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Featured Athlete - Laura O'Neill

Laura O'Neill and northrunning host

Dwight Estey

Laura works the clipboard while coach Mark Young times the race

My earliest recollection of Laura O’Neill was during her junior year at Milton High School. She and her twin sister Kate were dominant forces in Massachusetts’ distance running. I clearly remember watching them at the state finals their senior year and I was excited that they would be attending Yale.

Laura has been running professionally since graduating from Yale University in 2003. Along with Kate, she’s been making quite a name for herself. Most recently she has qualified to represent the United States in the World Cross Country Championships.

Laura is now 23 years old. She works as a Development Associate inYale's Office of Development. She lives and trains in New Haven, Connecticut. Mark Young continues to coach both Laura and Kate.

I recently ran into Laura at the Yale-Harvard-Princeton meet at Harvard. She was working the clipboard for Mark Young. In between races we had the chance to chat and it became evident that I wanted to do a feature on her.

Following is the result of our discussions, both at that meet and in an on-line follow up.

northrunning : What got you started in running? Was there any decisive moment when you felt, wow, this is what I really like to do?

Laura : I tried just about everything sport before I started running. Softball, soccer, basketball, tennis, golf...I wasn't very good at any of them! I joined a swim team in middle school. I also started running in middle school because I wanted to try a triathalon. I did some road races as well, but nothing very serious. I actually didn't like running at that point; I thought swimming was much more fun, but my high school didn't have a swim team so I joined the cross-country team. Within a few weeks of joining the team, I decided I loved running. I made wonderful friends on my team. They were all so supportive of one another and we had a great time on bus trips to meets, pasta parties, and slumber parties.
northrunning : Are there other sports that you do right now?
Laura : I don't do any other sports now, but we cross-train in the pool twice a week. I started doing that freshmen year in college. Pool running is a great work-out and it allows you to avoid the pounding that running can put on your body.
Always the high school coach, I like to get a sense of the workouts other successful programs are doing.
northrunning : What was your favorite high school workout?
Laura : I liked doing 3 X 1 mile on the track.
northrunning : What was your hardest high school workout?
Laura : My hardest high school workout was 400 meter repeats. I think we used to do between 8 and 12 a few times a season.
northrunning : What was your favorite meet, or your most exciting?
Laura : My team won the Massachusetts state cross-country meet my sophomore and senior years in high school. I loved sharing that moment with my teammates.
Laura leads Kate in their last collegiate meet on Yale's home track.
Kate and Laura place 1-2 in the race.
With the talent to grab significant academic or athletic scholarship, Laura chose to attend a school that offers neither.
northrunning : Why did you choose Yale?
Laura : I wanted to go to a school with strong academics. When I went on a tour of the campus with my sister and one of our friends during our junior year in high school, I immediatedly loved it. The campus is beautiful and the classes were all interesting. I contacted Mark Young, the women's coach, and my whole family met him. We all thought he was great. He cares about the athletes as people, not just as runners and he is always careful not over-train the team. He also understands all of the demands that college students face outside of running.
northrunning : Was there ever any question of you and Kate going to other schools?

Laura : Kate and I looked at all of the same schools, but we wanted to make our decisions on our own. I decided to apply to Yale Early Decision a little while before the application was due, but Kate didn't decide to apply early until the last minute.

Yale has residential colleges, made up of about 100 students per class. Each college has its own dorm and dining hall, sort like a smaller community within the university. We requested to be in different residential colleges so that we could meet different people. That worked out really well. Our high school was small, so we had been in most of the same classes growing up. It was nice to establish our own identities.

 Sisters go 1-2 in their last collegiate race at Yale
Laura (l) and Kate (r) wear winner's smiles
northrunning : Tell me a little about the team atmosphere at Yale that would help a recruit understand what to expect.

Laura : I loved every minute of my four years. I met so many interesting people on the team, in my dorm and in my classes. I know I will be friends with my teammates for the rest of my life. Being part of a team helped me adjust my freshman year because I had such a great support network. Mark and our assistant coach, Christi Ireland, are great as well. The classwork was demanding, but all of reading was interesting and I was able to take class with excellent professors.

northrunning : What was your favorite workout while there?
Laura : My favorite workout was mile repeats. During the cross-country season, we did mile repeats at the golf course, which has hill that is more challenging than any hill I have ever run in a race. In the winter and spring, we did mile repeats on the track, usually four or five.
northrunning : Your hardest?
Laura : My hardest workout was 16 X 400 meters.
northrunning : What do you think about tee to greens. (or is it greens to tees?)

