By Peter Gambaccini
Morgan Uceny was the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials 1500-meter winner and the #1-ranked runner in the world for that distance in 2011. She’ll run a 1500 at the Drake Relays in Des Moines on Saturday against Olympians Shannon Rowbury and Jenny Simpson and high school phenom Mary Cain.
A Cornell & PHS graduate, Uceny, 28. spends much of the year now in Loughborough, England, where her coach, Terrence Mahon, has a job with UK Athletics. But for a few weeks, she’s been in California. On Saturday night, in her first race since she was knocked down and did not finish the London Olympic 1500 final, Uceny was ninth in 2:05:50 in an 800 at the Mt. SAC Relays.
Why did you decide to open the year with an 800?
Morgan Uceny: In the past, I did the [B.A.A. Mile], but I just didn’t want to travel that far. I wanted to stay somewhere local. And two of my training partners right now, Sheila Reid, who’s here in San Diego, and Lynsey Sharp from Scotland, one of my new teammates, were also running the 800. It made sense to open up at the same time.
It’s been a long time since I’ve raced, so I just need to get back in that environment. I never race very well early on, so I know I need some of these early races to see where I’m at and see what kind of work I need to hit in training.
When did you come from England to the United States, and will you stay through the USATF Championships?
MU: I came over on March 20. I’m staying through May 6. After Drake, there’s another meet in San Diego on May 5. After that race, I’ll fly back to England and do a couple of races in May. I’ll probably go to Rome, and then there is another meet in the town I’m living in, the Loughborough International. Then I’ll come back over for [the USATF Championships in June].
For Drake, at this stage of the season, what expectations would you have?
MU: It’s mostly about using the kind of race tactics that I’ll need later in the season. I know my fitness isn’t where it needs to be, but it’s mid-April, so I’m really not that concerned about that. It’s more about putting myself in the right position. The fitness is something that will just come over the next ten weeks or so.
The move from Mammoth to England, to follow Coach Mahon, probably caught you by surprise. For someone to say “let’s move to England for half the year, and bring your friends and bring your coach” sounds appealing.
MU: Shock was definitely the initial feeling, because obviously, I’d had some successful years and was really just getting settled into Mammoth and San Diego [her sea-level training spot] and felt like I was getting into a routine. Having to totally uproot my life, at first I was pretty apprehensive about everything.
But I had time to think about what the differences would be and the fact that Anna [Willard] and Jen [Rhines] were still going, so I would have my teammates with me. And we had been talking about getting new teammates anyway, so this was an opportunity to expand our team and get more people involved. It ended up really being a positive move, once I got my head wrapped around it.
Has the move made any differences in terms of workouts?
MU: Not really, because we just have the one new girl right now [Lynsey Sharp], and she’s primarily an 800-meter runner, so she’s been helpful for us working on speed. And we’re helping her with strength in the weight room, and longer intervals. She’s just a great personality, she’s really laid back and sarcastic so she fits into the group really well.
Being an English resident and waking up in an English town, is your life different in many ways?
MU: It’s really not that much different. There are little nuances here and there, but we’re going to training at the same time, doing similar workouts. We just call them “sessions” now instead of workouts. But other than that, life goes on pretty much the same.
When did you take your trip to Kenya?
MU: We were in Kenya for most of January at Iten. That was my first time there, and I was there for three weeks. But we didn’t know if we would like it, so we didn’t want to commit too much.
I think I probably was the only one in our group who really liked it and would go back. A lot of people got sick or maybe just didn’t handle the altitude as well. I’ve always found that altitude has a positive effect on my training and at that time, I had been suffering some injuries coming back from the Olympics and got a late start this year. Kenya was a real turning point in my training, where I felt like I was finally getting quality workouts done. So I had a great experience. To each their own.
Especially for the 1500, [Iten] can be very beneficial when you’re getting your mileage base up. Right now, there’s only a dirt track there. So if you’re trying to get ready for indoors or trying to work on speed at certain times of the year, it’s obviously not ideal for that. They are building an all-weather track out there.
Recent news articles suggest that the London Olympic 1500-meter gold medalist, Asli Cakir Alptekin from Turkey, could be disqualified for a drug offense. How did you feel when you saw her Olympic performances? How do you feel about the fact that these matters are adjudicated well after the race so that, potentially, at least one woman who deserved a medal doesn’t get them during the Games?
MU: My feelings are probably similar to those shared by most people. She had been caught for doping before, so it was hard not to stand in judgment after the fact. She hadn’t raced hardly anywhere last year and then comes out and wins the Olympics. There was definitely suspicions towards that race.
But at the end of the day, there are always going to be dopers, is the way I feel. That’s something that’s out of my control. It doesn’t change my goals at all. My goals are always going to be to try and medal and to win the race. Whatever’s out of my control, I just can’t worry about it. In big situations like [the Olympics], you have enough to worry about.
Do you think that because of biological passports, it’s getting harder to cheat?
MU: It definitely seems like more people are getting caught, especially because of the biological passport. That’s definitely a step in the right direction, and it discourages people from doping.
We’ve heard that your pal Anna Willard may be more open to trying the steeplechase again this year. Do you know anything about that?
MU: [Laughs] I think you need to talk to her about that. Anna’s always open to different events, like she has been in the past. She understands, like the rest of us, that we want to make these world championships and Olympic teams, and we all, every year, recalculate where we expect we can do that.
Regarding your falls at the 2011 world championships [Uceny got up and finished 10th in the 1500] and at the Olympics [she was hurt and did not finish], do you see these just as unrelated, isolated incidents? Is there any psychological or physical or strategic pattern you have to worry about?
MU: As far as I know, I just had terrible luck and they were just freak accidents. There was nothing that I did that caused those events, so I’m not worried about what I did wrong or what I could change because there was nothing I did wrong in those races. They were just unfortunate events.
After the Olympics, you went to your Indiana hometown, where events held in your honor. That would have been exciting at any time, but at that point, it must have been extremely meaningful to you.
MU: It would have been nice to go back and be more of a hero. But at the same time, since I was hurting from this [Olympic loss], you expect it from your family and from your teammates, but when your whole community gets behind you and shows that they still care about you and support you, that means a lot.
Because you don’t really realize the effect you have on others, especially the youth and the kids, that they understood in a pretty deep way what I went through and what I was feeling. So the fact that they were concerned or interested about that, I thought, was pretty special.
And they’ll be very happy when you get a world championships medal in Moscow!
MU: Exactly! Lucky me, I’m still young enough to keep going and do some damage.