Interview with Ann Gaffigan
by Becky Wexler

Ann Gaffigan on her way to breaking 10:00 for the first time in the steeplechase final at the 2004 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships.
(All photos: Alison Wade/New York Road Runners)
Gaffigan clears the final water barrier in the steeplechase at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials. The steeplechase will be an Olympic event for women for the first time in 2008.
Gaffigan won the 2004 national steeplechase title in a then-American record of 9:39.35.

Recent University of Nebraska graduate Ann Gaffigan set an American record of 9:39.35 in the 3,000 meter steeplechase at the U.S. Olympic Trials on July 16, accomplishing something she had only dared to occasionally dream about. Although her record was short-lived (Briana Shook ran 9:29.32 in Europe a couple of weeks later), the new PR gave Gaffigan a burst of confidence and was an excellent way for her to end a successful collegiate career.

Despite being a state champion as an Illinois high schooler, Gaffigan made even more strides under the tutelage of veteran Nebraska coach Jay Dirksen. She earned numerous conference and regional honors and was selected as Nebraska's female athlete of the year based on her consistently great performances both on the track and in the classroom (she graduated with a 3.88 GPA in computer science).

Luckily for both Gaffigan and her old Nebraska teammates, she'll be sticking around on campus as an assistant coach to Dirksen. Balancing a full-time job with her coaching responsibilities should be a perfect fit for this overachiever.

We caught up with Gaffigan as she was packing to leave for two meets in Europe. How has life changed for you since your big televised moment at the US Olympic Trials when you won the steeplechase and set a then-American record?
Ann Gaffigan:
I think I have learned a lot about myself over the past few months. I realized that I was capable of achieving the dreams I had as a young runner — dreams that I had shoved to the back of my mind after several years of struggling with my running in college. I am so blessed to have such great support from my family and friends. Without them I don't know if I would have persevered through the rough times. But I think every runner needs to realize that you're not going to progress steadily upward.

There's a part in Once a Runner that likens progression to a spiral. You swing up, then down, then back up even higher. You have to keep the faith and believe in yourself when you're on the downswing. My dad gave me a great quote by Jack Nicklaus that I have up on my bathroom mirror: "Once you have seen talent, if you hang in there and work at it, it will always resurface." You have to keep plugging away, knowing that eventually it will pay off.

FW: Did you shock yourself with the performance, or did you have a feeling it was coming, based on how your workouts were going?
I knew I was ready for another PR. I think I was lacking some confidence at NCAAs, because I had not raced against women of that caliber in the steeplechase before. So I knew that just going to the Trials and racing as if I belonged there was going to translate into an improvement for me. As I continued my workouts after NCAAs and leading up to the Trials, I felt stronger and stronger every time I stepped onto the track or the trail. Maybe it was that school was over and all I had to concentrate on was training. Maybe it was because I was really motivated by my PR at NCAAs. Maybe it was because I was so excited that I was going to be able to compete at the US Olympic Trials. Probably it was a combination of all of these things.

I always visualize my big races in the weeks leading up to them. I usually visualize doing the unthinkable, just because it gets my adrenaline going. I actually visualized coming through the finish line with one lap to go and seeing the clock say 8:25. I knew that if I made it to the last lap with that time on the split clock, I could break 9:40, which would just be unreal to me. I visualized how much pain I would be in to get to that point, and I visualized how I wouldn't care when I saw the clock and I would bust a 74 last quarter and break the 9:40 barrier. It was fun to think about, but it was also scary, and I didn't really think it was going to happen. I used to dream about breaking 10:00 for 2 miles in high school. My PR was about 30 seconds off that, but it was fun to think about.

So when I came through the last lap and the clock did say 8:25, my adrenaline started pumping so bad because I just could not believe it. I felt so out of control on that last lap because I was so desperate to break 9:40. I knew I would either be really close — which would be disappointing — or I would do really do it. I didn't know until I got into the tent after the finish what my actual time was. I didn't know what to do with myself.

