Local track star takes a chance on steeplechase

  • Tue Jul 27th, 2010 12:53pm
  • Sports

By Mike Cane Herald Writer

At first, Amy-Eloise Neale thought the steeplechase sounded fun. “Why not try something new?” she figured.

But when Neale’s coach explained the track and field event in more detail and described the unusual challenges it poses, Neale had second thoughts.

Her reaction: “No way! I’m not doing that.”

The steeplechase is a distance race that uses five barriers, including one water jump, around a track oval. Competitors generally hurdle the four regular barriers, but the water barrier — which is usually located inside Lane 1 — is different; athletes try to jump onto the water-barrier crossbar with one foot, launch themselves forward to clear as much of the imposing water pit as possible, land on one foot and maintain good speed.

Despite her early doubts, Neale, a 14-year-old sophomore-to-be at Glacier Peak High School in Snohomish, gave the steeplechase a shot. Good decision. About five weeks since she started training, Neale is poised to challenge a national record.

Neale is a star distance runner who won the Class 3A state cross country title in November 2009 and placed first in two races (the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs) at the 3A state track meet in May. She is also a five-time Junior Olympic national track champion, and her collection of J.O. titles could grow this week.

Neale is one of five local teenage athletes (see graphic) scheduled to compete in the 2010 USATF National Junior Olympic Track &Field Championships, which start Tuesday and go through Aug. 1 in Sacramento, Calif. Based on her trio of victories at the regional championships, Neale is doing three events in the Intermediate Girls division this week: the 1,500 and 3,000 runs, and the 2,000 steeplechase.

At the regional meet earlier this month in West Seattle, Neale won the steeplechase in 7 minutes, 7.03 seconds — a little more than 10 seconds slower than the national age-group record (6:56.97, set by Eleanor Fulton of Colorado in 2008). Neale has a great chance to break the record Tuesday, said her coach, Frank Dauncey of the Snohomish Track Club.

“She’ll be rested and confident,” Dauncey said.

The Intermediate Girls steeplechase is scheduled to start at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday. According to regional results posted online, Neale’s qualifying time is almost 26 seconds faster than the second-fastest qualifier.

Neale’s other races are later in the week. The 1,500 preliminaries are Friday and the final is Sunday, and the 3,000 final is Saturday. Neale is the favorite in those races too, Dauncey said.

Much of Neale’s interest in the steeplechase stems from Dauncey, who excelled in the event as an All-American runner at Humboldt State University.

“She wants to be better than her coach,” he said, smiling.

Until this summer, Neale was not allowed to run the steeplechase, which is not sanctioned in high school. The event is not offered to Junior Olympic competitors until they are 14 because of safety concerns, Dauncey said.

“In fact,” added Dauncey, “some people think that they probably shouldn’t do it at this age.”

The steeplechase can be dangerous. If a runner crashes into one of the five sturdy barriers, the barriers don’t tip over like ones in standard hurdle races. Plus, runners who don’t use the right shoes can slip when they jump onto the barrier. Steeplechase shoes have special tread that provides extra traction and mesh on the side that allows water to drain faster.

One time when he was competing in a steeplechase Dauncey saw “a real bad accident.” It was a wet morning. In front of Dauncey, a talented Colombian runner slipped when he jumped onto the water barrier crossbar. The runner — who had the wrong kind of shoes, Dauncey said — hit his head and fell into the water pit.

Thanks to stories like that, “I was a little skeptical” about trying the steeplechase, Neale said last week. She trained, in part, to avoid the sort of accident Dauncey witnessed.

New to hurdling, Neale had a rough start when she began preparing for the steeplechase in June, a few weeks after the high school season ended. The water-jump technique, in particular, didn’t come naturally to her.

“There’s definitely a rhythm to being on top of the barrier,” said Dauncey. “It’s almost like hurdling twice: you hurdle to get up to the top and then you hurdle off of it.”

Neale struggled at first. Not surprisingly, though, the young perfectionist kept at it and improved drastically.

“She was just really horrible three or four weeks ago,” said Dauncey, “but she’s really gotten it now.”

During a recent session at Glacier Peak’s scenic track, Neale looked like a hurdling veteran, not a newbie.

“She just went over (the hurdles) like she’d been doing it forever,” Dauncey said.

It’s difficult to practice water jumps because only a few facilities in the area have them. The closest one for Neale, Dauncey said, is Nathan Hale High in Seattle but Neale didn’t go there. Besides the western Washington and regional steeplechase races she won at the same facility in West Seattle, Neale hasn’t had much practice with real water jumps. Her coach set up a simulated water jump (minus the water pit) that she trained on at Glacier Peak.

“Obviously it’s very different than going over the water jump,” Neale said, “but it helps you kind of get the idea of what you’re supposed to do and the form of how you’re supposed to do it.”

Tuesday, Neale will find out if her form is good enough to set a national record and win yet another Junior Olympic title.

Mike Cane: mcane@heraldnet.com. Check out the prep sports blog Double Team at www.heraldnet.com/doubleteam.