Josette Norris Wraps Up Her First European Adventure in Zurich
Young pro runners often spend their summers competing in Europe. For some, like Norris, the racing and the travel are at a new level.
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The N1 ferry line departs from Lausanne, Switzerland, every hour and twenty minutes. It takes about 30 minutes to get to Eviana—a quaint French town, known for its eponymous brand of bottled water, that lies opposite Lausanne across Lake Geneva. On August 24, two days before Josette Norris went on to finish third in the 1500 meters (4:03.27) at her second Diamond League meet, she and her fiancé, Robby Andrews, took the nautical voyage over the lake for lunch.
“When I heard it was a possibility I told Robby to book the tickets immediately,” she says. Andrews was prepared to take a nap, but Norris was overly energized, “How could I not want to go to France for lunch?”
The Diamond League is an annual series of track meets held mostly in European cities throughout the summer. Getting invited to those starting lines is prestigious and an important step in young track runners’ lives, bringing the best from around the world to go head-to-head at various stops on the circuit.
After an exceptional break-out season in which she lowered her 5,000-meter time to 14:51.32 and her 1500-meter to 3:59.72, Norris, 25, got the call to head overseas. It’s not just her first Diamond League campaign, but the first time she’s ever left the United States.
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She seems to be coping with the novelties of training, racing, and embracing new cultural and culinary experiences, just fine.
We all sat down together in Lausanne after that first race, where she and Andrews, who is also a pro runner but not competing this season, began a slideshow on their phones detailing their French adventure. A few pictures of crystal boat ride views. Some with an engagement ring prominently displayed. They showed me one of Norris drinking an espresso, “I wanted an Americano but I didn’t know how to say ‘hot water,’ so I just ended up drinking an espresso,” she says.
They told me of a few other minor misadventures. She tried to order a crispy chicken sandwich with French fries and a salad, but because the café owner did not speak a word of English, that didn’t work out as planned, either. She ended up with a veggie burger, but gladly ate it anyway. “Now I want to learn French,” she says.
Athletes are always adapting, though, whether it’s to linguistic barriers, unfamiliar cultures, or a new level of competition. And Norris’s extended 2021 track season has meant welcoming novelty at every step.
She’s been outspoken about her rocky road in the NCAA, where she struggled with injuries for extended stretches of eligibility. Then, she turned pro during a pandemic with few racing opportunities. In the spring of 2021, however, she ran her fastest 5,000-meter, becoming one of the top 10 fastest American women of all time in the event. She unexpectedly entered the Olympic Trials as a favorite, but had a disappointing performance in the final, placing eighth.
With Tokyo off the table, Norris quickly set new objectives for her season and she’s gone on to prove she can mix it up with the best in the world. In Brussels, Norris finished sixth in a competitive mile, running 4:22.71 and securing her spot in the Zurich final. In the final on September 9, she finished an incredible third behind Sifan Hasan and Faith Kipyegon, in 4:00.41.
“I’m so happy,” she said directly after the race. “My goal was to get third. I thought if I can get third behind two of the best milers in the world, that’s gonna be a good day.”
As new challenges and expectations arrived, she’s adjusted readily by, for example, ceding control of her lunch orders in a foreign country.
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The Diamond League: A Shared Adventure
Norris is not alone, though. She credits her partner, Andrews, for helping her adjust to ever changing expectations, accompanying her on her first overseas trip.
“It’s really cool to see her embrace everything,” Andrews, 30, says. “When I first came over here to race I just stayed in my room the whole time.”
He’s helping her avoid some of his own early career mistakes, like arriving in Europe in the morning—exactly the wrong time for a runner who wants to quickly adapt to the time change. Andrews remembers that he nearly slept through his first race, just 21 years old at the time.
“I did not get third in either of those first two races,” he says. It can be difficult to manage the business at hand while having fun abroad, but finding a sweet spot can yield results.
“I can’t imagine doing any of this alone at 21,” Norris says. “I’m just so lucky to have Robby here with me. Maybe I would have taken the boat to France by myself, but it wouldn’t have been as fun.”
Andrews represented the U.S. at the 2016 Olympic Games in the 1500 meters, and won the 2017 USA Outdoor title the following year. Since then, he has had a few unfortunate physical setbacks that kept him from the kind of training that would have been necessary for a real shot at another Olympic team. In the spring, he found the role of supporter a better use of his time.
“Being so far off the mark myself made it easier to just completely support her,” Andrews says. “It was easy for me to say, ‘I don’t need to do all of this for me right now,’ especially because I see and understand the prospect of what Josette was on the verge of, it was easy for me to focus on that.”
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When he rhetorically posed the question, “Now, is it going to be like this forever?”
Norris jumped in, “No, definitely not.” She thinks with another year of solid training, he can be back on top. In fact, Norris’s fearless goal chasing has reminded Andrews of what’s critical to succeed in track and field.
“She’s taught me it’s OK to have big dreams. I’ve had so much failure in the past three years, but to see someone not have the perfect NCAA career, or have the smoothest first professional year, but then watch her as her expectations and everything change… it makes me think ‘It’s OK, I can want to make my next Olympic team at 32,’” he says.
After Lausanne (and a brief trip to France), the couple headed to Leuven, Belgium, for a training camp ahead of the Brussels Diamond League meet. There, they set aside time for coffee and waffle expeditions in between training sessions. And after both races Andrews surprised Norris with different local chocolate milk after each race—for recovery and yet another chance to sample something both countries are known for.
After French-speaking Switzerland and Dutch Belgium, Norris encountered German-speaking Zurich in her final race of the track season, squaring off against the most elite field she has faced yet.
“My strategy was to stay way more patient and way more calm than in previous races to have a final gear. To finish the Diamond League final in third… what a way to end the season,” Norris said.
Though her season is over, her European trip is not quite yet done. Norris and Andrews are heading over to Lake Como in Italy, to the town of Varenna, before heading back to the States—a well-earned set of new experiences without the pressure of balancing top-tier races.