Canada’s Taryn O’Neill will be attending Villanova University starting with the 2018-2019 school year. The Lake Country, British Columbia athlete absolutely tore up the track during her final season at George Elliott High School, where she destroyed at least three records with apparent ease.
During one 24-hour period, the 17-year-old won the senior girls 1,500-metre event and then followed it up by winning the 3,000-metres the next day at the provincial high school championships. In the process, setting meet records in both races. The 3,000-metre performance is also a pending national high school record.
In the 1,500-metres, she took out a 23-year old record of 4:26.44. She won handily in the time of 4:23.02. The next day, in the 3,000-metres event, she broke former club-mate Hannah Bennison’s record that was set three years prior at 9:33.44, by breezing to a 9:24.82.
During the Portland Twilight meet, O’Neill dropped her 1500-metre best down to a head-turning 4:17.93.
She follows a steady line of Okanagan area athletes to the NCAA including Bennison as well as her coach, Canadian Olympian Malindi Elmore.
800-metres – 2:11.38 (2018)
1500-metres – 4:17.93 (2018)
2000-metres – 6:29.04 (2014)
Two miles – 9:54.40 (2018)
3:000- metres – 9:22.05 (2017)
Christopher Kelsall: There is a strong sporting culture in the Okanagan. What other sports or recreational pursuits did you get into while growing up there?
Taryn O’Neill: I actually grew up in Canmore, AB for the first eight years of my life so my family was, and still is, very into mountain sports. My parents were avid mountain bikers so my brother and I picked up on that pretty quick, as well as climbing and skiing. When we moved to the Okanagan, I joined swim club and swam competitively for about five years. In high school, I think I did every sport for at least one season (even co-ed rugby) but my favourites were always soccer and track, a common pairing for distance runners it seems. In about Grade 10, I stopped soccer to focus on running. I still ski (cross country and downhill) as much as I can in the winter and I use skate skiing as a major cross-training tool; I often joke that if track doesn’t work out I’ll switch to Nordic skiing. I also do a bit of backcountry skiing in the Rockies every year.
CK: The skate and backcountry skiing is probably a good influence on your aerobic development. How many hours at a time do you get at it?
TO: With backcountry, it is generally longer, multi-day trips. For the past three years, my mom and I have made it to Jasper to ski into the Tonquin Valley, which is about 30km into the backcountry. It takes a day to get in, a day to get out, and we usually plan for one day in the valley to play around and go find some good skiing. I think long, hard days in the mountains like that are crucial for my psychological wellbeing; they make me tougher, but also keep me sane. When I go skate skiing, I usually go for about an hour and a half, which is pathetic in comparison to a real skier but I do what I can! I usually pair a ski like that with an easy run, that’s my ideal kind of training day.
CK: What position did you play in soccer?
TO: Midfield; always had to do the most running!
CK: Are you watching any of the FIFA World Cup? If so, who are you cheering for?
TO: Well considering Canada is hopeless in soccer, I usually cheer for Spain or Argentina. I have some friends from England so I’ll root for anyone else, just to spite them.
CK: Considering your recent performances, I can see you choosing outdoors as your favourite season, but you are strong cross-country runner too. Which of the three (indoors also) do you like the best?
TO: It has just sort of “happened” that my rise to success was in outdoor track. Funny enough I’ve always considered myself more of a cross runner. I prefer the trails to the track for sure, it’s dirtier, colder, grittier, and harder, all of my favourite things. That being said, I did miss out on the 2017 cross season to illness, so hopefully, my legs still agree with me and I can practice what I preach this fall.
CK: Your 9:54.40 two-mile In June is at almost exactly the same performance level as your 4:17.93 1500-metres from May and suggests that you are capable of 2:04-2:05 in the 800-metres. Is there a distance that you think you would like to specialize in? Will you try to bring down your 800-metre best to see if you can match the performance level?
TO: As of right now, and heading into college, I would be inclined to say the 1500 is my preference, but I don’t think I could ever fix myself to one event. I know the 3k isn’t a real race outdoors after high school and I am very hesitant about moving up to the 5k for a while, but no matter how much I push it away, I know it’s probably inevitable. I had planned on racing one more fast 800 this season but it just never really worked out so I’ll be looking forward to a fast PB in that next year, counting on my health.
CK: There was a near six-second difference between your 1500-metre race in Corvallis after your Portland Twilight race. Was the difference between the results to do with tactics or more about a fitness leap?
TO: Corvallis was my first outdoor race of the year so to expect a PB was ambitious, I just wanted to get some fast running in my legs. It was probably a combination of fitness and tactics to make that leap down to 4:17. I went into Portland with the attitude and mindset that I was going to run sub 4:20, in Corvallis I was simply interested in a rust-buster.
