Bridget Franek is a fine steeplechaser. I first got to really watch her run in the 2011 Golden Gala Roma meeting. Franek ran a great race at the 2012 Oxy Performance meeting. David Hunter decided that Bridget would be the focus of his column today, Day 3, June 23, 2012.
We hope that you enjoy this one!
A Daily Journal From The 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials / Track & Field
Highlights From Hayward
By Dave Hunter
June 22, 2012
When you first meet Bridget Franek, what strikes you is her poise. For a young athlete – Franek is 24 – she exhibits the type of calm demeanor that is not commonly found among newly-minted college graduates working to find their way in the country’s “new reality.” This is likely learned behavior for Franek whose pathway to the present has taught her to be a flexible, quick study. Don’t be mistaken, this up-and-coming steeplechaser has not had the type of ghastly childhood that nearly overwhelmed, say, Lolo Jones – far from it. But Franek’s solid Midwestern upbringing – with occasional new directions and all-in commitments – has given her the quiet confidence to understand that she is able to meet and effectively address the challenges she willingly undertakes for herself.
In the coming days, Bridget Franek will take another step in that direction as she runs in the first round of the Women’s 3000 meter steeplechase. Taking one race at a time, the Penn State graduate is aiming for a qualifying performance that will put her in the steeplechase final which will be run on Friday in the twilight. While the races, of course, have to be run, the stars and planets are in proper alignment for her. “I am healthy and probably have the best fitness I have ever had,” notes Franek. And she has the all-important Olympic “A” standard, having run sub-9:43 several times earlier this spring. No stranger to international competition, Franek ran the steeplechase on U.S. teams in Berlin in 2009 and in Daegu in 2011. Citing her impressive PR of 9:32.35, Track & Field News projects her as a top three finisher in the Trials steeplechase which would send her to her first Olympic games. Ah, if it was just that simple…
An enormous athletic talent, Franek has developed the ability to roll with change and undertake new challenges. As a youngster, Franek first shied away from running – both her parents are accomplished runners – as she focused her attention on soccer. But then she saw clearly that a change should be made. “From my junior year of high school, I decided that running was probably going to be where I would get the best opportunity,” says Franek. “So I decided to do cross country so that I could send some of my times out to the college coaches who would be looking for athletes.”
It was the right move. Slightly more that 18 months after her shift to running, Franek concluded her high school career by winning the 800, the 1600, the 3200, and anchoring Crestwood High School’s winning 4 x 800 relay in the Ohio state high school track and field championships.
In college, as a member of Beth Alford Sullivan’s accomplished program at Penn State, Franek made a quick and solid transition and performed well enough to be named Big Ten Freshman of the Year. But patience and flexibility were nonetheless required as she and her coaches methodically worked to find her best event. Franek, who had never run a steeplechase or even cleared a steeple barrier before entering college, was willing to give the odd, new event a try. Once again. her open-mindedness was rewarded. Two years later she made the U.S. World Championship team and competed in the steeplechase in Berlin. Patience and consistent focus allowed Franek to steadily improve – she topped off her successful collegiate career by winning the steeplechase title at the 2010 NCAA Championships.
With college behind her, Franek once again found herself facing options and choices. She went all in. Willing to make a commitment to explore her full potential as a track and field athlete, Franek moved from her comfortable Midwest surroundings to Eugene – where the action is. Joining the Oregon Track Club, Franek soon found herself training daily with the likes of Lauren Fleshman, Sally Kipyego; and Geena Gaul. “I love to train with people who are better than I am. That is why I moved to Oregon. Being around greatness definitely helps me to improve. The girls here are at such a high level. It [the elite training] allows me to assess the level where I am currently.”
The change of residence also brought a change in coaching philosophy. Franek is now guided by Mark Rowland, an ’88 Olympic steeplechase medalist whose no-nonsense approach to training is calculated to promote athlete independence. No worries – the flexible Franek embraced Rowland’s new perspective. “Coach Rowland is night and day different from my college coach. He is an extremely professional guy.” notes Franek. “I love how he coaches because it really empowers the athletes. His goal is to get us to the starting line and to train us so that we don’t need him anymore. We are trained to be completely independent and capable of reaching our potential by ourselves. We trust him with our training. He has a bigger perspective and knows that he can’t be there at every one of our competitions. He knows we have to do it by ourselves.”
Franek will need to bring that empowered and independent approach to Hayward Field as she seeks a top three finish in the steeplechase – a placing that would guarantee her a position on her first U.S. Olympic team. While Franek and Colorado’s Emma Coburn – the defending national steeplechase champion who red-shirted this past year to focus on an Olympic bid – are viewed as the class of the field, the women’s steeplechase is a relatively new and underdeveloped event where unanticipated break-through performances by discounted competitors are distinctly possible. Not surprisingly, Franek views this coming challenge with her customary measured approach.
“While I am planning on being in the final, I am taking one race at a time. I just want to be in the top three. It doesn’t even matter how it happens. As long as I am in the top three, that’s the ideal race for me.”
Given Franek’s unflappable approach to the challenges she encounters and her prior track record of success, the upcoming Olympic Trials steeplechase races, while formidable, appear to be hurdles she can clear.