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Perseverance Pays Off:

Steph Garcia has one fear: settling.

Today, Team NB's Stephanie Garcia will toe the line of the 3,000m steeplechase at the World Championships in Beijing, China. Only three women in the entire U.S. earned a spot on that starting line - and Steph is one of them - which makes it very hard to believe there was a time not too long ago where she seriously doubted her path as a professional runner. Riding the crest of a meteoric rise in the sport, Garcia, 27, has emerged as one of the top talents that the country has to offer in this unqiue and unforgiving event.

In high school, Steph was a good runner, but not a great one. When she was presented with the idea of walking onto the track and field team at the University of Virginia, she didn't shy away from the challenge. A passionate and vivacious person, Steph instead chose to go all-in as she does with any decision. Steph competed in a handful of distances early in her UVA career, but a spark ignited the day she discovered the 3,000m steeplechase, a punishing obstacle race event not commonly run in high school. At the time, she had no idea how significant this 7.5-lap race would change the trajectory of the rest of her life.

Each year in college, Steph chipped away at her steeple PR and swiftly rose in the rankings until she was one of the best in the country. When she began her final year at the University of Virginia in 2010, there was a looming question waiting for her in the spring – what next?

While the rest of her classmates seemed to have a clear answer, Steph’s decision about life after UVA looked a little different than the rest. Graduate school, a year of service and getting a “real job” were all options, but with each one of these paths she knew something would be missing. In order to be true to her heart, she flirted with the idea of putting her traditional career goals on hold to pursue her unique dream of running professionally, but only if she could prove to herself she was fast enough by dipping under the 10-minute mark, something she had never done before. 

 “Going into outdoor season senior year, I told myself that I wouldn’t go pro unless I broke 10 minutes in the steeple,” says Garcia. “I ended up going under 10 in my first race, had a breakout year and went on to make the world team. After that happened, I had the opportunity to sign with New Balance and got an agent. It was really eye-opening and I just told myself, ‘Here I am. I can be a professional.”

After the whirlwind of her 2011 outdoor season, it was once again decision time for Steph - this time where she would train and who would coach her. Steph trusted her instincts by sticking with her coach from UVA and followed her to Knoxville, Tennessee where she had accepted a new coaching position at another school. Training as a solo professional without a group, Steph quickly realized that she needed the peer support to push her limits. A bubbly, social person, Steph felt deflated and uninspired in Knoxville. This wasn't the right fit. Before long, Steph moved to Indianapolis to try another group, but unfortunately, the team dynamic she had hoped for just did not click. Steph became discouraged and started to doubt the leap of faith she had made when she decided to run professionally.

“I saw my UVA teammates and classmates who were done with running thrive in their careers and meanwhile, I was still getting up every day to go to practice,” Steph says. “I struggled to convince myself that my running was worthwhile. I was good enough, but I wasn’t great. It was really hard to handle that and figure out how to overcome it.”

Luckily, after a mediocre outdoor season in 2013, Steph agreed to run the elite mile at the New Balance Falmouth Road Race in August. She had no idea she’d find her spark again in the small New England town. 

At the race, Steph met another competitor who was training in Furman, South Carolina, in newly-formed group for designed for post-collegians running professionally, based at Furman University. Steph listened intently about what it was like training under their coach, Robert Gary. At a crossroads in her career, Steph’s interest was piqued.

“I knew Robert Gary was an established steeple coach and that he coached my fellow NB teammate, Nicole Bush, to her U.S. title, but I had never considered it,” says Garcia. “I was excited to learn more about the club.”

Following the race, Steph visited Robert Gary in Furman and knew that she had finally found her place. She clicked with her teammates right away and was inspired by Robert Gary’s vision for her – it was a perfect fit.

“I immediately fell in love with the group and knew it was the game changer I had been looking for,” Steph explains. “I knew this was my last chance to make running work, so when Robert invited me to come down, I completely committed to the program.”

When Steph moved to Furman in September, she made big lifestyle changes to improve her all-around training, including sleeping more, eating better and she also began practicing yoga as a way to gain strength and also relieve stress. Running became her life, not just something she did. She was truly going for it.