The difference between NCAAs and the Trials was more than just another five weeks of workouts. It was a huge boost in confidence. I realized that I was capable of doing more than I had believed I could. I was so grateful to feel like myself again. It is so frustrating to be running well below the level think you should be at. But now my problem was I was used to running below where I wanted to be. That was hard to break out of, but NCAAs finally did it for me. The dreams I had as a young high school runner were coming true, and when I got to Trials, I felt like I belonged there and that I was so blessed to have that opportunity. I wanted to make the best of it.

FW: It's obviously the event you've had the most success at, but is the steeple your favorite running event?
Absolutely. I like to do things the hard way — that's just the way Gaffigans are. So I like the steeple: it's long, it's dangerous, and you have to hurdle barriers and water pits. It doesn't get any better. When it's not steeple season, I do love cross country races, especially muddy, cold ones. And eventually I'd like to do marathons.

FW: How did you get started with the steeplechase? Was it your idea to try it?
It was actually my coach Jay Dirksen's idea. He said to me the summer before my freshman year, 'I think you should try the steeplechase. They're having it for women this year.' I said, 'Okay!' It was really frustrating for me at first because I was horrible over the hurdles. But you have to give it some time.

FW: Your athletic background is both in running and soccer, right? Did you have to give up soccer to concentrate on track?
Yes, I played soccer as long as I could, doing both track and soccer in the spring in high school, but I had to give it up for track in college. I'm glad; soccer is so much fun, but I would not have been as successful at it. I got to play an indoor game recently with my friend Brooke when I visited her in Kentucky. I assisted her on a couple of goals, and it was great to revisit the old days. But was I sore for the next week!

FW: Backing up a bit, how did you decide on Nebraska?
Jay was the biggest draw for me. His philosophy fit mine so well and he's had so many years of experience. I looked at the kind of training he had his athletes do and the kind of people he's had success with, and I knew we would work well together. And we do. Jay really works hard for his athletes — you can always rely on him. I also loved the atmosphere here. People are so friendly and I have met so many amazing athletes here. Being in an environment like that reminds you of what you want to do with your life and who you want to be.

FW: Talk a bit about your progression throughout your collegiate career. I remember reading that you had some setbacks early on in college. How did you deal with them and stay positive despite the fact that you weren't getting the results you wanted?
I had a pretty good freshman year. I placed second in the Big 12 Indoor mile and placed third outdoors in the Big 12 steeplechase. I did not make it to Nationals. My sophomore year, I made it as a wild card individual to the NCAA Cross Country Championships. I placed 98th. The following indoor season, I felt like I was really ready to make a breakthrough when I started getting sick. We didn't really know what exactly was wrong, but basically I was run down [because] my school work [was] becoming very demanding. I wasn't getting enough sleep and I would be up all night coughing after hard indoor workouts or races. It wasn't just 'track hack.' Sometimes I would have a fever, and then it would go away. I kept getting sore throats. With all the training and school never letting up, I just never got better. I struggled through indoor and outdoor and was relieved when the summer came.

I got back on my feet for cross country, but when indoor came around again, I had the same problems. This time they diagnosed me with exercise-induced asthma. I was on three different inhalers and a pill at one point. I felt like they made hardly any difference. Sometimes my lungs would burn so badly after workouts that I all I could do was lie down and wait for the pain to subside. I felt like I was ruining my lungs every time I ran.

FW: How did you address the problem this time around?
That outdoor season, my brother, Matt, and I had been talking back and forth about our struggles with our workouts. He was doing some pretty heavy training for triathlons. He felt like he could not recover quickly enough from one hard workout in order to do the next one well. He read some articles and talked to someone about nutrition and he tried some changes in his diet. He began eating more natural foods, especially fruits and vegetables. His wife was always harping on him to eat foods high in antioxidants because he had cancer the previous year, and antioxidants are known to fight carcinogens. So he also drank lots of green tea and ate lots of prunes, blueberries, strawberries, pineapples, honey, you name it. There's a whole list of high-antioxidant foods. He said he was amazed at how much better he felt in just a week's time.

