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Going into the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase finals, there were two names everyone knew by heart: Emma Coburn and Courtney Frerichs, the indomitable duo that has never failed to make a national team. There had typically always been a third name, too: Colleen Quigley. The three had been, in that order, the group representing the U.S. at world championships and Olympics since 2016. But when Quigley announced her withdrawal from the race due to injury, that third and final spot on Team USA became wide open. And one thing’s for sure, Val Constien was going for it.
“It just seems like three weeks ago I woke up and said, ‘I could do this,’” Constien said after the race. “I had to switch my mindset from ‘Oh, it would be pretty cool to make it to the final’ to, ‘If I’m top three, I will go to Tokyo.’”
Constien suspected that it would be a race for third, given Coburn and Frerichs had times far faster than the rest of the field. “[They] have run 9-flat basically both of them, nobody had even come close to that,” Constien said. “I saw this as a race between all of the women who had the A standard. It’s a three dimensional race, stuff can happen.”
And stuff did happen. When Coburn, Frerichs, and Leah Falland took off with three laps to go, she knew she couldn’t maintain their pace for that long. So, she made decision to hang back and sit in fourth, waiting to see if anything happened. When Falland fell to the track with 800 meters to go, Constien knew that was her shot.
“I did not think a top-three finish was possible until Leah fell down,” Constien said. “I knew that was my shot. In those last two laps I had to remind myself that I deserve to be here just as much as anybody else.”
Constien says she had no idea if Falland was on her shoulder or if she was pulling away in the final lap. “I just gave it my all, and with 100 meters to go I was just running as hard as I could. I crossed the finish line and I was in a lot of pain.”
But the pain was worth it: Constien finished in the top three in the fastest steeplechase Trials final ever, to earn her spot as a first-time Olympian. Here are some facts to know about the impressive third-place finisher and newest member of Team USA.
11 Facts about Val Constien
Her name is Valerie Constien, but she prefers to go by Val.
She’s from Edwards, Colorado, and attended Battle Mountain High School, where she was a four-sport athlete, competing in cross country, track, Nordic skiing, and soccer. She owns or is a part of seven records at her high school: In 2013, Constien ran 17:55 to set the 5K cross country record; in 2014, she set records in the 800 meters (2:16) and 1600 meters (5:04); she also still holds records in the triple jump (36-3), 4 x 400, 4 x 800, and distance medley relays. Constien was named first-team all-state her junior and senior years for cross country and was a first team all-state selection for track as a sophomore. She raced at the 2013 Nike Cross Country South West Regionals and was 10th overall. On the track, Constien placed sixth at the state championships in the 1600 meters, finishing in 5:04. She was recruited by many schools, including Brown, California, Cornell, Iowa State, Nebraska, Penn, and Washington.
She ultimately attended University of Colorado Boulder. Fun fact: Half of the American Olympians in the history of the women’s steeplechase, which didn’t become an Olympic event until 2008, attended CU Boulder: Jenny Simpson (2008), Emma Coburn (2012, 2016, 2021) and Shalaya Kipp (2012), and now Constien (2021).
She was good, but maybe not great. “I mean, in college I was never a shoo-in for anything. I was okay, but I was never really a top competitor ever in college. I was a two-time steeplechase All-American, but I was never on the top of that podium. College was really, really hard for a lot of reasons. I think that now as an adult out of college, I’ve been able to make a lot of really good decisions and I’ve been able to positively change my life. I think that I’ve just set everything up to make this possible in the last two years.”
But she’s gotten pretty great. Constien, who interned with the CU athletic department post-graduation, was the 2019 Pac-12 Champion in the event and will make her first Olympic team after running nearly 20 seconds faster than she did in college two years ago.
She trains with Jenny Simpson. “Training with Jenny is amazing. She’s not only a legend at CU, but she is a track legend in general; and to top it all off she’s like the nicest woman in the world. She’s really brought me under her wing these last two years and she’s helped me out a lot. She was an amazing steeplechaser so she does sometimes give me advice in practice or she’ll just compliment me on my form, which is really, really great. Jenny and I do a lot of warmups and cool downs together, but because she was focusing on the 1500 this year, we didn’t really do any workouts together this year beyond longer distance stuff.”
She has set four personal bests in 2021 in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. She began with a 9:42.32 at University of Colorado in April; a 9:35.73 at Mt. SAC in May; a 9:25.53 at Portland Track Festival at the end of May. Constien finished her prelim heat at the U.S. Track & Field Olympic Trials in 9:28.37, before taking finishing the final in third place in 9:18.34—a personal best by six seconds.
She’s musically talented, too. According to her CU Boulder bio, Constien can play the piano and French horn. (She was a member of her high school’s band and pep band all four years.)
She works a full-time job. In November 2020, she started a full time, 40-hour-a-week job with a running tech company called Stryde. “I would not be here without this full-time job,” she said in her post-race interview. “Beyond Tracksmith giving me clothing, I buy everything myself. I have funded everything myself, including this trip. I think that being a blue-collar runner is really cool. Anybody with a full-time job can still have Olympic aspirations.”
And she’s committed to it. “I am a customer support agent,” she says. “I answer emails with technical questions about the product. Luckily my boss is very supportive [of my running], but I am still obsessed about having good numbers. I am still committed to working 40 hours a week. I want to be a contributing member of that team as well.”
This is what she says has made all the difference: “It’s all about consistency, and being happy. For the longest time in college I was miserable for a lot of different reasons. Mental health is huge. If you can figure out to be happy and get a year of training under your belt, you can accomplish anything.”