“I just 100% bought into the program and showed myself this was worthwhile,” Steph says. “It didn’t matter that I didn’t have a corporate career. I was pursuing my dreams and that’s what really mattered.”

Stephanie’s hard work didn’t go unnoticed. Her teammate Heidi Gregson explains that she felt Steph’s energy contribute to the group’s overall momentum right away.

“Stephanie is a very solid training partner and her biggest strength is showing up to training ready to give 100% and work hard,” says Gregson. “Stephanie is a go-getter in all areas of her life, not just running. We excel because of people who are passionate, hard-working and dedicated – and Stephanie definitely fits this mold.”

After a solid stretch of base training in the fall of 2014, Steph approached her 2014 outdoor season refreshed, confident and hungry for a PR. With each race, Steph steadily improved and ended up placing third in the 3,000m steeplechase at the U.S. Championships. If it had been a championship year (meaning there was an international championship in the late summer), Steph would have made the world team.

Finally, she was back.

“At that time, I felt like I was finally living up to the potential I knew I had,” says Steph. “I had lost touch since my 2011 season so it felt good to hit times I knew I was capable of.”

This year, Garcia continued to build on the momentum from her 2014 season and absolutely exploded onto the scene this outdoor season. To earn a spot on the U.S. team for the World Championships in August, American track and field athletes must achieve two things – a world “A” standard mark in their respective event and finish in the top three at the U.S. Championships this weekend. With most athletes specializing in a single distance, there are few distance runners who have the “A” standard in more than one event. Leading up to the U.S. Championships, Steph not only captured the “A” standard in the steeple, but also the 1,500m and 5,000m. With three qualifying marks, Steph established herself as one of the biggest threats on the track this season as the only American distance runner to have three standards.

 “I didn’t even know what the ‘A’ standard was in the 5000m, that’s how far off my radar it was,” she says. “I used to struggle with only being a steeplechaser, but now I feel like a good runner, not just a good steeplechase runner. To come into this year and achieve the standards across multiple distances has given me a lot of confidence for my overall fitness.”

When it came time to toe the line at the U.S. Championships in Eugene, Oregon, Steph approached the trial with confidence and poise. During the race, she remained patient and gradually glided away from the field to assertively secure her spot in the final. After all she had been through since 2011, she was now just seven and a half laps of the oval away from earning her spot on the World Championship team. 

The day of the final brought punishing heat, but it didn't matter - Steph was ready. All of the hard work she had done to get to this race was now complete and she was ready to fight for her ticket to Beijing. When the gun went off, Steph was surprised to find herself at the front of the pack, a position usually assumed by NB teammate, Emma Coburn. Unshaken, Steph quickly adapted and pushed the field to an honest pace, setting the tone for the rest of the race. Before long, she and Emma had broken away from the pack.

For the middle laps of the race, Steph and Emma stole the show and stretched their lead with each lap. Coming off one of the last water jumps, the most unforgiving barrier of the 3,000m steeplechase, Emma launched into another gear and broke away from Steph. With just two laps remaining, Steph remained composed, refusing to let anyone behind her threaten her spot. Determined to defend her second place position, she put her head down and grinded out the final meters that stood in between her and a spot on the U.S. team. Steph rounded the final turn and charged down the home straightaway, crossing the finish line with a ticket to Beijing, a new personal best of 9:23.48 and a huge smile. 

She did it. 

While Garcia has been surprised by her success this season so far, her coach Robert Gary knew it was in her the entire time.

“Steph jumps into everything she does fully, so we worked on harnessing that energy to take her to the next level this season,” says Gary. “It works because I believe in her and she believes in me. She knows she can run the times I tell her that she can.”

After all that she’s been through to get to today’s race, Steph can look back knowing all of her perseverance and commitment to pursue her running dreams have been worth it.

“It’s been a wild ride, but it’s all come together and I’m super excited for what’s next,” she says. “Today will be a real battle, but I’m ready for it.”

 

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