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Karissa Schweizer: “We’ll Be Ready When It Matters”

She's at the top of the 5,000-meter Olympic Trials contenders and she hopes to double back for the 10,000 meters, too.

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Athletes often want the constant feedback and assurances that race results give them, but what happens when you don’t race as often as you’d like? Karissa Schweizer has learned to trust that her ability hasn’t gone anywhere in times when her competition schedule is slim.

Take the 2019 world championships, where she raced in the 5,000 meters and placed ninth. The championships took place unusually late in the season that September, so she and her teammates from the Bowerman Track Club spent two months at an altitude camp without one start line before going to Doha. Coming straight out of college, when the race schedule is often overloaded, Schweizer was a little nervous.

“Just not knowing exactly where I was at, I went into that 5K prelim and was surprised I actually felt pretty fresh,” she says. “A lot of people were worn down from such a long season and I just remember feeling excited to race—I didn’t feel that tiredness until after the final. I ran a PR in the prelim and then again in the final. That was a really big step for me.”

She also figured out pretty quickly in Doha that she has to show up in that 5,000-meter preliminary round—and that the international stage is much different than competing among mostly Americans.

“I remember just after the final, I was upset because I wasn’t with the lead group,” she says. “You want to be there and contend for a medal, but I just wasn’t ready yet. This last year really helped my confidence, running a fast 5K with Shelby [Houlihan].”

In June 2020, Schweizer and her BTC training partner Houlihan raced their fastest 5,000 meters ever—Houlihan set an American record (14:23.92) and Schweizer a 19-second PR (14:26.34). 

On Monday, Houlihan announced she is under a four-year ban from competition after testing positive in December for a steroid, nandrolone, which she says entered her system through pork consumption. Schweizer posted her support for Houlihan on Instagram, saying, in part, “I’ve roomed, lived, and shared many miles with Shelby. I’ve never met someone with so much passion for the sport…a week before we broke 14:30 in the 5K she told me we can run in the 14:20s. Not only did she project that confidence in me, but she made me believe that.”

Without Houlihan in the mix (who was likely focused on the 1500 meters, but had declared in the 5,000 as well—and on Thursday was still entered in both events), Schweizer could enter the 5,000 meters with the fastest time, followed by BTC teammates, Elise Cranny (14:48.02) and Vanessa Fraser (14:48.51). In the 10,000 meters, Schweizer has the second-fastest qualifier (30:47.99), right behind Cranny (30:47.42)—marks they set together at a meet in February.

“We are confident in our process,” Schweizer says. “We know our workouts are very difficult and we know that we’re going to be ready when it matters.”

Age: 25

Hometown: Portland, Oregon

Event/PRs: 5,000 meters (14:26.34) and 10,000 meters (30:47.99)

Training tip: Everybody experienced 2020 in a different way. Schweizer found much of it disappointing and disorienting, but in the midst of the uncertainty she learned to focus on how fortunate she felt for what she’s been given in life and in her ability to run.

“Just not knowing what was going to happen and, heck, for a little while not even knowing if the Olympics were going to happen at all, we just always talked about not taking any opportunities for granted and taking advantage of what we have,” she says. “That’s really important. A full year of just training and time trials was difficult and it wore on me, but it made me grateful for the opportunities I do get and hopeful for the years to come.”

Favorite workout: Schweizer’s favorite session harkens back to her time competing for the University of Missouri, where she was a six-time NCAA champion. It’s a 5K-specific workout that she liked to nail right before her biggest races: Three sets of 3 x 800. The first two 800s are 5K pace and the last one? “My coach called it the Moneyball one,” Schweizer says.

“On the last 800 you visualize finishing a 5K, so it’s fast, like the last two laps of the race,” she says. “It really pumped me up. After I finished that one, I was like, ‘OK, I’m ready.’”

The worst part of race day: The start of the race, which Schweizer acknowledges is a bit silly for a long-distance runner.

“I’m not very fast off the line and for some reason I get so nervous in races that I should be fast off the line,” she says. “I don’t want to get bad placement so I just like bolt out of there. Then I’m looking for a spot and it’s just like, I’m going to get shoved into the lead,” she says, laughing. “Placement is the main part that can really go wrong in the 5K or 10K, but obviously you have many laps to make that up so I should be a little more calm.”

The best part of race day: The best part of her job is competing.

“You never know what other athletes are going to do on that day and that just adds such a fun aspect,” Schweizer says. “Especially with American distance women right now, all of our times are just going down like crazy.”

Trials success (aside from the obvious goal of making Team USA): Enduring two rounds of the 5,000 meters and then competing well in the 10,000 meters.

“I think it’s a pretty hard double, especially with a [5,000 meter] prelim, but I’d be excited if I know I could compete well in both,” she says.

Last words to herself on the starting line: Usually Schweizer has a song in her head, though she hadn’t chosen what yet for the Trials.

“Our whole team has been really into this song ‘Making Luv to the Beat,’ and it sound so cheesy, but we’ve been playing it on repeat on our way to workouts and stuff,” she says. “Any time ever hear that song again, I’ll think of this year.”

Sage advice: After joining the BTC in 2018, Schweizer quickly learned that the level of training required a level of maturity to know when it was time to run slower or take a break to avoid long lapses caused by injury or illness.

“I think people forget about how important it is to be consistent and how your progress builds on years,” Schweizer says. “Our program is a difficult one to just jump into and a lot of people get exhausted that first year, but my mentors remind me that it’s OK to run slower or not run the same mileage that everyone else is—focus on yourself and not so much on other people’s paths.”

Pandemic pastimes: Schweizer dabbled in many of the pandemic trends, whether it was making TikTok pasta or binging Tiger King. She also joined the BTC book club—her favorite pick was Anxious People, by Fredrik Backman, a novel about “a crime that never took place, a would-be bank robber who disappears into thin air, and eight extremely anxious stranger who find they have more in common than they ever imagined.”

“I really got into the TikTok trends, which was a little embarrassing—it was a deep hole I got myself into,” Schweizer says. “I just love the funny animal videos and stupid stuff on there.”

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Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series leading up to the 2021 U.S.A. Track & Field Olympic Trials, highlighting many of the top athletes contending for the U.S. Olympic team. You can find all of our coverage here.