-up Katie McGregor and more than a minute in front of bronze medalist Ann Marie Brooks-Schwab.

The top six finishers in each race qualified to compete at Worlds. But De Reuck, who placed third at the 2002 World Championships, will forego this year’s race in Belgium to compete instead in the Apr. 3 U.S. Olympic marathon trials. Originally from South Africa, De Reuck represented her former country in the Olympics in 1992, 1996 and 2000. She became a U.S. citizen in 2000.

The O’Neills, by contrast, will definitely compete in March. Qualifying for the Worlds meet has been a long-term goal for the pair.

“I think it will be a little intimidating,” Laura O’Neill said. “But it will be a good learning experience.”

According to Kate O’Neill, the race was an unusual one for cross country. Most courses are not very spectator-friendly, and fans usually see the racers start and then might not see them again until a sprint down the homestretch to the finish. This course at Indianapolis was designed to be more spectator-friendly and consisted of a two-kilometer loop that doubled back on itself. The athletes passed the start eight times and each time, an announcer kept the fans and competitors informed about the place of each runner.

Racing in Indiana in the dead of winter made the contest a test of toughness and mental strength as well as running ability.

“It was really cold,” Laura O’Neill said. “There was snow on the ground and it started snowing during the race.”

The O’Neills are used to such conditions because they largely train outside, occasionally running workouts indoors. But according to Kate O’Neill, the weather was not a big factor.

“Everyone had to run on the same course,” she said. “Fortunately nobody got hurt.”

Kate O’Neill attributed some of her success to the fact that she has a natural training partner in her sister Laura.

“We do most of our training together,” Kate O’Neill said. “It’s easy to lose your concentration on a long run or something.”

Combined, the O’Neill sisters received All-American honors 11 times while at Yale, and they share six school records.

They are the only runners in the Ivy League ever to break 16 minutes in the 5K and 33 minutes in the 10K.

According to Laura O’Neill, they will race in a 10K run on a much bigger stage soon.

“We’ll go to the [Olympic] Trials for the 10,000,” Laura O’Neill said. “The Olympics [will] be a long shot.”