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In the lead-up to the London Olympics, Genevieve LaCaze went from track obscurity to the hottest name and face in Australian athletics. Now, away from the selection battles and publicity shoots, she wants her running to do the talking, starting with this year’s world championships in Moscow.
You just won the national title but you missed out on automatic selection for the world championships. Did you walk away satisfied or disappointed?
The main goal was to win because it was my first senior championship so I was really relieved and happy with that but it wasn’t the time I was looking for. When I got halfway through the race I just sort of focused on getting the win because it’s so hard to push yourself when you’re on your own. I’ve got plenty of really fast races over the next month so it’s not like I won’t get another opportunity.
What sort of setback is that to your season?
It’s not really a setback at all. It’s more just a personal thing. I would have liked to have qualified early for the world championships to get it out of the way but either way I’ve got all these races to run fast lined up already. I was going to be doing them no matter what. It just would have been nice to go in knowing I had the time. I should be hitting those times soon anyway. I did the A qualifier several times last year so I definitely shouldn’t think that I won’t be there soon. I’m definitely in the right shape going by all my training. So it’s more just a mental setback. I would have liked to have qualified and been announced on the team with everyone else.
So are we all set up for another last minute Olympic style qualification swoop from you?
Ah I hope not. I think I’ve played that card already. I think it’s time to qualify early and set myself to be ready to race in August. I’d rather not have all that overwhelming publicity again. We’ve got until July to qualify and it’s early season. There’s so many people still to qualify.
Just to clarify what happened last year. You ran an Olympic qualifying time a couple of days too late. You still didn’t get picked on the team and you had to fight for your right to go to London. A battle you won in the end. So with that behind you, what’s your relationship with Athletics Australia like now?
It’s so much better and it’s something that over the past few months, especially since London, has been really, really nice. They’ve been so supportive. They got me a link with the QAS and have been helping me out with funding and the use of facilities and the medical contacts. The communication is something that we used to lack. Now we’ve fixed that and things are definitely much better.
Does AA resent your fight against them?
Yeah I think they did at the time. I think it would have been really tough for them. There was a rule that they put in place with the criteria for Olympic qualification. It wasn’t like something they made up at the last minute. Everyone had criteria they had to meet so definitely I think it was hard for them to have to make that decision. But I am just glad I was able to put on a good performance in London so they didn’t regret the decision.
The public really got behind your cause. The amount of support you were getting must have been a pretty humbling experience for you?
Yeah it was but it was probably more overwhelming in the week before the Olympics. At the time of qualifying and then the next 48 hours I was hidden away from it. I was in a little College county in Indiana hidden away in a dormitory and I didn’t really witness it first-hand. Obviously I was being interviewed and contacted a lot and I saw some things on social media but I was rather sheltered from it. But yeah it was a very humbling experience to have so many people get behind me. There were also those that didn’t think it was fair but the majority of people were in my corner and it was a great feeling.
The day you ran that time, the pressure was on wasn’t it? It was make or break.
Yeah definitely. I knew what that time was. I knew what it was even back at the Olympic trials in March. It was a time that I’d set as a goal the whole year. All year I was thinking maybe they would take me on a B qualifier. But once the date had passed and I had one last shot it had to be the A qualifying time or nothing. And even then I didn’t know I would be selected. I just knew my best shot was getting an A and there’s no one in the event from Australia so let’s hope they accept it if I get the A.
It was a College meet. How advanced was the timing system? Were you able to get an idea of your splits as you were running?
Yeah, well I knew where I needed to be throughout that race. There was a man there shouting out the times. A lot of the American girls in that race were also trying to qualify for their trials. So there was a pace in the race and a lot of girls all trying to run fast. So we all knew what time we had to hit and the man was yelling the time every 400 split. So the whole race I was well aware of the time and the marks I wanted to hit.
So when you looked up and you’d got the time what did you think?
Oh it was such a relief because the day’s leading up to it were such a mess. I’d just had the national championship and then a day later I’d been told I had one more shot if I wanted it. So we were arranging flights at the last minute and my Dad cancelled his trip home to Australia to stay a few more days. That cost him about a grand in fees. I remember we got in late to the town. About 2am. We had pizza when we got there.
The perfect athlete’s diet then!
Yeah it was just such a bad preparation and then the race was 11 o’clock at night. We had to drive two hours to get there. So leading into that race I didn’t really have any time to think about getting nervous. When I crossed that line and saw the time it was just the biggest relief. But also excitement because it’s a time I’d been trying to hit all year and then under those circumstances I came out and did a nine second PB. I couldn’t believe it.
