NCAA track championships 2019: Boise State's tiny Allie Ostrander stares down giant feat

Allie Ostrander needs to clear hurdles nearly half her own height when she competes in -- and dominates -- the steeplechase. Courtesy Boise State Athletics

Don't be fooled by Allie Ostrander's slight stature, youthful-sounding voice and humble demeanor.

Don't let the fact that the Alaska native sheds tears during major running competitions deceive you.

And don't doubt for a moment that just because the 5-foot-1 Ostrander is usually the shortest one at the starting line of her signature event and has to clear hurdles half her height, that she won't leave the field behind. After all, nobody has ever beaten the sharp-witted Ostrander in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.

"I don't mean to brag, but I was third at the Kenai Peninsula Middle School Invitational in the 100-meter hurdles," she told reporters in 2017 after winning her first NCAA steeplechase title in just her fourth time trying the event. "Kind of a big deal, surprised you guys didn't know that already."

The 100-pound Boise State junior, already an 11-time track and cross country All-American and two-time NCAA champion, will go for her third straight NCAA steeplechase title this week at the NCAA track and field championships, which begin Wednesday at the University of Texas.

Ironically, Ostrander discovered her steeplechase dominance only after a year-long battle with stress fractures.

As a Boise State freshman, she finished first or second in every cross-country race she entered, including becoming the second freshman to win the Mountain West Conference meet and placing second at the NCAA championships, the first of three straight top-six finishes.

On the track, she ran an indoor school record in the 3K (8 minutes, 54.27 seconds), but a stress fracture forced Ostrander to drop out of the NCAA indoor championships 5K.

The injury forced her to miss the entire 2016 outdoor season as well as the cross country and indoor track seasons in 2016-17.

Ostrander practiced as much as possible during her hiatus, and at one point coach Corey Ihmels asked her to run and jump over a hurdle sitting on the track.

Having run shorter hurdles races in middle school and high school, Ostrander glided over it. Impressed, Ihmels filed away what he saw.

"That got me thinking that Allie might be a great fit for the steeplechase with her all-around athletic ability and grit," he said. "Obviously, I had no idea what was to come for her in that event."

After more than a year away from NCAA competition, Ostrander made her comeback in an event she had never done before -- the steeplechase -- and won the Stanford Invitational in 9:55.61.

Ostrander, who played basketball (she was a sharp-shooting point guard) and soccer in high school, improvised in that first race.

"There are no hurdles for the first 200 meters and I kind of forgot about them, then all of a sudden was like, 'Oh, I need to jump over these,'" Ostrander said. "The race went smoothly after the first couple of laps and I was left wanting to see what I could do in the steeplechase."

What she did was win a national championship barely two months later, pulling away from the field in the final 300 meters and shedding tears as the finish line approached, just as she did when winning the Nike Cross Country National Championship as a high school senior.

The emotions only intensified when Ostrander ran over to the stands to embrace her parents and sister, who was a three-time Division III national championship steeplechase qualifier at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.

"This is amazing because I had a tough year with injuries and having to watch my teammates race and train while I missed out on the action," she said after the race. "So it felt so awesome to give stress fractures the middle finger, go out there and do it, finally."

The scene with her family repeated itself a year later and could again this week. Another title would make Ostrander the first to win three consecutive NCAA steeplechase titles and keep her on track to become just the fifth four-time winner in any event. But it won't come easy.

Although Ostrander owns the nation's top time (9:40.05) this season and won her previous two titles by more than five seconds, a rival has emerged.

New Mexico sophomore Adva Cohen placed fifth at last year's European championships while running for her native Israel in a personal-best 9:29.74.

That's nine seconds better than Ostrander's best of 9:38.57 at last year's Stanford Invitational, but Ostrander held off Cohen by five one-hundreths of a second in their only head-to-head steeplechase meeting this season.

"Adva has been running fast times and I think she has benefitted from training with all the talented distance runners New Mexico has," Ostrander said. "She is a strong competitor, but not the only one who will be challenging me. Winning another national title will not be easy, but I feel like I'm peaking."

Ostrander won't be focusing solely on steeplechase, either.

Less than two hours after she won that first steeplechase title as a freshman, Ostrander added All-American honors in the 5,000 by finishing fourth.

"I could not decide which of the races to run," she said. "Since the timeline was not impossible, the only answer was to do both. I thought, 'Why not?' other than the fact that it's really difficult."

Not too difficult, evidently, because Ostrander did the double again at the 2018 NCAA championships, where she defended her steeplechase title and placed eighth in the 5,000 despite just an 80-minute break between races.

"Winning another national title will not be easy, but I feel like I'm peaking." Allie Ostrander

This time, there are 90 minutes between the races Saturday, but Ostrander has the nation's third-best time (15:30.94) in the 5,000.

Nobody else has finished among the top eight in both races in the same year even once.

"The coaches have done a great job of preparing me and I've felt strong and healthy all year," said Ostrander, who earned her kinesiology degree last month. "I've done a little more speed workouts leading up to the NCAAs than in the past. I'm sharp and ready to go."

While she has been the only finalist in both the steeplechase and 5K the past two seasons, Ostrander could have company this year. Cohen, Arkansas' Devin Clark and Wofford's Hannah Steelman are also entered in both races but, like Ostrander, they must advance from Thursday's steeplechase semifinals.

"The evolution is interesting because when Allie first tried the double, people thought we were crazy, and now there are other crazies," Ihmels said. "The competition looks stronger than ever in the steeplechase, but Allie is probably more fit and ready for the NCAA championships than she ever has been."

Less than a week after next year's NCAA outdoor championships, Ostrander plans to make her second appearance in the Olympic Trials, which begin June 19 in Eugene, Oregon.

As a 19-year-old in 2016, she finished eighth in the 5,000 at the trials, but, at this point, Ostrander is unsure which events she will contest. Her best steeplechase and 10,000-meter (32:06.71) times would have also placed her in the top 10 in those events in 2016.

"Honestly, I have not thought about the trials much yet because there is so much to do before then," she said. "I will take a good look at the timetable when the trials get closer and decide."

Before then comes Ostrander's final college cross country and track seasons. In addition to possibly completing a steeplechase four-peat, Ostrander will be pursuing other goals like winning a national cross country title and breaking the school steeplechase record (9:37.84).

"Working hard to prepare for competition is the easy part, but to respond, overcome pressure and be a tough competitor after the gun goes off is something else," Ihmels said. "Allie turns it up a notch when the competition gets tough and hates to lose. The inner drive she has -- I can't coach that."