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The field was stacked going into the 1500 meter finals at the 2021 Olympic Trials on Monday at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, but Elle Purrier St. Pierre was the clear favorite. Sticking with her would be everyone’s objective if they wanted to grab a top three spot and earn their place on Team USA to head to Tokyo later this summer. One thing’s for sure: Cory McGee understood the assignment. And she delivered.
McGee, 29, anticipated an intense start because of just how much depth there is in the event, so she got off the line quickly. When a group of runners were jostled around less than 100 meters from the start—knocking Purrier St. Pierre off inside lane 1 on the infield for a brief moment—Purrier St. Pierre took an early lead. And McGee was ready.
“Obviously she’s ready to run fast, and I think [she] didn’t want to deal with any of the pushing and shoving that can sometimes occur in the 1500. I could tell that she was not having it, so she went for it,” says McGee. “I swear I just followed her every step and didn’t take my eyes off her back.”
And that was the long and short of McGee’s tactical race plan. “The first thing that [my coach Joe Bosshard] said about this race was Elle’s not going to mess around, so you need to get on her and stay on her and don’t think about what anyone else is doing at any point in the race,” she says. “He said it was going to be the easiest race plan that I’ve had in a long time, because it was simply ‘Follow Elle.’ And that’s exactly what I did.”
Most of the field was able to keep up with Purrier St. Pierre through the first lap, but things got significantly tougher as she picked up the pace on lap two. McGee stayed locked, with her teammate Dani Jones and Shannon Osika close behind, and Heather Maclean hanging on just behind them, before a gap from the rest of the field.
“At one point, about a lap and a half in, I found myself wondering where’s Dani, where’s Nikki, where’s Shannon, where are the other girls that are very capable of making this team?” McGee says. “But I said ‘Joe said don’t think about that!’ so I stopped thinking about it and went right back into following Elle. It makes it sound so simple, but I trust her and I know how good she is, so that’s really all it came down to.”
McGee remained glued on Purrier St. Pierre until the final turn, when Purrier St. Pierre kicked to take first in an Olympic Trials record (3:58.03). McGee finished strong to take second in 4:00.67, a personal best by nearly three seconds.
“With about 200 meters to go I felt like I was running the fastest I ever have in my life,” says McGee. “About 100 meters left I was a little tired, but knowing I was going to be an Olympian if I kept it together pulled me through. I finished second behind Elle and I had no idea what was happening behind me, but I knew when I crossed the line that I was going to Tokyo.”
Cory McGee’s Race to the Top
Anyone who has followed McGee’s running over the years knows she’s always been in the mix, but never exactly the standout. “I’ve always been in the race, but I’ve never been able to do things like this—become an Olympian, be second place at the Olympic Trials,” says McGee. “But I’ve always believed deep down that I could do it.”
In college at the University of Florida, McGee tried her best, for sure, but admittedly wasn’t training her hardest. “I was doing what I was told, but I don’t think I was quite ready to be training at the level I’m training at now,” she says. Then she spent four years training in Boston as a member of New Balance Boston, coached by Mark Coogan (the team that Purrier St. Pierre is on now). It was the first time she truly began to understand what it was to be a distance runner; progress, yes, but she still hadn’t put all the pieces together.
In November 2018, McGee switched things up and joined the professional running group coached by Joe Bosshard in Boulder, Colorado, known as Team Boss. And that move has made all the difference.
“For many years, I believed I was working my hardest, but it wasn’t until joining Team Boss coached by Joe Bosshard and training with Emma Coburn, Aisha Praught-Leer, Dom Scott, Dani Jones, and the many other women I train with every day that I really understood what hard work really is as a middle-distance and distance runner,” McGee says.
“Joe Bosshard is really the first coach I’ve had that has understood me as an athlete,” she continues. “He has me in the weight room lifting the heaviest I’ve ever lifted; has me at the track running the fastest 200s, 300s, and 400s I’ve ever run; and then doing my best long runs my fastest tempos. I think he’s going to go down in history as one of the greatest distance coaches of all time, and I’m just lucky to be on the team and be coached by him and train with the women I train with every day.”
Taking the Next Step Forward
While many athletes struggled during the pandemic, dealing with ill-timed injuries or lacking their usual intensity without racing, McGee credits her shift to the front of the pack on the work she accomplished during the down year. Her workouts were looking strong, she was finishing fast at the inter-squad races her team put on. In fact, 2020 was the first time in her career that she was running races to the potential she believed she had inside of her. But it’s not the same as racing against your competitors, the best runners in the country and in the world.
“I ran fast in 2020 against my teammates at races that we put together, but in some way there’s a disconnect between that and being the best in the world and I think coming here and actually doing it on this stage speaks volumes,” McGee said after Monday night’s final. “I think 2020 meant something but it’s nothing compared to this. I feel like my work is finally paying off.”
The biggest stage McGee has been on is the 2013 USA Outdoor Track and Field World Championships in Moscow, Russia, where she placed 10th in her heat (4:12.33) and 31st overall in the 1500. She plans on being far more competitive on the world stage this time around.
“I want to compete for the United States in a way I didn’t previously,” she says. “It’s a totally different situation. I’m not a rookie, I’m not in college; I’m a 29-year-old woman who believes that I can be in the final. I think if I treat Tokyo like I treated the Trials, I can definitely be up there.”
Case in point that McGee is far from “rookie” status: She’s already been laying the ground work needed in order to step up to the occasion when the Olympic Games begin on July 23. “Joe hasn’t backed off on our training, in fact we’ve been training with the thought of having a very long season,” she says. “He’s reminded us countless times that it’s not over this week.”
And there’s no doubt that when McGee reaches Tokyo, whether it’s “Follow Elle” or something else, she’ll be sticking to her coach’s race plan to a T.
“I know if Joe says I’m ready to do something in a race, it’s 100-percent bulletproof. If he tells me to do something that means I’m capable of it, so really I have no doubts when I step on the starting line. And that’s really the perfect partnership between a coach and athlete.”
Editor’s Note: This story is part of our 2021 U.S.A. Track & Field Olympic Trials coverage. You can find all of our stories here.