I figured, hey, I might as well try it too. I had always been good about not eating bad foods, but I realized I had not been very conscientious about making sure to eat lots of the good foods. I started eating a lot more fruits and vegetables and trying to make sure I was getting lots of antioxidants in my body. I also tried to make sure I was eating a variety of meats as well: red meat, chicken, fish and pork. And I started taking a multivitamin in addition to the vitamin C and vitamin E I had taken for years. I also made sure I was getting plenty of sleep.

It worked. I started to feel stronger in a couple weeks. We went to Mt. SAC in April, and I ran a PR of 4:31 for the 1,500 meters. I got sixth in the steeple at Big 12s and missed qualifying for NCAAs by one spot at Regionals.

FW: So after taking care of the health problems, did you change your training heading into your final cross country season?
Entering my senior year, I decided I didn't want to have any regrets. I wanted to look back on my senior year, whether it had ended on a good or bad note, and be able to say that I had done everything in my power to be successful. So I talked to Jay and we set it up so I would work up to 100-mile weeks that summer. That went well, and though I was feeling the miles early in the cross country season, once I started tapering, I began to see the rewards. We won our regional meet, and I placed second. We got 30th at NCAAs, and I was 71st. Not bad, but I had been hoping for All-American.

So I jacked the mileage back up over the winter and resolved to do things differently this year so they wouldn't end up like the previous two years. I did 5K and 10K workouts, instead of mile workouts, to build my strength. I tried to run outside instead of indoors whenever possible. I kept my mileage high and tried to focus on the outdoor season without worrying too much about indoor. The highlight of my indoor season was the Big 12 meet. We placed fourth in the DMR, and I placed fifth in the mile and fourth in the 3K. That was something I had always wanted to be able to do — double or triple at the conference meet, where we needed the points.

Outdoors, I kept my workouts big, or high in volume. I ran 10K and 5K workouts when I wasn't doing a steeple workout. I bugged Jay to make us do more repeats. I asked him to not taper me very much for any meets until nationals. I have learned that I have to keep my strength up throughout the season. It keeps my lungs strong so that I don't have asthma problems and it allows me to make it to the last lap of a steeple and have something left in the tank. If I had started tapering for the Big 12 meet, six weeks before Nationals, I would have shown up at Nationals feeling sluggish and out of shape.

Instead, I showed up and felt ready to go. I had taken 30 seconds off my PR that season and my workouts were showing that I could take off more. I was excited to be at outdoor NCAAs for the first time and was also excited we had [a preliminary round]. I felt that my strength would give me an advantage there. I ran 10:12 in the prelims feeling relaxed and controlled and I realized that I had the opportunity of my life: to qualify for the US Olympic Trials. I needed to run under 10 flat. That was 13 seconds, but I felt like there was a chance if I played my cards right.

My roommate and best friend Anne Shadle, who also ran the steeple at NCAAs, put up two pieces of paper on our mirror with gum: one said '9:59' and the other said 'Believe.' Every time I saw them on race day, I was reminded of what my purpose was going to be that night. I didn't want to pass up such a great opportunity. I was pulled along by some great runners in that race, and I just barely dipped under the 10:00 barrier [she ran 9:59.75 to finish fifth].

FW: You had an excellent academic record at Nebraska as well — did you find it hard to balance everything?
Some semesters were not too bad, but others were miserable. Overall though, it was worth it and I feel like I got a very good education at Nebraska. They always pushed us to work hard at academics and to not just focus on our sport and I'm so grateful for that. It's important to be well-rounded and to capitalize on all of your abilities, not just one.

