Interview with Kate O'Neill
By Alison Wade

Kate O'Neill outkicks Stanford's Alicia Craig to finish second at the 2002 NCAA Cross Country Championships.
(Both Photos by Alison Wade/New York Road Runners)
O'Neill en route to a fifth-place finish in the 5,000m at the 2002 NCAA T&F Championships.

Kate O'Neill's second-place finish to Shalane Flanagan at last fall's NCAA Cross Country Championships made Ivy League history, as it was the best finish ever by an Ivy League woman at the meet. The Yale senior wasted no time transitioning to indoor track; less than two weeks later, she and her twin sister Laura ran 16:02.96 and 16:03.75, respectively, in the indoor 5,000 meters and automatically qualified for the 2003 NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships.

O'Neill is a three-time All-American in cross country; she finished 31st at the NCAA Championships in 2000 and 11th in 2001. On the track in 2002, O'Neill finished ninth in the 3,000m at the NCAA Indoor Championships and fifth in the 5,000m outdoors.

Originally hailing from Milton, Massachusetts, the Milton High School graduate had a mile best of 4:57 in high school and finished third in the state cross country meet -- to Shalane Flanagan and Sheela Agrawal -- her senior year. First of all, congratulations on your great run at cross country nationals. Was the second place finish a surprise, or something that you were shooting for?
Kate O'Neill: Second place was definitely a surprise. I had been feeling strong all season and I was hoping for a finish in the top five, but I never expected this. I was so happy when I finished the race -- I still can't really believe that it happened!

FW: Does your finish change your expectations for future NCAA championships?
KO: It does. I want to shoot higher for indoor and outdoor NCAAs. I would love to leave college with a national title.

FW: You got your indoor nationals qualifier out of the way in December. What meets and distances do you plan on running this winter? Will you try to qualify for NCAA Indoors in other events or are you focusing on the 5k?
KO: I am going to try and qualify in the 3k at the Boston University Terrier Classic. Our team is also hoping to qualify a distance medley relay for nationals. If I make the 3k qualifying standard, I am not sure which races I would do at nationals. I don't want to plan too far ahead.

Before the indoor nationals, we have our league meet and that will really be the most important meet of the season. Our team is very well-rounded this year. We have people who should place in every event and we are all aiming for a team title. I guess I want to take things one step at a time. Once that meet is over, then I will think a little more about indoor nationals.

FW: Did you take any time off or go easy after the cross country season?
I took a little time off after the first indoor meet. In the past, I have taken a few weeks off right after cross country, but my sister and I wanted to get a qualifying time out of the way before we took some time off. Now that we have both made the standard, we feel like we can concentrate on training for indoor nationals instead of trying to find a fast meet.

FW: Do you plan on peaking for the NCAA indoor meet and then starting over again in the outdoor season?
I guess that I look at the indoor and outdoor season as one combined season. We will probably do a small taper for the indoor nationals and try to run our best indoor races of the year. But outdoor nationals will still be a major focus.

FW: What are your goals for the outdoor season? What major meets will you focus on?
I am hoping to try the 10k for the first time this season. I am not sure when I will run that, but I am really looking forward to it. The major meets of the season will be Raleigh Relays, Penn Relays, and the league championships. Yale has only won an outdoor league title one time. The seniors on the team really want to win another team title. We lost by just three points two years ago. Our team is very deep this year so we are really excited to see what will happen in the next few months. After the league meet will be the regional meet of course. I am excited that the NCAA has made those changes in the qualifying process. It will be interesting to see how it affects different events.

FW: Has your college running success affected the role that running plays in your life? Has it become more important to you than it was in high school?
I always loved to run, but it has definitely become more important to me than it was in high school. In high school, I was involved with a lot of other activities and I didn't do very high mileage. Since coming to college, I have devoted more time to training.

FW: I imagine that many of your friends at school are applying for jobs and graduate schools is that something you're doing as well, or are you planning on pursuing a professional running career?
Right now I am planning to stay in New Haven and work. I want to continue training with the coaches that I have had over the past four years -- Mark Young and Christi Ireland. I feel extremely lucky that I have been able to train with them. They have both taught me a lot and been wonderful friends. My sister Laura plans to do the same thing so I will continue to have a great training partner.

FW: How do you think Yale's cross country team has been able to remain so competitive on the national level without having the advantage of scholarships?
I think part of the reason we have been able to remain competitive is the absence of scholarship money. We all train hard because we love it. We don't feel bound to the sport by scholarship money. Everyone on the team brings enthusiasm to every workout and motivates her teammates to continue training.

