Local Olympian inspires varsity, casual runners

Sports Staff Writer
Monday, February 6, 2012

“When you run free, you run fast. When you run fast, you have fun,” said Roisin McGettigan, Irish Olympian and Providence resident, to an audience of varsity and club runners Feb. 2 in an event sponsored by the Running Club.

McGettigan — no stranger to running fast — competed in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. She was a four-time NCAA All-American during her college career at Providence College and holds Irish national records in the 3,000-m steeplechase and indoor mile. The steeplechase is a track event where competitors run approximately 1.86 miles while hurdling a total of 28 barriers and seven water pits.

McGettigan, 31, began running in her hometown of Wicklow, Ireland. It was during her teenage years that she gained experience with hurdles, not anticipating that it would help her later for the steeplechase. McGettigan said that she wanted to train harder as a teenager but knew that it would be difficult to achieve in Ireland.

“I got more into it and really worked hard and ended up getting a scholarship to Providence College,” McGettigan said. “(Providence College head coach Ray Treacy) is from Ireland, so he is aware of athletes who do well in Ireland.”

Treacy brought McGettigan to Rhode Island in 1999. After her freshman year, McGettigan said she had doubts about her training, as she watched all the runners who were faster than her. But she turned this doubt into motivation and began to improve as she worked harder every year.

“That’s what’s great about the system here — you have four years to mature as an athlete,” McGettigan said.

For McGettigan, her college years involved developing a focus on the steeplechase. She said she had never done lots of distance training, so the hurdles helped divide the distance into smaller segments.

“I used to think (3,000-m) was so long,” McGettigan said. “So hurdling and steeplechasing for me helped me make the transition, because you’re so focused on the next thing that the laps click off.”

In 2007, McGettigan competed at the World Championships in Osaka, Japan and finished 10th overall in the 3k steeplechase. Performing on such a big stage allowed her to “learn to control her nerves,” she said, adding that she viewed that race as a “really good breakthrough.”

As she trained for the Olympics, McGettigan said she imagined herself having another breakout race in the finals.

“Semifinals went really well — it was the dream race I had imagined,” McGettigan said. She finished second in her heat and qualified for finals. But she did not perform as well as she had long imagined in the finals and finished 14th overall.

“Finals was devastating,” she said. “It took me a long time to get over it.”

“After the Olympics, it was like, ‘Now what?'” McGettigan added. “Like a void, it’s very common after you achieve an event — you come down a little bit. You feel a bit down in the dumps after.”

McGettigan said instead of training more, she needed to refocus her life and “have more balance in it.”

“You’re not just drawing all your self-worth or identity from your running,” McGettigan said. “Because once that goes, you go, ‘What else can I do?'”

To help achieve her goals, McGettigan said she writes down her ambitions, especially those that have to do with running.

“You can learn so much about yourself from your own journal, because what worked and what didn’t work is right there,” she said.

To help other athletes harness the power of a training journal, McGettigan and fellow runner Lauren Fleshman started a business called “Believe I Am,” which makes training journals. McGettigan and Fleshman, the U.S. outdoor 5,000-m champion in 2006 and 2010, decided to work together because they had “really good synergy and creativity.” The duo also produces clothing that incorporates inspirational messages into its designs.

“Athletes use cues to keep from getting too anxious or nervous, and we found that helped us compete at our best,” McGettigan said. “So we wanted to bring that to everybody.”

McGettigan said she is now preparing for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Currently, she runs 60 miles with two hard sessions each week, though she said she hopes to work up to running 70 miles a week. She said she tries to focus on her weekly progress and has seen “big jumps” in her training.

Though the varsity and club runners at Brown are not necessarily preparing for the Olympics, McGettigan’s comments about her triumphs and struggles still serve as motivation, said Mitchell Baker, assistant track and field coach.

“It gives them a sense that even the people at the top of the running world have to go through the same things,” Baker said.

McGettigan ended the talk with a story about her experience at the Beijing Olympics. To help with nerves, she said she had to remember that she wanted to be there and that “it was supposed to be fun.” As a reminder, she drew a smile on her hand with the words “fast, free, fun.”