Clearing the Hurdles: A Runner's Road to the Olympics

Clearing the Hurdles: A Runner’s Road to the Olympics

Colleen holds an American flag after winning a race.

Every four years, the world comes together through a common bond as spectators, fans, and aspiring athletes alike, to watch the world’s elite athletes compete at the Summer Olympics. The Olympics have historically evoked a sense of inspiration and pride, often leaving spectators on the edge of their seats as they cheer for a gymnast to stick a round off back handspring or they watch a swimmer make that final push to hit the wall for the gold medal.

Colleen and her family pose in front of a bright blue lake on a clear, sunny day

The steeplechase event is no different and could arguably be the most challenging and physically demanding race in the track and field arena. Steeplechase runners compete in a 3,000-meter race, having to clear 28 hurdles and seven 12-foot long water pits along the track’s route. For the professional steeplechase runner, Colleen Quigley, her road to the Olympics is a story of heart, strength, and confidence.

Colleen writes in her journal wearing a maroon top and a large headband

Colleen’s story begins in the city of St. Louis, where she and her siblings were homeschooled by their mother until high school. Their mother Ann was not only their teacher at home, she was also their Kumon Instructor.

Like the hurdles Colleen faces in her races, her journey with Kumon was no different Being enrolled in the Kumon Math and Reading Program for close to 12 years, she found that the routine of the work gave her a sense of discipline and accomplishment when she completed her worksheets. Before entering high school, Colleen went on to successfully complete the Kumon Reading Program. Although experiencing challenging moments at times, she walked away with valuable lessons that she still uses to this day.

“When I went through Kumon, I was (and honestly still am) grappling with the idea of failure, and that I couldn’t do everything I wanted to right away without making mistakes and stumbling a lot,” said Colleen. “When I couldn’t figure out a challenging math question, I got so frustrated. I had to learn how to try, make mistakes, and try again. That obviously happens all the time in life outside of the classroom and that mentality is something I try to keep in all endeavors I take on.”

Colleen runs in high school on the left, and on the right a picture of her running as a professional

Outside of the classroom as a young girl, Colleen first discovered a passion for dancing, soccer, and even signed on as a model with Wilhelmina and West Model Management by the time she was 13 years old. It wasn’t until her freshman year of high school that she took a leap of faith and joined the cross-country and track teams. With her father Gaylerd as her coach, he not only fostered her love of running, but taught her the most important lesson of all – to never give up and remain resilient.

“In high school, my dad told me, it’s not over till it’s over. He was referring to racing, and the idea that you can never give up on yourself or the race until the moment you cross the finish line,” said Colleen. “You may think you’re going to get beat, but you don’t know what’s going through your competitors heads. Likely they are tired and struggling too, so it’s a matter of who can mentally stay tough longer and keep pushing all the way to the finish.”

Taking her dad’s words to heart, Colleen made a name for herself in the track and field world in high school, with noteworthy race times and endurance like no other. Although she was a stand-out runner in high school, she never thought she would continue running in college. Her path took a turn when Coach Harvey at Florida State recognized her talents and extended a full-ride to become a Seminole. Upon graduating from Florida State, Colleen not only walked away with a bachelor’s degree in Dietetics, she also walked away as a NCAA National Champion.

Colleen grins holding an American flag standing in front of another American flag.

Upon graduating college, she sought out the advice from other professional runners. After receiving perspectives from those she admired like Shalane Flanagan and Emma Coburn, she made a decision that would forever change her life. Colleen turned professional in 2015, signing on to Nike’s Bowerman Track Club.

Her professional career thus far is filled with an abundant amount of accomplishments and a fan following. Colleen finished 12th in the 3,000-meter steeplechase event at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing, China and 8th in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Next, Colleen has her sights set on the 2020 Olympics.

Colleen shared with us some special moments she had along her road to the Olympics.

Picture of Colleen's tweet when she qualified for the Olympics

Tell us how you felt the moment you made it on to Team USA?

So jubilant! Here’s what I tweeted – it pretty much sums it up.

Your career both non-professionally and professionally has been filled with so many achievements. What achievements are you most proud of?

Competing at the Olympics is my biggest achievement of my career thus far. I’m also proud of my recent race at the USA Indoor National Championships, where I raced the mile and came away with my first USA Championship title! I’m proud of the title, but also so proud of the way I executed my race; I ran with confidence and power and never looked back.

Colleen hurdles over a barrier during a steeplechase race What piece of advice would you give to young aspiring athletes?

Enjoy the sport and try different sports! I think right now there’s a lot of pressure to be good at a sport from a young age – that was not me. I was dancing, playing soccer, and running a little bit of track when I was growing up. I focused on using my body in ways that made me happy. I discovered the cross-country team and fell in love with being a part of a team with a group of awesome girls. It was then when I poured my heart into running and slowly (so slowly and gradually!) that passion developed into a career. So, play lots of sports (or make lots of art, or play lots of music) until you find something that you’re passionate about. You have plenty of time!

What was it like having your mom as your Kumon Instructor?

Since my mom was our homeschool teacher, I found it pretty normal that she was also my Kumon Instructor. I have fond memories of going to the center with my mom and feeling at home in that space. I even helped her with grading worksheets whenever she needed help!Colleen waves from the track at the Olympics

When you’re not running, what do you enjoy doing?

I love connecting with my fans on social media and even in person when I can. I have a website that I maintain with articles and an email that my fans can reach me at. I also created a newsletter that I use to send out periodic updates about my travels, new recipes I’m loving, workouts, etc.

Speaking of social media, you have an incredible following on Instagram. How have you leveraged Instagram as a platform to connect with your fans and curate content?

I love using Instagram to share more about my story with my followers. I share the ups and downs, the victories and defeats, and injuries. It’s all part of the story and relatable to someone. Whenever I am recovering from an injury, I mope about it, but then I’m reminded that I’m not the only one struggling – I think that takes the loneliness away from it. My favorite is when I get messages from moms and dads letting me know that their daughters follow me and look up to me as a positive role model. That’s the ultimate compliment for me.

Tell us a bit more about “Fast Braid Friday” and what started the movement? 

#FastBraidFriday is a movement on Instagram that I started about a year ago. At first it was just silly, but then it became something so much bigger than I could ever imagine. “FBF” is about putting your hair in braids, whatever kind of braids you like, and then taking on a challenge in your life. Every Friday I get tagged in photos on Instagram of girls young and old in braids saying things like, “I ran my first marathon!” or “I ran a PR in the 5K!” or even “I was the top scorer for my basketball team!”. The braids are all different and the accomplishments are all unique, but the idea is the same – you do something on the outside that makes you feel confident on the inside. I like to workout and race in braids because they make me feel confident, powerful, and fast as I’m working towards my big goals.

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