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8 USA Olympic Trials Qualifiers
8 USA Olympic Trials Qualifiers
This article originally appeared in the June 29th edition of the Greenville News and was written by Geoff Preston.
When she was a junior at Dayton Christian School in Miamisburg, Ohio, Annie Rodenfels wasn't thinking about the U.S. Olympic Trials.
A lifelong soccer player, Rodenfels decided she would try track and field to stay in shape for when she would get back on the pitch.
Seven years later and now the girls cross country and track and field coach at Greenville Tech Charter School, Rodenfels was standing on the starting line at the legendary University of Oregon's Haywood Field in Eugene, Oregon, ready to compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
She had gone from trying a new sport at a small school in Ohio to being roughly 10 minutes away from representing her country in the Tokyo Olympics.
"Being at such a big event with the best competition in the United States, that’s an opportunity I only could have dreamed of and didn’t think was possible at all," she said. "Even my last year of college, I would have said my biggest goal was to run at the Olympic Trials, and as I’ve gotten better I can continue to dream bigger."
Rodenfels finished 30th, missing the cut for the U.S. Olympic team, but the 24-year-old knew that this would not be her only opportunity to compete at the highest level.
Especially because she's relatively new to the sport, Rodenfels said the finish only motivated her more.
"I have three years until the next Olympic Trials come around and I want to be in the final and contending to make a team," she said. "I’ve had the experience now, so the next time it’s like, ‘I’ve been here, I can do it.’ "
While competing, she was thinking about her team. Competing in the Olympics isn't a goal that stops and ends with her, she said; she wants her Greenville Tech runners to see her success and realize that with hard work, anything can be possible.
Rodenfels' trip from Ohio to Greenville
Track and field was a natural fit for Rodenfels, who loved to go on long runs for the ball during her soccer career.
When playing college soccer didn't work out, she enrolled in 2015 at Centre College, an NCAA Division III school in Danville, Kentucky. It was out of the spotlight, which was perfect for her to make a go at track and field in college.
"I ended up being OK at it," Rodenfels said of her high school track and field career. "I decided I wanted to do that in college. My coach convinced me that I could be good, so I started to get better and better when I put my mind to it."
She actually got better quickly. By 2017, she was an All-American in the steeplechase. The next year, she won the national title in the same event and set a Division III record in the event that still stands. In 2019, she won the national title again in the same event.
She also won the 5,000 meter national championship in 2018.
The steeplechase was another event she came into almost unexpectedly. She had competed once in the event in high school, which put her above most of the distance runners on her college team.
It's an event that isn't for the faint of the heart. The 3,000-meter run features jumping over multiple barriers, one of which is followed by a pit that is roughly two feet deep and filled with water.
It can be grueling, and that's why Rodenfels fell in love with it.
"It’s a very gritty event. It’s more challenging than a flat 3K," she said. "You get tired in a different way than a normal distance race. I think most people thought it was very challenging, and that made me want to do it more."
She also competed in the 5,000-meter run, an event in which she nearly qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials for as well.
When she graduated from Centre in 2019, she moved to Greenville to pursue running for the Greenville Track Club Elite, a professional team sponsored by ASICS. One of her teammates at Centre told her about the opportunity because they had started running for the team.
As if moving to South Carolina wasn't a big enough post-college leap, she also wanted to give back to high school athletes who were pursuing the sport she had quickly grown to love.
"Being their coach and thinking about the day-to-day basics makes me think a lot more about why I’m doing my stuff as well," she said about workouts. "When I’m coaching new high school runners, 'Why am I making them do this workout?' I feel like it’s made me a better runner. I hope I’ve helped them become better runners."
Greenville Tech Charter runners Holly White (left), Addie Simpson (second from right) and Maggie Hill (right) with coach Annie Rodenfels (second from left).
It wasn't something she expected, but learning more about the sport she only started as a junior in high school has been an added benefit to coaching.
"Coaching sprinters has especially taught me a lot," she said. "It helped me expand my own knowledge of the sport. I had to learn how to come out of blocks, and proper sprinting form and I think that helped me get faster. That was really cool to learn aside them."