Laura : I really liked greens to tees or tees to greens at the golf course (some holes are green to tee, some are the other way around). We run hard from the green to the tee of a hole and then jog to the next hole where we do the same. It was a fun way to work on speed.

northrunning : What did you learn most while running in college that you might not have known or understood in high school?
Laura : I learned the importance of gradually increasing mileage and intensity over time. I ran about 20 miles a week in high school. By senior year in college, I ran 65 miles a week in addition to cross-training two or three times a week. I didn't make that jump all at once though. I added a little bit of mileage each year.
Laura receives congratulations after winning her final home-track race
northrunning : What was the most exciting meet you were part of?

Laura : The whole cross-country season of my sophomore year was unforgettable. Our team had placed seventh in the Heptagonal League my freshman year. We knew we could perform much better the next year, but I think we surprised even ourselves by finishing seventh in the nation. The NCAA meet was incredibly exciting. The fact that the temperature was fourteen degrees below zero with the wind chill only made the experience more memorable.

Having left that in the past, it was now time to focus on her present running career.
northrunning : What did it feel like to become a professional runner?
Laura : It all still seems new to me. I feel so lucky that I am able to continue to do something I love every day.
northrunning : When did you start to believe you could handle professional running?
Laura : My coach started talking about running after college a little bit during my junior year. I knew I wanted to continue to run after college.
northrunning : To what do you think you owe your incredible ability to keep getting better?

Laura : I think that just working hard consistently has helped me improve. It certainly helps to have a perfect training partner to run with every day as well! I have also been fortunate enough to never have a major injury. I have had to take a day off once in awhile when my knee or hip was bothering me, but never more than a day or two.

Kate (pink) and Laura (white) during and after the Falmouth road race where they placed 6th and 7th for women.
northrunning : Could you give me a little description of the weather at the XC nationals and how your race fell together?
Laura : The temperature was only in 20's, but I felt pretty prepared for the weather in Indianapolis. We have had a cold winter in Connecticut. The course was slippery from the snow, but I wore big spikes so it wasn't too bad.
I wanted to be as close the front as possible and to try to concentrate on the last 2,000 meters of the race. I was able to get out in a good position and I pretty much stayed in the same place for most of the race.
When you hear about great distance runners you start to think of training at altitude in Colorado or Arizona. Other runners are now trying to link up with groups such as the Hansons or Zapp. But here is a girl making it happen in a big Northeast City at seas level! I had to at least ask.
northrunning : Fill me in on the pros and cons of running in New Haven. New Haven isn’t exactly the national hotbed of distance running – until now!
Laura : I wanted to stay in New Haven, because Mark's coaching has worked so well for me for the past four years. The weather can be difficult during the winter, but it certainly helps prepare us for races like the one in Indianapolis. We also have access to more trail running than one might guess. The Yale golf course is beautiful and the East Rock trails are only a few blocks from my house.
northrunning : What would training be like if Kate weren’t your training partner?
Laura : I would have a much harder time motivating myself if I didn't have Kate as a training partner. She pushes me to work harder in every workout and she has helped me improve. When we aren't doing a hard work-out, we talk to each other constantly while we run. I sometimes wonder how we don't run out of topics to discuss!
Finally, I had to check out where she’s headed from here.
northrunning : What, where and when are your next races?
Laura : My next race is the last weekend in February in Puerto Rico. It's a 10K road race to get ready for the World Cross-Country Championships. I am excited to go run in warmer weather for a few days!
The world Cross-Country meet is March 21st. After that, track season will start. We are flying out to California a few times for races. I am hoping to improve my 10K and 5K times on the track this year.
northrunning : Finally, is there anything I left out that you’d like to mention about your running?
Laura : I would love to mention my parents. They have never put any pressure on me to run, but they have always been supportive. They come to every race they can make it to.
Laura's mother (blue hat) is about to congratulate her daughter
Laura shows up to support Babson and their coaches - past team mates Matthew and Emily Taylor.

With that, all that’s left is to sit back and see what new running worlds this Massachusetts native will seek to conquer. Keep your eyes on the World Cross Country Championships and beyond.

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