Our coaches, Mark and Christi, also play a huge role in the team's success. They really care about everyone on the team and they try to find the best training schedule for everyone. They really encourage everyone to come to them with suggestions and meet with us individually and talk about workouts. Our mileage and interval workouts differ and some people crosstrain more than others. We workout as a team, but we all make slight changes. Our coaches know that different training routines work better for different people and they let us to find the routine that works best for us.

FW: How important is the team aspect of running to you? Is that something you'll miss next year?
The team aspect of running is very important to me. People who never ran cross country do not always understand that it is really a team sport. In races, people run in packs with teammates. Then they encourage one another and pace one another. Even if people don't run together in races, everyone can improve by having a training partner.

Running also wouldn't be as much fun without a team. My teammates have been amazing friends over the last few years. They are always there for one another in tough times and they always motivate one another. No matter how busy they are, they are always generous with their time. One of my best friends on the team, Lindsey Finch, always remembers to ask people how people how their exams have been going or notices when they run a PR in practice and in races. People like her make the team extremely special and enjoyable. I am going to miss the team part of running next year. I have always run on a team and I can't imagine what it will be like to not have such a large training group.

FW: What's your training like? What kind of mileage do your run? What are some of your staple workouts?
I don't run extremely high mileage. At the end of the summer, I was running 65 miles a week. That was the most I ever did. By the end of the season, I was running between 45 and 50 miles a week. During cross country, we almost always workout on a golf course. We often do fartleks by racing from the greens to the tees on each hole. During track, our staple workouts are mile repeats, 400 meter repeats, and 800 meter repeats. I love track, but right now I sort of miss the golf course. Running in circles isn't quite as interesting.

FW: Do you do most of your running with Laura?
I do almost all of my running with Laura. We work out well together because we have different strengths. When we run intervals, she recovers from each repeat faster so I have to push myself to stay with her. It's hard to push yourself 100% every day. Sometimes you feel tired or unmotivated. Having a training partner helps a lot. She always pushes me to reach higher.

FW: Do you do any cross training?
We do pool running a few mornings a week and we also do weight training.

FW: Where do you run in New Haven? Is it a challenge finding soft surfaces to run on?
I worried about finding soft surfaces for running before I came to Yale, but there are actually a lot. Yale has a golf course -- where we do our intervals -- and there are also some beautiful trails down the street from our track. I run at these places as long as the weather has been good. When it snows a lot, I usually stay on streets that have been plowed.

FW: How hard is it to balance academics and athletics at Yale? I know someone who loved being on the team at an Ivy League school but quit when she found herself falling asleep during class because of it. Is it a struggle to find time for everything?
It is hard to find time for everything. Freshman year was definitely an adjustment. I have learned to balance my time and allow myself to get enough sleep. I think getting enough sleep plays a big role in succeeding. During final exams or midterms, it is hard to find the time to get a decent amount of sleep, but I make it a priority. I have learned the hard way that I just don't get as much accomplished when I haven't gotten at least seven or eight hours of sleep.

FW: What are some of the differences between you and Laura? Have the two of you always pursued the same activities or do you like to do separate things from time to time?
Laura can concentrate much better than I can. I wish I had the same focus as she. I guess I am also a little neater. At home we always shared a room and we sometimes fought about cleaning up. We do usually pursue similar activities. Both of us are horrible at other sports and we are both majoring in history. We do however study different geographic areas within the history major. We also live in different dorms at school.

FW: Have you managed to stay relatively injury-free throughout college? If so, is there anything in particular that has helped you do that?
I have been extremely lucky because I have never had any long injuries. I had a stress fracture during the outdoor track season of my freshman year, but it healed quickly and I got to run in the last few meets of the season. I think the way that our team trains has helped me remain healthy. We don't do a lot of mileage. When I have increased my mileage, I always did it over the summer and I never increased it by a lot. I have probably increased my weekly mileage by about 5 miles every year.

FW: Do you consider yourself to be a running fan? Do you follow what's going on in the sport much or do you try to avoid that?
I am definitely a running fan. I would much rather watch a track meet than other more popular sports like basketball or football -- not that I have anything against those sports -- I just think running is more interesting. I like to look at results so that I will know what to expect in upcoming meets.

FW: When you think about your long-term life goals, do you think about a running career, a more mainstream job, or would you like to try to pursue both eventually?
For the first year after graduation, I definitely want to continue competing. I figure that this is the one chance in my life where I can keep racing. My ultimate goal would be qualifying for the Olympic trials. After that year, I am not sure what I will do. I would love to continue racing, but I will have to see what happens. Hopefully, I will be able to find a job that allows me to continue competing. There is so much I want to try -- the 10k, half-marathons, marathons... Eventually, I would like to teach or become a lawyer. No matter what I do for a job, I will definitely always run.

(Interview conducted January 19, 2003, Posted January 22, 2003)

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