Rodenfels is almost always on the run
Between her morning training with the Greenville Track Club and evening practices, Rodenfels' days are busy.
In addition, she travels for races to try to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials. Last season, during the high school track and field season, she raced five times in fields that took her to places like Kansas City, Atlanta and Tennessee.
"It can be really tricky during track season because that’s when I’m doing races, but I didn’t have to miss any this year," she said. "The athletic director (Ben Shiley) is very flexible with me when I need to do that, and I put my seniors in charge."
In order to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials, a runner needs to reach a certain time in an event at a United States Track and Field Federation-sanctioned event.
The cut-off time for the steeplechase was 9 minutes, 50 seconds. On April 10, at the Flames Invitational at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, she won the event with a personal best time of 9:46.98. That time sent her to Eugene.
She fought through a series of small injuries throughout the season, and when she got to the Trials she was still fighting through an injury. Although it wasn't her best performance, she said the experience was something she wouldn't trade.
"I knew I wouldn’t quite be at my best, and that was definitely hard to deal with," Rodenfels said. "The Olympics only come up every four years, and I wanted to be in the best shape I could be in, and that wasn’t a reality this year."
Division doesn't matter
When Rodenfels lined up for the steeplechase race in Eugene, not many people knew who she was.
She was competing against athletes who had gone to Division I schools and had been on the track community's radar for years. Although Rodenfels was a Division III national champion and record holder, success in the NCAA'S non-scholarship level didn't draw a lot of attention outside of the 106-acre Centre campus.
Rodenfels wouldn't have it any other way.
"I think division matters a lot less than people think it does," she said. "A lot of Division I programs have larger budgets, but I think that’s the only difference, especially in track and field and cross country," she said. "If you’re a distance runner, you’re not really going to get a full-ride scholarship. I think school and coaches are a much bigger fit."
Although she didn't run cross country in high school, she started in college. That gave her the opportunity to become a cross country coach at Greenville Tech later.
Greenville Tech Charter girls cross country and track and field coach Annie Rodenfels competes at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon.
For both sports she was still very raw when she got to Centre, and said she needed the coaching staff led by Lisa Owens, who had been part of the coaching staff since 1998.
Rodenfels said without proper coaching, she wouldn't be able to make it to U.S. Olympic Trials. She also said she felt passionately that an athlete doesn't need to go to a Division I school to make it to that stage.
"I wouldn’t chose to go back and go to a Division I college," she said. "I think I grew and developed in all the right ways and I was given that room without a lot of pressure. I don’t think I’d be where I am today if I went Division I."
Still, she knows she has to do more to earn credibility in the running community because she didn't go to a powerhouse Division I school. While it can be frustrating, she said her week in Eugene showed her that she can compete with anyone, no matter where they went to school.
"I have some of the same times as the other runners, but more people know them because of the press Division I gets," she said. "But I know I’m just as good."
Although the finish wasn't what she wanted, Rodenfels said she took a lot away from the Trials. It wasn't just competing at a historic venue at Oregon. She also learned that she belonged on the sport's biggest stage.
She'll be 27 when the 2024 Olympic Trials take place, and being at the event this year and seeing some of her peers make the Olympic team lit a fire in her to be ready for the next Trials. Rodenfels said women's distance runners usually hit their prime between 27 and 30 years old.
She thinks that especially because she hasn't participated in the sport for very long, she's ready to train harder, with more miles, to get ready to go to Paris in the 2024 Olympics.
"I believe in myself more," she said. "I belong here and I’m going to train like it for the next three years so when I step on this track I’m going to be able to be like, ‘I can race with the best.’ I think I proved that to myself."
Even though it has been an adjustment to be on the big stage, she draws strength from the runners that rely on her to coach that at Greenville Tech.
She said she wants everyone on the team to reach their potential. Even if they don't have the fastest times in the state, she knows what the sport can do for health and where it can take some runners.
In addition to winning races, teaching the sport has become her passion.
"I hope they can take the things I’ve learned and my experience and use that the best they can to get better," she said. "I know it’s more useful than to just myself. If I was just racing to run for myself that’s one thing, but to be able to learn these things and understand how racing works at the highest level, I hope I can share that knowledge with them so they can take their running where they want to go."