ITHACA — From the plains of Indiana to the hills of Ithaca, to the biggest stages in world athletics.
Morgan Uceny’s life journey has been quite an incredible one. At a quick glance, it’s a mixture of undeniable dedication and the strange twists and turns fate so often has prepared for us.
Uceny, a four-time All-American at Cornell University and one of the United States’ brightest stars of track and field, will take the first steps toward qualifying for her first Olympic Games Thursday at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials at historic Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore.
Uceny is scheduled to run in a qualifying round of the 1,500-meter run at 6:50 p.m. (EDT). She is a heavy favorite to advance to Friday’s semifinals and eventually Sunday’s final, where the top three finishers will earn their tickets to London and this year’s Summer Olympics. Were Uceny to finish among those three, she would become the first female track athlete from Cornell to compete at the Olympic Games.
It was only a little over year ago that Uceny burst onto the international scene, but this small-town girl and former Ivy League standout brings plenty of high-quality experience to the track. Uceny has won U.S. national outdoor and indoor championships, competed in a World Championship final and earned a No. 1 world ranking.
And it shows.
“There is a lot to think about,” said Uceny, 27, of how she is approaching the trials. “Game plans change for each round, and going into the final, I will have to assess who the key players in the race are and what I need to do to get myself on the team. This would be my first Olympic team, so I don’t have to look far to find inspiration.”
Finding her distance
While the 1,500 is the event Uceny has made her mark in as a professional, it was the 800 that got her going down the road she finds herself on today — that is, after she dabbled in a few other sports and activities.
Born and raised in Plymouth, Ind., around 30 miles south of South Bend, Uceny grew up as a member of 4H, for which she and her brother raised cattle and goats for various summer competitions and shows. The summers would also see her help her father as he worked with his masonry crew, and she also played a lot of basketball, her first passion.
Eventually, though, Uceny realized running — which she did in the offseason primarily to stay in shape for basketball — could take her places no other sport could.
Safe to say, that decision has paid off, and then some.
Uceny was the 2002 Indiana state high school champion at 800 meters. After a difficult start to her career on East Hill, she would graduate from Cornell in 2007 as one of the most decorated track athletes in program history.
A four-time All-American and six-time Ivy League champion in the 800, Uceny still holds seven Cornell school records, including the indoor 500 and 800 and the outdoor 800, at 2 minutes, 1.75 seconds, her best college time.
With Uceny pretty much a lock to win the 800 between 2005 and ’07, the Big Red won overall indoor and outdoor Ivy League team titles in all four of her years on East Hill. Uceny capped her senior year at Cornell with a sixth-place finish at the NCAA Championships and an impressive fourth-place finish at the ’07 USA championships that summer, competing against professional athletes.
Fast forward a couple of years, and after failing to see a major breakthrough at 800, Uceny — now sponsored by Reebok — begins a transition to the 1,500 meters. She had already turned heads in the event at the 2008 Olympic Trials, finishing fourth, two places higher than she did in the 800 a few days earlier.
After winning her first U.S. indoor title at the distance in 2010, Uceny would go on to dominate the event in 2011, starting with a U.S. outdoor title with a winning time of 4:03.91. That earned her a trip to the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, where she became just the second female Cornellian to compete in the competition. She cruised through the heats, and entered the final as a strong favorite.
Down, but far from out
Uceny, who earlier in the year had made a habit of tucking in with the pack before sprinting by the leaders in the last half-lap, looked to be employing the same tactic in the final in Daegu. Looking relaxed and comfortably within striking distance with 500 meters to go, she began to make her move to the outside, unaware of the disaster about to unfold.
In the scramble for position before the final sprint, Kenya’s Hellen Onsando Obiri got her legs tangled and fell, causing Uceny, caught directly behind her, to go down to the track as well. By the time she was up and resumed running, Uceny was well out of the race, and wound up 10th. Countrywoman Jenny Simpson was the surprise gold-medal winner, in 4:05.40.
“At the end of the day, anything can happen and it is important to be prepared for anything,” said Uceny, who ended 2011 with the fastest 1,500 time in the world (4:00.06, which roughly converts to a 4:19 mile) as well as a new personal best in the 800 (1:58.37). She ended the year as the world’s top-ranked 1,500-meter runner by Track and Field News, the first American to do so since Mary Decker Slaney in 1983.
“I feel that, more than ever, I can handle any type of race,” she said.
That confidence is born not only of the lessons learned in Daegu and other high-profile international meets, but also due to her level of fitness entering the trials. Uceny, who is part of the Mammoth Track Club and does all of her fall and winter altitude training in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., relocated to San Diego at the end of March to do her “sea-level training” in preparation for London. Under Coach Terrence Mahon, Uceny says this year has yielded the best training of her career.
“I was able to remain healthy and injury free which allowed me to challenge myself further,” Uceny said. “This year, the focus has been on getting stronger in order to better handle the three rounds at the Olympic trials and Olympic Games. I have been lucky enough to have one of the best coaches in the world to help me develop into a better athlete over these past several years, so that coming into this Olympic year, I am more ready than ever.”
More ready than ever, more experienced than ever and with more support than ever, from California to Indiana to Ithaca.
“I know that a lot of former teammates and friends will be in Eugene for the Olympic Trials,” she said, “so I hope I can do them proud.”