CK: Thinking back to winter, at that time, were you looking at the outdoor records? Did you have a sense of this new, high-level performance? To go and attack certain times, you must have had an indication.
TO: There was a lot up in the air in the winter, but BCHS had been in my mind since the event the year before. I have never been a time-oriented runner, I am more interested in competitive racing, but for some reason, I wanted those records so bad. After a fall of little to no running at all, I was very, very determined in the winter. I worked incredibly hard to build my fitness back up from basically square one, and my focus was often directed at BCHS and those records as well as some other goals. The big focus for this year was making the national team for world championships. Brooks PR had been on my radar for some time but it didn’t become a reality until about two weeks before the event. So I suppose you could say yes, I was thinking very heavily about my outdoor goals and records while slogging through the snow!
CK: Hannah Bennison, as you well know, is a high school legend. If I asked you two years ago that you will improve upon her performances, would you have believed it?
TO: I was in a unique situation in 2016, hitting that awkward body change that every female athlete goes through. I ran slower than I would have liked and stopped enjoying the sport, by the end of the season I was close to calling it quits. Really glad I didn’t. Disregarding that and focusing on Hannah, she trained with Okanagan Athletic Club (OAC) for maybe three years, and for all three years, I practically worshipped her. To any blossoming distance runner she was an idol, but to have her in the same club was crazy. I spent years comparing myself to Hannah, especially my year of body changes and slow, subpar times, which was a poor idea. When I hit my breakthrough and finally started keeping up to her in workouts (which was unthinkable for 14-year-old Taryn) was when she left the club. I had always been leaps and bounds behind her, literally and figuratively, and as I hit my rough patch she seemed even farther out of reach. To answer your initial question: no, I would have thought you were making a cruel joke to say that I would not only match Hannah’s times but surpass them.
CK: Well she does have incredible form.
TO: Very true. She has quite a formulaic approach to running. I respect her ability to run from the front and attack a specific pace, as I am generally the opposite.
CK: How would you describe Malindi Elmore’s influence on your development as an athlete?
TO: Indescribable. All of my major success has happened under Malindi, but so have my major setbacks. We have built a very unique team and been through hell together in the sense of injury and illness. I am so fortunate to have her experience backing me through some of my most vulnerable years as a runner. She was the real root of my breakthrough last year, after beating into me just how important consistency is. She always knows when to hold me back and force recovery that I may not think I need.
CK: Are you a fan of the sport? Any athletes that you like to cheer on?
TO: There are so many great role models right now, especially advocating for young women and girls in athletics. Malindi, of course, has been such an inspiration over the years; she has a very respectable philosophy for long-term development. One of her Stanford teammates, Lauren Fleshman, seems like a really cool woman. She started her own nutrition brand while still in college (at Stanford!) and I’m a huge fan of Picky Bars. Obviously, there are big names that are hard to ignore, Jenny Simpson, Emma Coburn, Sifan Hassan, and Melissa Bishop. I also really like Craig Engels, and maybe Centro but he’s a little too cocky. Outside of track I follow some trail and ultra-runners – Kilian Jornet I’m sure you’re familiar with, he is very inspiring and I envy his lifestyle of living at altitude and just deciding every day a different mountain to run up, right from his house.
CK: There must have been a line-up of NCAA schools wanting to recruit you. In the end, why did you choose Villanova?
TO: I had planned to visit six schools: Oregon State, U of Idaho, U Michigan, Cal Berkeley, Guelph, and of course Villanova. After my Villanova visit, I became really sick, the start to my bout of illness that would eventually end my cross country season. That caused me to cancel my last official to Berkeley, but I already knew I was going to commit to Villanova anyways. It really came down to Nova and Guelph, but in the end, I would always wonder what impact I could make in the NCAA. I also really clicked with the girls on the Villanova team, and Gina, the coach, has had so much experience.
CK: They planned on getting you sick, so you would have to choose them over Berkeley.
TO: Yes exactly, they must have put something in my food… although the dining hall food was really good – the most important deciding factor for me.
CK: What will you be studying?
TO: That is a really good question and I really wish I had the answer. I am on the fence between a pre-med kind of major or environmental science. I would love to learn and work in nature, but I also have a keen interest in health science. I was stuck on glaciology as an idea for a while; I would kill to do research or work to make any kind of impact on global warming or changing ecosystems and such. Everything is still up in the air right now!
CK: Which national teams do you have on your radar on at this time?
TO: Well there are the World Championships in Finland, and I’m lucky enough to tick that one off my list. The next big one would hopefully be cross country World Championships in Denmark in March 2019; I would need to fly up to Kingston to race in Canadian Nationals to make that one. If my first NCAA cross country season as a Wildcat goes well then I’ll be looking to race in Kingston.