Final kick wins O’Connor All-American track honors

By Tim Murphy

The more experience you gain as a distance runner, the better you become at picking your spots to surge. Putting 12 seasons of hard work to good use, Teage O’Connor relied on a finishing kick for the ages to earn All-American honors in his last college race.

Buoyed by a spirited contingent of teammates and fans, O’Connor’s school-record-breaking eighth-place time of

9:11.27 in the 3,000-meter steeplechase Friday led the way in a bittersweet showing for the Maroons at the NCAA championships in Lisle, Illinois. Third-year Emil Bojanov and fourth-year Jessica Winter each finished 11th in the finals of the 1,500-meter run Saturday after running strong preliminary times, short of All-American status. The meet brought to an end a triumphant season for Chicago’s running programs, as both the men’s and women’s cross country and track and field teams finished the season nationally ranked.

After finishing in 13th place in his previous nationals appearance in 2004, O’Connor set his sights high in Friday’s final. He stayed with the field early as the steeplechase got off to a fast-paced but even start. Not expected to contend for the championship, O’Connor held steady in the middle of the pack for much of the race, jockeying to maintain the necessary position for a top-eight finish. He entered the final lap in eighth but his All-American bid was threatened as he was passed in the last 100 meters. Instead of fading, O’Connor summoned all his energy for one last sprint to the finish. In true Maroons fashion, he passed Wash U third-year Kevin Gale 25 yards from glory to lock it up.

The senior credits his teammates for helping motivate him throughout the race, as his supporters made their presence known from the moment he stepped on the track.

“Everyone was going crazy as I took my final strides [warming up],” O’Connor said. “They were also going crazy the whole race, which definitely helped push me through the last lap.”

Despite temperatures in the high 80s, O’Connor cemented his status as the school’s best-ever steeplechase runner with school-record and personal-best times. He was not alone, as the event managed to churn out the four fastest times run in Division III this season. Widener fourth-year Macharia Yuot took top honors in the race in 9:03.88, edging out Haverford fourth-year Grant Scott (9:04.77).

“I haven’t PRed in a while or quite had the success I had as a sophomore, so I was a little worried that I would continue this trend at nationals,” O’Connor said. “I’ve also been vegan for about a year and a half and was worried this might have been the reason. But this race convinced me otherwise.”

“It was such a tight pack. He really had no reason to make a move early on and he showed tremendous discipline,” head coach Chris Hall said. “He did a wonderful job maintaining his composure.”

Running on one day of rest, O’Connor’s teammates came up short in their efforts to replicate his success. Making his nationals debut, reigning UAA 800-meter champion Bojanov got off to a great start in Thursday’s prelim and finished with a personal-best time of 3:51.91. His fifth-place finish in that race earned him a spot in the final. He was on pace for an All-American status through the first 1,400 meters Saturday, running comfortably in sixth after leading for much of the race. Unfortunately, in what is becoming a recurring problem for Chicago at nationals, Bojanov was tripped up on the final straightaway. Although he recovered for a respectable time of 4:01.40, the seconds he spent on the ground put a dagger through the heart of his All-American bid.

“I’m not sure whether it was intentional or not, more likely not, but it doesn’t really matter,” Bojanov said. “These things happen and I just gotta deal with it. Fortunately I’m a junior and have next year to prove I belong where I would have finished in that race.”

“It was the other guy’s fault but it was disappointing,” Hall said, “I think Emil handled it every well. I was really proud of him. He had nothing to run for but he got up and finished the race anyway.”

Winter, who met a similar fate in the mile at the NCAA indoor meet, struggled as well after an outstanding prelim. After finishing sixth in her heat in 4:33.51, the second-fastest time of her career, the three-season star had high hopes for the top-eight finish that had eluded her in the winter. The four-time cross country and two-time track All-America kept pace for much of the race before running out of steam towards the end.

“[The prelim] felt a lot harder than my better race earlier this season because of the hot weather and the humidity and the crowded nature of the race,” said Winter, who finished sixth in the event in 2004. “I hung on for almost the entire race and then ran out of steam for the last 200 meters.”

The meet marked the end of a pair of brilliant careers for the Maroons. Providing both leadership and points, O’Connor and Winter anchored a distance corps that helped to establish both the cross country and track programs as national powers.

Their graduation will give the squad’s up-and-coming athletes an opportunity to take on new responsibilities on the team. With three All-UAA jumpers returning, the women will look to build off its strength in the field events, while on the men’s side, Bojanov will return to provide a veteran presence on a young team.

“It’s somebody else’s turn now,” Hall said. “What I love is that every year is a new year. We have lots of athletes who I think will be even better because they now see themselves in a leadership role.”