Then it all got interesting. You had to fight for your right to go to the Olympics then.
Yeah when that race finished my Dad got on the phone. I don’t know if he called Athletics Australia directly but he wanted to get word to them that we’d hit the A qualifying time. Are we up for selection? Is there a way? The initial response was ‘sorry, you’re too late.’ It wasn’t even like we could have a few hours pending a decision. Straight away it was like ‘no you’re too late. It closed a few days ago.’ So from there it all started. My Dad contacted someone and said ‘look is there any way, is there anything we can do? Who can we talk to?’ And from there it just really got rolling.
Do selection policies need to be changed?
No I don’t think so. I would hope my situation wouldn’t happen again, especially to me! The qualifying times are set so everybody is aiming for the same thing. I think it’s great this year that Athletics Australia is taking B qualifiers to the world championships. I think that’s important for athletes who may be on the bubble in their event. It just gives a whole new way for people to get in and start building a team for these competitions. I understand Olympics are a whole different level. You do want to take the best of the best to that. But during these off years especially in the lead up to the Commonwealth Games having a bigger team and taking B qualifiers can only benefit Australian athletics. I totally understand why selection policies have to be so strict but I think it can only be beneficial to take more than leave so many behind.
You’re desperate to change the public perception of you aren’t you? You don’t want to be remembered as the girl who had to fight her way onto the Olympic team?
Yeah exactly. I’m very grateful to have been taken to the Olympics and have run really well while I was there. But at the same time I don’t want that to be my label. I want to really now start to make big jumps in my event. I want to break the Australian 3k steeplechase record. I want to be a contender at the Commonwealth Games next year. And the Olympics in 2016. Getting to the London Olympics was a massive step but at the same time I was disappointed I wasn’t in the final. They’re the standards I want to set. I want to be known as one of Australia’s top female athletes. I don’t want to be known as the girl who caused a debacle over team selection and had to struggle to get to the Olympics.
Yours wasn’t an isolated incident. There was more controversy around the athletics team in the lead-up to competition starting. Did that impact on Australia’s performance?
I don’t think so. Although being in America I didn’t hear much about any of the controversy until I got there. Until the media day actually. I know there were some issues with John Steffensen and there were a few other things going on. But really, Athletics Australia did a good job with the squad. They had little bonding sessions with the group. There was one day where I was officially welcomed as a new Flame team member. I think they did a good job on limited time to try and bring us all together. Even though it was very last minute I think they did a good job. There wasn’t much else they could do.
So it was a unified group in London?
By the time the Olympics rolled around and we were all in competition mode we were all really supportive of each other. I don’t there was much hostility at all. But then again, that’s just from me speaking. I could be just in my own little world on that. There are always going to be controversial things at an event like that. But I didn’t sense anything that affected performances.
You have taken a very different path to most Australian athletes by coming through the American College system. Has that been a help or hindrance?
I think it goes both ways. I think when I graduated high school going to America then was the best decision. I’d really come to the end of my run in what I could learn in athletics. I really wanted to go to university. My athletics coach at high school was just a teacher at the school. He was very knowledgeable and was an awesome coach but at the same time I wasn’t sure what I should do. Do I keep training with him or do I go find a group? I was up in Queensland and most of the distance groups were down south. So I was at a point where I was thinking this is kind of make or break with my running. So I think going to College in America was a great option. You’re competing all the time. They’re looking after you and the main priority is to make you a better athlete and help you get your degree. I just think at the time in my life it was a very wise decision because I was kind of coming to the end of my line with running.
Were you that close to calling it quits?
I was losing interest in it. It was pretty hard to stay focused when I was the only one in my interest group who was running. So I wasn’t quite sure where to go from there. I wanted to get my degree. So going to America has been a great move. That said, it is difficult being away for four years and in the College system. I kind of was a nobody in Australia and even though I was getting some good results in America, I wasn’t doing any of the domestic races at home. I was never ever in any of the results so people didn’t know who I was or what times I was doing or even if I was a good athlete. I kind of just dropped off the map. It was a battle for me to get recognised and that’s why I think it was hard for me when it came to Athletics Australia because I was just some random girl who’d been at College in America and then all of a sudden I was like ‘hey, I wanna be on the Australian team for the Olympics.’ So it was kind of weird in that sense and I think that did hinder my credibility a little. But being in the College system has definitely been very beneficial for my future and I think having the four-year plan I set out on resulted in the best possible outcome.