FW: What was your high school career like? Did you have a lot of success?
I won the 3,200m state championship my sophomore and senior years. I won the state cross country title my junior year. I had mono the spring of my junior year, and it took me a while to get back from that. I never made it out of the Foot Locker Midwest Regional. I was not at that level yet.

FW: You mentioned that you increased your mileage to 100 or so last summer. What kind of mileage do you run now?
Since getting to 100 miles per week, I have rarely dropped below 70. After the Rieti Meet, I am hoping to work back up to 100 miles again to get some good base training in.

FW: Do you do any cross training (lifting weights, swimming, etc.)?
We do core exercises with body weight. I don't actually lift weights. It's a lot of balancing and using your core muscles that you use while running. I think it's really helped out everybody's form. In steeple, it's helped a lot with balance.

FW: What are some of your staple workouts during both cross country and track season?
A staple steeple workout we do leading up to a big race is a 2,000m repeat with all the hurdles and water jumps, a 800 jog rest, a 1,000m repeat with hurdles and water jumps for the last 800m, a 600 jog rest, and a 600m repeat with the water jump and last hurdle in the last 200m. It is a good one because the 2,000m repeat really gives you a sense of what kind of 3K time you can run. The 600m simulates the last part of a race, where you're running very hard and still need to get over those last hurdles with some control.

For non-steeple workouts, I like doing 10K-type repeats, like 6 x mile or 10 x 800m. Then sometimes we'll combine with the miler group and do a ladder, like 1,200m, 1,000m, 800m, 600m, 400m, 200m. Those are really fun. I like bringing the distance down and running faster and faster as the workout goes on.

During cross country, my favorite workouts are the ones out on our home course at Pioneers Park. My favorite is when we do 3,000m, 2,000m, 1,000m. You really have to work on your pacing in that one to get through it and our course is a beast. If you can handle that workout well, you can race anywhere.

FW: What do you consider some of the highlights of your collegiate career? I imagine your team's win at the NCAA Midwest Regional in cross country last year was one of them.
That was one of the best days of my life. We were so happy and shocked. We knew we were capable of doing better than we had all season, but had never all put it together on the same day. It was even sweeter because we had been projected to get third. I was so happy to end my senior season like that and with such a great group of girls. We had all become very close that season and it showed.

Another favorite day was Big 12s outdoors when Anne Shadle and I went 1-2 in the steeplechase. We had worked hard together for three years on that event and had talked about sweeping it, but had not come close yet. It was extra special because we are such close friends. I think we really empowered each other in that race; I knew she was thinking about me and she knew I was thinking about her.

FW: What have you been up to since the Trials, both running and life-wise?
Well, immediately after I came back from California, I was met by a group of current and ex-Nebraska runners, who are some of my best friends, at the airport. They were all wearing Nebraska track singlets. Some of them were wearing the full uniforms! They had signs and American flags and made lots of noise and embarrassed me. But I of course loved it. Later that week, I flew to Kentucky to hang out with a good friend of mine and then I went to Virginia Beach to visit my brother and his wife. Then I flew home to Springfield, Illinois, loaded up a U-Haul with my bedroom furniture and my grandma's old couch, and my parents and I drove out to Lincoln to move me into my own apartment.

I started a new full-time job as a Web systems developer and I was trying to get my base mileage back up when I got an e-mail inviting me to the Grand Prix Rieti Meet over Labor Day weekend. So I adjusted my training and started doing steeple workouts again. It's going well. I was surprised at how quickly I was able to get back into it...I'm a little rusty on the hurdling, but running-wise, I think I'm ready to go.

FW: Are you going to focus on a professional career in running right now, or try to both work and run at the same time?
I am working full time for Sterling Communications here in Lincoln as a Web systems designer. I love what I do, and so yes, I am going to continue to do it and train at the same time. My boss is very flexible when it comes to running, which is a blessing. I am also an assistant coach for Jay now, and so I get to go to practice every day and pretend I never left! It's great. It is so much fun. I was not ready to leave my team. Where else will I ever find a group of girls like that?

