Former West Virginia Mountaineers athlete Jessica O’Connell has returned to her home in Alberta to continue training and studying Exercise Physiology at the University of Calgary. She is training with the ultimate goal of achieving the standard required to compete in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
During 2014, she surprised many with some great performances, that led her to the opportunity to unexpectedly compete in the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games 5,000m, where she finished – in her first major senior international competition – a respectable 10 of 17 – in a field which included three Kenyans. The gold medal was achieved by international standout Mercey Cherono of Kenya with her time of 15:07.2, in a tactical race. Cherono owns a personal best of 14:35.13, which she accomplished in 2011.
The 25-year-old O’Connell qualified for the Commonwealth Games on the strength of her performance at the Payton Jordan Invitational meet held in May in Pal Alto, California. She ran faster than the Canadian “A” standard by finishing in 15:13.21.
1500m – 4:11.84
One Mile (1609m) – 4:30.75
3,000m – 8:54.87
5,000m – 15:13.21
Christopher Kelsall: You had breakthrough indoor and outdoor track seasons in 2014. You attributed that to finally getting nearly a year of injury-free training in. Are you still injury free and training consistently?
Jessica O’Connell: I am! I had a calf strain after my fast 5km in May and spent two weeks in the pool, but other than that, all is good (knock on wood!) I’m taking a break right now as I only finished racing last weekend, but I’ll be back to training in the next few weeks.
CK: You ran a very solid 15:13, which got you into the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. How did the games 5,000m race play out? Where you happy with your performance?
JO: Making the Commonwealth Games team became a major goal after I ran 8:57 for 3,000m indoors (THAT was unexpected!), but I wasn’t expecting to run as quickly as I did in the 5,000m this year. The Commonwealth Games 5,000m was very tactical with our first kilometre being only a touch faster than Lanni’s in the marathon! I thought that my performance was solid – there is a bit of a learning curve with tactical races, and I came out wishing that I had been more assertive in certain places and more relaxed in others. Regardless, I’m so grateful for the opportunity just as I’m positive that experiencing and better understanding the tactics in an international championship final will help me to progress to better finishes. It was also hugely motivating to be in the mix with ladies I’ve always looked up to as my dreams of battling it out in championships are increasingly becoming more tangible goals.
CK: Did you at all consider the steeple after that 3,000m indoor performance?
JO: I always thought I would be a great steepler because I grew up with Irish dancing! My coach, however, is quick to remind me that in addition to being 5’2”, I am possibly the clumsiest person in Canada. So, no, no steeple plans.
CK: New reality show, Canada’s Clumsiest Person…might work to pitch that to CBC or some network.
JO: Sign me up!
CK: Ankle and lower leg strength is important in running. Irish Dance seems to have some ballet-like lower leg aspect to it. Do you practice dance at all these days?
JO: I agree. I was never ever hurt dancing and I practiced all the time – I think it had a protective effect. I don’t dance anymore unfortunately, unless it’s in a pub on St. Patrick’s Day!
CK: Aye! Are you a 5,000m specialist going-forward then?
JO: It looks like it! I wish the 3,000m was run outdoors more as I come from a 1500m background and love those distances, but 5000m seems to be where it’s at!
CK: What are your indoor and outdoor time-specific goals for 2015?
JO: I haven’t talked with my coach yet, but I’d like to build on the momentum I’ve got going this year. Sub-4:10 and 15:10 in the 1500m and 5000m would be another step in the right direction.
CK: I understand that you took a longer taper than usual before the Commonwealth Games race. Did you feel as though some snap or edge was missing from your legs because of the rest?
JO: I took a taper that would be typical for the biggest event of the year, which the Commonwealth Games was. I felt fresh and ready to roll, but I raced on the very last day of the games – it was hard waiting!
CK: How about cross country, are you a fan? Do you look forward to the impending 2014 cross country season?
JO: You know, I love running and I love being in nature, but I don’t love racing cross country! I do find the training refreshing and the team aspect is great, but I absolutely despise running in mud (or snow, more likely!). I will race a few times around Alberta, and I’m planning to run the Chiba Ekiden, so I’m unsure if I will run Cross Country Nationals this year.
CK: How is the Calgary training environment for a distance runner? Do you run in the coulees just out of town?
JO: Calgary has a very long, cold winter that spans from about October until May – if we’re lucky! However, we have a weather phenomenon called a chinook where the temperature in the winter will suddenly rise immensely. It’s not uncommon to go from -20C to 10C in a day or two. This gives us a bit of a reprieve and makes training much more tolerable! There is a two-lane, 450m track around the speed skating oval right on campus where I do all of my workouts in the winter which is excellent. It gets a bit more difficult in the spring when the facility is closed and it continues to snow or rain unceasingly – it’s not easy to prepare for PB races in 5C weather! Err…what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? Calgary has a fantastic pathway system and is a truly beautiful city, so off-day runs are always a treat.
CK: So do you just love running regardless of your competitive plans? What sort of weekly volume do you get up to and hope to get up to in the future?
JO: I do love running, training, being active, all of it. I’d guess I run about 75 miles (120kms) a week, but I don’t sum mileage or minutes at the end of the week, so I’m not actually sure! I’ll increase my mileage slightly this year if I am 100% sure that my body can handle it.
CK: Who do you look up to in sport? Do you have heroes that you try to emulate or at least admire?
JO: Both Malindi Elmore and Megan Wright (Metcalfe) have been great “big sister”-figures in my life. My high school and current coach, coached Malindi and Megan lived and trained post-collegiately in West Virginia while I was there. Both of these ladies helped me a lot by being great role-models and friends and I hope to accomplish as much as they did!
CK: How was the university, the West Virginia Mountaineers for your development as an athlete?
JO: After completing my first year at the University of Calgary, I transferred because I had always intended to leave home for university and it was important to me to experience life elsewhere. I also left because the very deep competition in the NCAA was attractive to me – I thought that running against the best would help me to bring my own running to the next level. I chose to go to West Virginia primarily because of its distance running accolades and Canadian connections. My years in the NCAA were very humbling and I matured tons as an athlete through both successes and failures. I would never trade the experience of being surrounded by teammates who turned into best friends while sharing the goals and experiences of becoming the best athletes we could while attempting to navigate the adventure that is the NCAA system.
CK: Do you consider yourself an intrinsically competitive person?
JO: In running, yes. The goal of faster times and better placements is what keeps me focused and drives my training, and I absolutely love racing.
CK: Does your Exercise Physiology degree inform your training and help your understanding of different aspects of training?
JO: I’m working on a Master’s degree in Exercise Physiology right now, and I love it! It’s so interesting to understand the science behind why we train the way we do.
CK: Will you be coaching one day in the future?
JO: I coach occasionally with a youth program and used to teach Irish Dance, and it’s a ton of fun! I’m not sure if I’ll coach more seriously in the future – we’ll see!