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Penn State Runner Bridget Franek to Compete for Team USA

By: Kate Murdoch
July, 2009


Everyone loves an underdog. The heart wrenching victories that unexpectedly slap us across the face, waking us up from the repetitive nature of expectations, are what sports fans crave. It is the pulse of adrenaline they constantly seek out opportunities to witness history in the making.

At the USA Track and Field Championships earlier this summer at Hayward Field (Eugene, OR), one such underdog,  Bridget Franek of Penn State University, thought of  the upcoming summer months as she warmed up for the 3,000 meter Steeplechase preliminaries.

The meet, held to select the runners who would represent Team USA at the World Championships in Berlin later this summer, was Franek’s last of a long season. Free from the high expectations that plague the sport’s elite, she was looking forward towards a relaxing June and July.

After the first round, however, things felt a little different.

“I was looking ahead towards July. I wanted to run a good race and then basically finish my year off”, Franek admitted. “But, in the prelims I felt really good”.

Because of her performance in the prelims, Franek was placed in a coveted position going into the finals. She found herself seeded in the third spot behind Jenny Barringer and Anna Willard; both 2008 Olympians in that event. Barringer is the current owner of the American Record with a time of 9:22.26, and Willard, a 9:27.59 (Venue Record).

“After the prelims, I still wasn’t really thinking about making the team. But, the night before the final, I was just so amped up. ‘Wow, look at this opportunity in front of me. I could make the team pressure pressure pressure!’ I kept having to take deep breathes and remember the bigger picture, that I’ve come so far already and anything else is just amazing. But I was kind of kidding myself by saying that,” she laughed, “because I really started to want [to qualify for the USA Team]”.

The qualifications for making the USA Team are based on two things: Achieving the “A” standard and placing in the top three of an event. For the steeplechase, the standard sits at 9:40, and Franek’s best time hovered around 9:43. Not only was Franek racing for a top three position against steeplechase notables (Lindsey Anderson, Nike; Lisa Galaviz, Nike; and Marie Lawrence, UWashington; to name a few), but she was racing against the clock.

Franek rose to the challenge. In the finals she almost overcame previous American record holder Willard in the final straightaway. “Looking back on it, ‘What are you doing! That’s Anna Willard!’ but I was just so in the zone. She was just another racer. I had to worry about her as a runner, not as an Olympian”.   

After a back-and-forth lasting 600 meters, Willard won the battle for second, crossing the line in 9:35.01. Franek trailed her by a second. Both women were still a $5 cab ride from Barringer, who finished the race in an effortless 9:29.38. The 2009 Team USA Steeplechasers had been decided.

With such a surprising move to the world stage, nerves for the young runner would not only be understandable, they would be expected. But, the cost of higher expectations that comes with each raise of the bar doesn’t seem to affect Franek. She sees nothing but excitement in the upcoming Berlin meet.

“I’m just going to enjoy being the rookie. Anna [Willard] and Jenny [Barringer] were both so happy for me. They are excited to show me the ropes, and get me acclimated to the elite level. I know I’m a big underdog. I don’t want it to stress me out. I’m kind of looking at it as a first step in an awesome career.”

From now until her departure for Berlin on August 5th, Franek will be training under the direction of Coach Beth Sullivan, the PSU Men’s and Women’s track coach while most of her USA teammates will be sharpening their racing skills at various meets in Europe. But the real question is, can we hope for Franek to become the new Steeple rockstar come graduation next year? “We’ll see, I’m just going to wait and see what doors open and what doors close when the time comes” she said, remaining tight-lipped. The track world will have to wait, but one thing seems imminent, she won’t be an underdog for long.




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