The Road to London: Track athletes take varied approaches to training
The Road to London is a series focusing on current and former Princeton athletes training for the 2012 Olympics. See the rest of the series here.
Talent, hard work and luck. For the few Princeton track and field athletes who hope to qualify for the world’s biggest stage at June’s Olympic Trials, those three attributes will be more important than ever before. In a sport ruled by pain, guts and the will to push the physical limits of their bodies, the dedicated Princeton athletes have left nothing behind in their various roads to the Trials.
Starting off the year as an assistant coach for the women’s team, Ashley Higginson ’11 eventually decided that if she was going to give the Olympics a real shot, she would have to devote herself entirely to the cause. Gaining a sponsorship from Saucony, Higginson left her part-time Princeton position and took up a full-time professional lifestyle with the NJ-NY Track Club based in New Brunswick, where she trains with a small group of other professional runners under the experienced hand of renowned track coach Frank Gagliano.
“I am so lucky to be a part of this group. It’s a group of older girls who I looked up to in college,” Higginson said. “Now I get to train with them and learn more from them, and it’s just so great that I got to stay in New Jersey, with arguably the best coach I could have ever asked for in the country — every running group in the U.S. looks to him at some level or another. It’s an honor to be here with a legend of sorts, and it’s also great to be here near Peter [Farrell], my college coach, and my former teammates like [senior] Alex Banfich.”
While at Princeton, Higginson had one of the most successful careers in program history. The school record holder in the 3,000m steeplechase, Higginson was a three-time NCAA All-America, with a high of third place in the 2010 outdoor steeple. Still, after ending her senior year out of shape and injured with stress fractures, Higginson felt like she had unfinished business.
“One of the reasons I took this year to do this was because I was upset last year with my injury,” Higginson said. “I said, ‘Hey, who knows if my times go down the way I think they could have, if things hadn’t turned out the way they did?’ ”
With no papers to write or classes to attend, Higginson has been able to work herself into the best shape of her life. Between running more miles, doing more strength work, churning out harder track sessions with her new teammates and simply having time to sleep and recover, Higginson has given her all to make herself ready for June. Since she began racing again, Higginson has set personal bests at numerous distances, including nine minutes, 48.50 seconds in the 3,000m steeplechase — the fourth-fastest time in the United States this season.
“In college, there has to be some level at which you don’t put it all on the line. You have to be doing your schoolwork; you’ve got to be enjoying the experience of being part of a team and being in college. I definitely wanted to be a part of it all; I wanted to have all of the experience,” she said. “It’s different now, when you have to give it all up to give [the Olympic Trials] a shot. It’s the first time where I’m like, maybe I’ll get injured, maybe I’ll burn out, but you need to toe that line from which, in college, you were protecting yourself more.”
Sharing Higginson’s dream of untapped potential and the Olympics, senior Austin Hollimon chose to take his last semester of school off and return home to Georgia to train with his old high school coach, Napoleon Cobb. In contrast to Higginson — who had already experienced significant success in her event — Hollimon went into training not for the 400m, his standard event, but for the 400m hurdles.
Despite having never competed seriously in the race before, Hollimon has already made great strides, having run an Olympic Trials-qualifying time of 50.61 seconds in the beginning of April. That time would have ranked him 13th in the NCAA and third on the all-time Princeton list.
“My coach invited me back to train with him; he believed in me. If you’re a track and field fan, you know the story of Edwin Moses; he did the same thing I did. Going into the  Olympic year, he had never raced the 400m hurdles before, but then he picked it up and became one of the best hurdlers of all time,” Hollimon said. “I decided that I’m going to take a leap of faith. For me to already have gotten the Olympic Trials B standard in my first race is a big step.”
Like Higginson, Hollimon credited his drastic improvement to the extra time and energy he spends on all aspects of training. Between working one-on-one with a physical therapist, doing strength and speed training on the sand at a nearby beach and seriously working on core strength and flexibility, Hollimon has finally been able to gain the durability needed for the grueling 400m hurdles.
Nevertheless, it will take much more if he is to realize his goal of making the team. To be the best in the nation in what is arguably America’s strongest event is to be among the very best in the world. In 2008, the Americans swept the podium with times all under 48.1 seconds.
“My coach believed in me, he believed that I could make the Olympic team, and he’s coached Olympians before. My family and my community believed in me, and that made me believe in myself,” Hollimon said. “The opportunity presented itself, and what if I do make the team? That’s an opportunity that I’d never have the chance to have if I never took the risk. In the end, whether I make my goal or not, the pursuit of it — all this training, being beat like I’ve never been before — has made me a much stronger and more mature person.”
Meanwhile in Princeton, senior co-captain Donn Cabral and sophomore hammer-thrower Conor McCullough have chosen to remain with their college team as they prepare for their own Olympic ambitions. A two-time NCAA runner-up in the steeplechase, Cabral also competed at the USA Track & Field national meet two years ago, finishing seventh. McCullough currently has the top throw in the NCAA by nearly three feet and was the World Junior Champion in 2010. Among American senior athletes, McCullough has the fourth-best throw so far this year.
Both athletes have managed to keep their ultimate goals in sight while also playing major parts in one of the Princeton program’s greatest years.
“So far, the balance hasn’t been too hard. I’ve worked closely with Coach [Steve] Dolan, and he knows that I want to be at my best after the collegiate season is over,” Cabral said. “I think that as long as the training is pointing toward the Trials, then racing isn’t going to be a big distraction. For sure, winning at Penn Relays, winning Heps and chasing the four-minute mile are a big deal, but the Olympic Trials are as big as it gets for me.”
Ever since Cabral broke through in the steeple in his sophomore year, he realized that he could compete with the nation’s best. He has spent the past year sleeping in an altitude tent, engaging in extra strength training and plyometrics, running twice a day and taking meticulous care of his diet and health.
“I’ll get down to practice at around 3:30 in the afternoon, and I won’t leave until 7:30 p.m. Out of those four hours, I’m only usually spending an hour to an hour and a half running, but there’s so much other stuff going on,” Cabral said. “There’s a whole bunch of what I call ‘1-percenters’ that go into really convincing yourself that you’re doing everything it takes to compete at your best.”
In an Olympic year, there will be no easy way to the podium at the Trials. Every top American athlete, professional or collegiate, wants to be wearing red, white and blue when the Games begin.
“I need to be prepared to give it my all, to give everything it takes to win. That’s something you just need to learn,” Higginson said. “It’s not just about getting a new best time. When you need to win big races or just get in the top three, you need that will.”
When the Tigers finally line up for their respective events at the gateway to the Olympics, the best they can do is just give it their best shot. But whether they make the team or not, when they cross the finish line spent and exhausted, they’ll know that they can look back on their experiences with no regrets, with the knowledge that they held nothing back in pursuit of their dreams.