One year ago, Colorado alum and Tokyo Olympian Valerie Constien started walking after tearing an ACL in May 2023.

After going through an extensive rehabilitation program, Constien roared.

ALL. THE. WAY. BACK.

She returned to her first national championship at either the collegiate or professional level by winning the women’s steeplechase at the US Olympic Track & Field Trials Thursday night at Hayward Field in Eugene.

 

After entering Colorado in the 2014-15 school year, Constien, an All-American for the Buffaloes in cross country and track, never won an NCAA or USA title in the steeple. Her best placing in the steeple was fifth, and as a pro, third at the 2021 Olympic trials (she did win the 2023 indoor 3000 title).

Like Monday’s men’s 1500-meter final, the women’s steeplechase final was fast. Annie Rodenfels pushed the race from the start, building a four-second lead on the field by the three-minute mark.

The field whittled her lead away and caught her with three laps to go, and then the real racing started.

A pack of four—eventual winner Constien, Notre Dame grad Olivia Markezich, second-place finisher Courtney Wayment, an alumnus of Brigham Young, and Boise State grad Marisa Howard—broke from the rest of the field.

Just before the bell, Howard, who attended Pasco High School in southwest Washington, surged in hopes of stealing the race from the other three. Markezich attended Bear Creek School in the Seattle suburb of Redmond before graduating from Notre Dame and went with Howard.

Just before entering the backstretch for the final time, Constein countered Howard’s surge with her own and carried it to the finish line, taking the win in a meet record and personal best of 9:03.22.

Markezich, who had an advantage of a step, stumbled slightly and may have hit her foot on the inside railing of the track. Afterward, she said she lost her form due to lactic acid buildup in her body from the fast pace.

Olivia Markezich, photo by Chuck Aragon for RunBlogRun

That was the opening that Howard and Wayment needed as Markezich tried to regain momentum.

Howard and Wayment cleared the final barrier cleanly while Markezich stumbled and fell onto the track. Wayment’s momentum gave her an advantage over Howard, who finished second in 9:06.50 and third in 9:07.14.

A stunned Markezich picked herself up after being passed by Gabbi Jennings (9:12.08), and former Oregon State All-American Kaylee Mitchell (9:14.05), as Markezich finished sixth in 9:14.87.

In the mixed zone after the race, Constien praised Rodenfels for taking out the pace early and causing the first nine finishers across the line to set personal bests.

“That took a lot of courage,” Constien said. “Not a lot of people decide to just run the 70s from the gun, but I kind of thought we would catch her at some point because she was running, like, 9:00 pace.”

On her journey back from tearing the ACL, she said, “It’s been a crazy journey the last year just fighting my way back into fitness and confidence. I’m just so happy to be here, but I didn’t think I would be here. Maybe in 2025, I can participate, but I don’t know, I’m just happy.”

On Howard’s breakaway before the bell, the Tokyo Olympian said she tried to stay calm.

“Obviously, it was hard. It wasn’t a walk in the park. I had to dig pretty deep there in the end to do that, and I had to have the mental fortitude to say, ‘Okay, this is fine. ‘

In the history of American steeplechasing, this race was indeed a changing of the guard. Ten-time national champion Emma Coburn and American record holder Courtney Freirichs were not on the line due to injuries. However, they arguably could have something to say about that in 2025.

For the first time since 2008, Coburn, who won the world title in 2017 after earning a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics, will not be on an Olympic team.

Frerichs, the Olympic silver medalist in Tokyo and a world championship silver medalist behind Coburn in London will not compete in the Olympics after making three straight teams dating back to 2012.

“They both are regarded as the best American steeplechasers,” Constien said. “Courtney has the American record, and Emma is the most highly decorated U.S. runner. Sadly, they’re not there, but we’ve all been inspired by them, so in a sense, they would be there. I was on the Olympic team with them last time I got to go.”

Thursday night’s race caused the all-time lists to be rewritten, as Constien’s 9:03.22 is now number three, behind Frerichs and Coburn.

With her second-place finish, Wayment moved to number 4 on the U.S. list, running 9:06.50. Howard, right behind her in third, is now the fifth fastest in American history, running 9:07.14.

Gabbi Jennings, in fourth place at 9:12.08, is now the seventh fastest in American history, while fifth placer Kaylee Mitchell, at 9:14.05, is now the tenth fastest.

Olivia Markezich, despite falling after clearing the final hurdle, moved to number 11 after running 9:14.87.

WHO TO WATCH FOR…

Beyond the obvious and the breaking stories, two of the athletes I’ll look for over the final three days of the meet include 400-meter hurdler CJ Allen, who, until his breakout season in 2022, was one of the underdogs in American track and field.

After graduating from Washington State University in 2017, Allen had a minor breakthrough the following year, finishing sixth in the USA championships, but couldn’t quite get over the hump until the 2022 season, when he finished fourth at the USA championships, missing the world championship team by one place.

All of this was done while attending chiropractic school full-time and without the benefit of a sponsorship deal, which he finally got last year with ASICS.

Allen got off to a good start, winning his first-round heat Thursday in 50.08.

CJ Allen, Budapest WC 2023, photo by Kevin Morris

I’ll also look for javelin thrower Kara Winger’s attempt to make a fifth US Olympic team. She retired following the 2022 season, during which she won the silver medal in the world championships in Eugene and the Diamond League title.

Winger’s only chance of making the Olympic team is to finish in the top three AND throw the Olympic standard of 210-0 (64.00m) either in Friday’s qualifying round or in the finals on Sunday.

Kara Winger, Javelin W,
USATF Outdoor Track and Field Championships held at Hayward Field, University of Oregon, June 23-26, 2022, photo by Kevin Morris

Should she finish in the top three but not throw the standard, the world rankings will not help her. Since the qualifying period began on July 1st, she hasn’t competed in five meets necessary for a world ranking.

She won’t be able to chase the standards in any meets after the Trials, as the Olympic qualifying period ends Sunday.

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