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From Israel to Iowa to the University of New Mexico, an Unlikely Path for a Steeple Star

Adva Cohen came to the U.S. to go to college and run fast. Now she's setting national records and chasing Olympic goals.

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Keeping up with steeplechase specialist Adva Cohen’s records and accolades is, itself, like running the barriers—eyes up because there’s always another one coming at you. In her freshman march to the sea at Iowa Central Community College, she claimed nine national junior college titles in cross-country, half marathon, indoor and outdoor track, a haul that, in itself, was a record, earning the native of Israel another diadem—2018 NJCAA National Track Athlete of the Year.

Before the laurel leaves had faded, Cohen was back in Jerusalem with her first coach, Roman Ferdman, notching a 4:15 in the 1500 meters and 2:07 for 800 meters enroute to the big dance in August 2018—the first Israeli woman in the steeplechase at the European Championships. Her 9:49 personal best going into the championships ranked her 29th of 34 women in the field. She hurdled the first barrier—placing among the top 15 to pass on to the final—improving her PR to 9:36 in the process, and kept going, coming fifth in the final in a stellar 9:29.74.

The bright and busy computer science major didn’t spend a whole lot of time putting that performance in perspective—a week later, she was working out with her new teammates at the University of New Mexico. But that 9:29 was, and is, huge. It makes Cohen only the sixth collegian ever to break 9:30. It ranked her 22nd in the world—not just NCAA, not just Israeli or U23, but among the best steeplers on the planet, at age 22. That 9:29 slides under the 2019 world championships and 2020 Olympic qualifying standards, too.

Cohen helped the Lobos to a second-place finish at NCAA Cross Country National Championships. And most recently, she put on a thrilling battle with Boise State’s Allie Ostrander at the Payton Jordan invitational: Cohen came 9:45.71 to Ostrander’s 9:45.66.

So how did the Israeli star end up first in Iowa and then in New Mexico? Another Israeli athlete tipped off Dee Brown, track and cross-country coach at Iowa Central, and he was impressed with the race results he found.

“Her times were spectacular…Adva was very valuable; she could plug holes in our lineup, especially indoors,” he said. “We had her anchoring relays and in a bunch of individual events.”

At junior college outdoor national championships, Cohen won the steeple, the 1500 meters, and 5,000 meters, and anchored the second-place 4 x 800 meters. Now she holds the Israeli national records for the indoor mile, 3K and 5K, outdoor under-23 3,000-meter steeplechase, 5,000 meters, and half marathon.

“She’s very focused, goal-oriented, and a good teammate,” Brown said. “Sometimes international kids are shy because English doesn’t come easily to them. Once she got past that, she was witty, great sense of humor. As for her potential, Adva can do whatever she puts her mind to.”

Quick to laugh and impressively facile in her second language, Cohen chatted with Women’s Running on the phone about running, college life, and more.

Israel does not spring to mind when you think about track or cross-country—how did you get started? Did you train with a club?

In the U.S., there are middle school and high school sports. We don’t have that. We had two hours per week of [physical education]—running 1500 [meters], playing with the ball, different sports. In middle school a teacher was looking for students to take to a cross-country meet. I was not going that year, but in ninth grade [14 years old] she took me. I won the Jerusalem cross-country race and then went to the national meet and won that, without any training. The teacher said I should go professional, so I found a coach, Roman Ferdman, and I fell in love with track, 1500 meters and 3K. I didn’t even know what track was before that.

Running distance like that is not always what a 14-year-old thinks of as fun. What did you like about it?

I don’t know. I really liked to run. I enjoyed pushing myself, having a goal, and making it. Yeah, achieving goals—I like that.

When you say you went professional, what does professional mean?

I was training five days a week, and racing—U18 (under 18) races, national races. Sports are not associated with school in Israel. My coach also trained sprinters, but I mostly trained by myself. Sometimes with guys.

You’re 23, a bit older than most college sophomores. What did you do after high school?

I went into the military for two years. They have a special program for athletes, so I could go to training camps and practice. I trained in the morning, went to army, and then trained again in the afternoon.

Why come to the U.S? Why Iowa Central?

Israel is not like here, where you can get a degree and train at the same time. If you need something here—to go to a race or time to train—they will help you. Athletes are supported here. We don’t have that in Israel. I really miss my coach and my family, but everything else—no. I went to Iowa Central because my English wasn’t really good. I have a friend in Israel who is an athlete; he recommended Iowa Central. He said the coach is really nice there. I listened to him, and I went there, and I’m not sorry.

Were you freaked out by the Iowa winter?

Yeah, there were five months of snow. When it’s still snow in the spring, that makes me stronger.

What’s the hardest thing about the U.S. to get used to? Culture? Weather? Food?

Everything! [laughs]. The language, culture—everything was new for me except running. My teammates, roommates, friends, coaches—they all helped me get better in English. That was the biggest problem. After that, everything was easier.

Had you run steeple prior to coming to Iowa Central?

Yes. I ran the first one in 2016. It wasn’t good. I didn’t train for it at all. I didn’t know how to jump over barriers or the water. After that, I knew I can do better.

Steeplechase is about the toughest event in track—after this bad race, you wanted to do it again?

[Laughs] I liked the workouts. I thought, “I know I can do better,” so that made me train harder to make it happen. I know it’s hard—I really like stuff like that. Yeah, at first when I went over these high, hard barriers, I was like, “no way.” Since then, I was like, okay, that’s fun.

You came into the European Championships with a 9:49 PR. Were you surprised by that 9:29?

My goal at first was to make the finals. I knew that would be hard. I worked really hard all summer. The workouts were really good, and I knew I could do better. I ran 9:36 in the semi-finals, and thought, “go and enjoy!” I thought, without pressure on myself, I could do something good. Most of the [final] race, I was 12th, and slowly I saw I can do that, I can catch them. I thought I could do 9:30, so I was really happy. I enjoyed that a lot. I wasn’t too nervous—my coach made me feel comfortable and ready for that. He was thinking about 9:33—I surprised him.

Why did you choose New Mexico?

I really liked the coaches and the program. My coach back home and my family, I showed them each school (she was recruited by other universities). We all thought New Mexico would help me achieve my goals of going to the world championships and the Olympics.

How are New Mexico’s workouts different from Iowa Central?

Hmmm, good question. They’re kind of similar. At Iowa Central, I mostly worked out with the guys; here I’m working out with everyone. Here it’s altitude; there it’s not. At Iowa Central, I did 58–60 miles per week; here it’s about the same. Coach [Joe] Franklin says we don’t want to jump from point A to point B too quickly. No dramatic changes.

With world championships in the middle of the NCAA cross-country season, will you be able to participate if selected?

I need to run under 9:40 again this year to make the world championship team [for Israel], so Coach Franklin and I decided I will focus on the steeple. If I run at the world championships, that would be at the end of September. There are two months of cross-country after that, so we’ll see [if I run cross-country for New Mexico].

At 15 years old, did you imagine you might compete at the Olympics?

My goal always was to go to the Olympics. I saw the 2012 Olympics, and thought, I want to be there. I’m going slowly, slowly there.

Do you have a favorite U.S. food?

[laughs, long pause] Uhmmmm, okay, I like burgers.

Do you make your own food? Shakshuka [a Middle Eastern dish of poach eggs in tomato sauce, spiced with cumin, paprika, cayenne, and nutmeg]?

Oh yeah, shakshuka for breakfast. From my background, I’m making this food. It’s easy—you can do that.