FW: Do you have people on the team who are doing almost the mileage you are, so you can train with them?
Yes, this week I did almost every single run except for my steeple workout with Anne Shadle. She's has been doing some 80-mile weeks this summer. It's so great. I know all the girls so well, it's comfortable and it makes me excited to do it every day.

FW: How does the Nebraska team look this year? Do you have some good freshman coming in?
We have two freshman from Nebraska — Liz Lange and Joslyn Dalton. Liz is excellent on the track and Joslyn more of a long-distance runner. I think they will both make an impact. We do need the help since we lost two to graduation and a couple of the girls are coming back from stress fractures right now.

FW: It sounds like your team is really close.
We are, and that's why I'm so glad to be lucky enough to keep training with them. In track season, we become close to the athletes in the other events as well. It's amazing — when I went to NCAAs this spring, it was the first time I had ever made the national meet for outdoor track. And we're at the meet, with all these amazing people there — Jeremy Wariner, Veronica Campbell — and on our own team, we've got girls we expect 18-20 points from. Ineta Radevica in the jumps, Becky Breisch in the shot and Priscilla Lopes in the hurdles. It's just amazing to be on the same team with these athletes.

FW: Are you excited about the meet in Rieti?
Yes, very excited. This is my first trip out of the country. It's all new to me, but I'll figure it out when I'm there. Rieti is 50 miles inland from Rome and the other [meet I'm running while I'm there] is north of Venice. I'm going to race, but I'm sure I'll see some sights, too.

FW: Do you know what the competition is going to be like in either of the races?
They invited the top 14 steeplers in the world to the Rieti meet, but I'm not sure who is going. I talked to Briana Shook and she's not going, but I'm sure it'll be a pretty good race.

FW: Is it strange to think of being one of the top 10 steeplechasers in the world?
It is really weird. I think I'm eighth right now; I was fifth right after the Trials. If you had told me a couple of months ago that's where I'd be on any world list, I wouldn't have believed you. But it's exciting and makes me want to keep going. I'm sure there will be some new people trying it now that it's going to be an Olympic event [in 2008].

FW: Have you thought about doing any road or cross country races this fall, after the steeple races?
I know that I'm going to do the US Cross Country Championships in February, but I may use this fall mostly for base training. Although I do want to do the 10K road championship in Boston [at Tufts] in October.

FW: Being a big running fan and an elite runner yourself, was it kind of surreal to watch the Olympics knowing that you could be there next time around?
I watched the opening ceremonies and all the countries were walking in. When the US walked in with more athletes than any other country, there was this huge group. The stadium went wild and the camera was on people like Maurice Green, Allen Iverson, Marion Jones, all these famous people. I think if I had gone this year, I would have been totally star struck.

FW: What is your reaction to all the doping scandals going on in track right now?
I will never be able to understand how people can look themselves in the mirror every morning and know that the major things they've accomplished in life were the results of cheating. How can you be proud of that? And I don't want to hear the money excuse. I'd rather be dirt poor and honest than a wealthy cheat.

FW: Did you watch Deena win the bronze medal in the Olympic Marathon and cry like the rest of us?
Oh, yes. I had done an early-morning long run with my old team and it was hard for me to stay awake because I was worn out. But they kept saying Deena was moving up, and I was so excited because I saw her run for the first time at Trials and she was amazing. And I've read about her, and she works so hard and really lives the life of an athlete. She deserves that medal so much. I almost cried when Paula had to stop and definitely got tears in my eyes when Deena ran the lap around the track at the old stadium in tears. I love it when people are so caught up in what they are doing and are so happy when it goes well. It shows their dedication. Like when Joanna Hayes won the 100m hurdles and she was just so elated. I love seeing that. They worked hard and they threw a strike on game day, so they deserve to be excited!

(Interview conducted August 27, 2004, posted September 3, 2004.)

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