How much did you improve in those four years?
I did a steeple when I first got over there and I ran I think a 10 minutes 30. Now I run 9:37. So every year I progressed. In my second year I made the least progress. I think I got over there and was running really well. The second year I had probably settled a bit too much and was probably enjoying myself a bit too much! I wasn’t focusing like I should have been. I made friends and loved the people and just got over the homesickness. But then my third and fourth year I started to make big jumps. I guess I knew the Olympics were coming and I really made the most progress in the months leading up to qualification. I started jumping massive times. At the start of my last year I ran 9:59. Then I went 9:55. Then a 9:50. A 9.41. Then a 9:37. So I literally made all those jumps in a span of probably three months. But that’s running. The more confident you get the more you can step out on the track and run faster.
Experience and body transformation will make you faster. But how much of it do you put down to being in the College coaching system?
I had a coaching change in January last year. And that changed a lot of how I went about things. They give you physicals. They test out how you are and find out what you need. We had our own weight room coach. He was one of the best weight room coaches in the USA. He looks after a lot of Olympians. He coached Ryan Lochte to the Olympics. So he wrote us a full program purely for distance runners. Then we had a nutritionist. Sports psychiatrist if we needed them. Our own sports physician. There were trainers on the track for every session. It’s just an amazing system. It’s like being a professional athlete for four years. You get so well looked after as far as support and resources go. It’s just insane the amount of effort that goes into making the athletes the best they can be.
Why the steeplechase? It wouldn’t be everyone’s first choice.
Yeah well it’s funny that. The University of Florida team just really needed to fill that spot. We had so many good 1500m runners and we have a lot of good distance girls that do 5000m, 10,000m. Originally I went over thinking I was a 5k girl. Or 1500m. Steeple wasn’t even an option. But when I went over there they’d just lost their number one steeple girl and they needed to fill the spot so that when you go to competitions they needed to have someone in every event for the points. So I got put in the steeple by default. Then it became my event. I claimed it and I was the only one doing it. I was just seeing such big improvement every time I ran it and I stuck with it. I knew it was probably my best shot when it came to being competitive. So I decided steeple was definitely my best option.
How many face plants along the way?
I’ve had one face plant and it was in a race where I had to get top three. So at the first water pit I face plant into the water and go straight to the back. I had seven water pits to go and ended up catching up and getting third. Other than that I’ve been pretty lucky. I like to think I really focus on the water barriers and they’ve become my favourite part of the race. It is make or break when it comes to the water jump. If you’re a horrible water pit jumper you’re probably not going to make it in steeplechase. So I really focus on it to make it my strength. I’ve been pretty lucky. I talk to other people and most of the girls have had a few face plants over their career.
Face plants probably leads up to the next question then. You are marketed as one of the sex symbols of world athletics. Are you comfortable with that?
I’ve been doing a bit of stuff with New Balance that is all very exciting to me. I went from being in College and running College meets to being picked up by New Balance and making the London Olympics team. That all happened all of a sudden. But my performance athletically will speak for me. My main priority in life is to be the best athlete I can be and anything else that comes with it, then great. But it’s not just about putting pictures up around the world. It’s about putting spotlight on the sport and that’s part of the aim. We want athletics to be appreciated the way it should be and we’re slowly getting closer to that.
It will start getting tough now though won’t it? You’ve made massive leaps over the past year. Now you’re going to start dealing in fractions of seconds. That could get frustrating?
I think any athlete would say the same thing. When you take big strides like I did last year and take big bulk chunks of time off, there’s going to come a point where that stops. I took 20 seconds off one time. Then nine seconds to qualify for the Olympics. Then even in London I did a four seconds PB. Obviously the jumps are going to get smaller and smaller but I’m very lucky that my event is very technical with the amount of hurdles and water jumps. There’s a lot of room for improvement. It can get frustrating but I’m lucky that every time I’ve run the steeple I’ve never really been severely disappointed with my time. There’s so many times though after a race where I think ‘yeah I lost a few seconds here or there.’ It’s more about having confidence in your fitness and ability. Like I know that at the end of this year I want to be at a certain mark. So in all these races in between, yes I want to be moving forward and progressing, but I don’t want to be getting frustrated. You’ve got to be patient in this sport and if you see yourself making it by the date you’ve set, which for me is the world championships, it’s going to be fine.