As Dena O’Brien shatters another school record, people are starting to ask: Just how good can she be?
She doesn’t play in front of a packed arena of 6,000 screaming fans. She’s never showcased her talents on national television. Her top YouTube clip has fewer than 300 views.
But as sophomore sensation Dena O’Brien pushes herself through another grueling mile of training, she’s coming closer to taking the College of Charleston somewhere it’s never been before: the NCAA Cross Country Nationals. And maybe – just maybe –beyond that.
As O’Brien prepares for the Southern Conference Cross Country Championships, which the College will host on Johns Island this Saturday, all of her attention is on a strong finish for the team, and possibly a conference title for herself. But when that race is over, her focus, along with that of her coach Amy Seago, will shift to the NCAA Southeast Regional, in Louisville, Ky., in two week. With a strong performance there, O’Brien could become the first runner in College of Charleston history, in either cross country or track, to earn an invitation to Nationals.
“For me, I think (the conference meet) is huge, but Regionals is really big, too,” O’Brien said. “That’s been the goal with Coach (Seago) all along: We want to get to Regionals. I don’t want to be burned out like I was last year. I want to go in and really have a good race there. I don’t want to be too hard on myself, or disappointed, if I don’t qualify out, but that’s the ideal goal. That’s what I’d like to do. We’ll see.”
It takes a driven person to be disappointed by only setting a school record, but that’s how O’Brien views last year’s Regional in which she broke the school’s six-kilometer record by almost 20 seconds but finished 61st out of a field of 253 runners.
“That wasn’t such a great race for me,” O’Brien explained. “Part of the reason I didn’t run some of the early races this year is that last year, by the time we got to Regionals, I was sort of burned out going into the race. Just looking back at my whole mental approach going into it, I’m just kicking myself. I was pretty burned out, I had a terrible attitude, and I think that ended up reflecting on the race. I probably could have run a lot better than I did there. This year, I think I have a lot better chance going in, and I think I’ll be a lot more fresh. I’m not burned out by any means this year.”
O’Brien has already put together a resume ranking her as possibly the best runner in the history of the College. After shattering the school’s five-kilometer (3.1 miles) cross country record with a blistering 17:11 in Charlotte in September, O’Brien now holds nine school records in every distance she’s attempted in cross country, indoor track and outdoor track. The record in Charlotte was more than 40 seconds faster than her previous personal best, set on the same course last fall, and knocked 23 seconds off the old school mark, which had stood since 1991.
Not bad for someone who came to the College of Charleston just hoping to break 19 minutes. When she ran 18:09 in her first collegiate race, it took everyone by surprise.
“I still remember that race crystal clear,” O’Brien said. “It was at USC Upstate (in Spartanburg), at the Eye-Opener, and I was freaking out. I’ve gotten a lot better about not getting so nervous. Coach has talked to me a lot about that. But I was freaking out.
“It was our first race, and she told me to kind of go out conservatively, because I tend to go out hard. That’s just what I do. But two of the girls who led the whole race were two Kenyans, so that was a new experience for me. I had never raced with Kenyans in my life. I just wanted to stay with those girls. My dad was giving me a hard time later, just saying, ‘We just saw your little blond hair.’ But I definitely, totally, did not even think I would come close. I just wanted to break 19 (minutes). I didn’t think I was going to be close to the 17s.”
Seago had known that O’Brien was prepared to make a big leap forward from her high school times, but even she was unprepared for the freshman to start slicing such large chunks of time from her personal bests.
“Last year, I think we were all just shocked,” Seago said. “We all kind of said, ‘Wow, this is awesome,’ and kind of got caught up in the moment. I see even a different side to her this year, which makes me believe that we’re still scratching the surface. There is a lot more to Dena O’Brien and what she’s capable of doing.”
While last year may have been a surprise, Seago said that she knew O’Brien was ready to do big things when she returned to Charlotte this year, even as she was still recovering from a strength-sapping iron deficiency and a lingering Achilles tendon issue.
“I knew she was ready for a good race,” Seago said. “She had a much quicker bounce-back from the iron deficiency issues than I have seen from anybody. That doesn’t surprise me. Dena is someone who doesn’t usually get sick.” – Seago paused for just a moment to rap her knuckles against her desk for good luck – “She’s got a pretty strong immune system. I thought she’d bounce back quickly, and she definitely did. I knew she was ready to run under 17:30, but 17:11 was just awesome. That was great.”
O’Brien herself was less sure.
“I knew I was in good shape, but I didn’t think it was going to be that big of a leap,” O’Brien said. “Especially because the week before, we’d run at The Citadel, and I knew that was a slow course, and I knew I hadn’t given it an all-out effort (because of the iron and Achilles issues), and I had more.
“Last year at McAlpine (the home course of UNC Charlotte) I ran a 17:53. I went out way too hard there, but Coach let me run it like I ran my high school races. She just said, ‘Go out however hard you want,’ and I paid for it at the end. So this year, I knew I was going to go out conservative. But I came to the first mile at the same time I ran last year. So I just didn’t let that get in my head. I just felt a lot better. I’ve just been feeling great now since my iron has been back up. I expected to be in better shape; I expected to be in the 17s. I think I’m capable of breaking 17. In my workout, Coach has said, ‘You’re ready to break 17.’ Especially at (the SoCon meet), that’s a flat course. That’s where I think I can do it.”
The Southern Conference meet will be run on the College’s new Trophy Lakes Course on Johns Island, and should produce a quick, competitive race. Being able to train on the course in Charleston’s heavy, humid air may prove an advantage for the Cougars, though.
“I hope it is a hot day,” said Seago earlier in the season. “It’s one the things where us and The Citadel would be at an advantage because we run in this (weather) all the time. We kind of had a counter for running at (Appalachian State, in Boone, N.C., for last season’s SoCon meet) because they are at slight altitude. So we had to train to get in oxygen debt, and feel what that discomfort is. Here, it’s going to be really hard for any other team to prepare for the humidity and the heat, and I’m very excited about that. I hope it’s a hot day. I think we have several runners who do very well when it is hot.”
For O’Brien, it’s the nature of the course itself that provides the advantage: “I like it. It’s really flat, which I think is good for me. I like hills, but I think I do better on the flat. It’s a good course.”
While Seago has worked with O’Brien on everything from her mental and tactical approach to tinkering with her gait, O’Brien credits her rapid ascent to one simple realization: running is just more fun now.
“I think the biggest thing for me is that in high school, it really was like a job,” said O’Brien, who attended high school in Pelham, Ala., a suburb of Birmingham. “I did it because I was not going to go to school in Alabama. I wanted to go out of state, and I knew my dad wasn’t going to pay for it unless I got some sort of scholarship. So, every day I was out there, it was because it was (a job). And then I got here… I would get really worked up before races, and Coach told me it was like a switch that needed to go on and go off. That helped a lot, not having so much pressure. So it started to become a little more fun. I was finally running because I liked to.
“I’m doing it now because now I’m asking, ‘How good can I be?’ My whole mental approach now, compared to high school, is just completely different. I think that probably helps.”
Seago believes that much of her success has also come from finding a new balance in her life as she has adjusted to college.
“We’ve talked about trying to find a different balance, not just being a runner,” Seago said. “Trying to find things outside of athletics that you’re interested in. That’s something she’s very interested in doing. She doesn’t want to just be a runner; she wants to be well-rounded. I’ve encouraged that. I think that for her and her personality type, it’s good not to get caught up and get so tense about what is right ahead of you. Try to take the big picture, look back a little bit.
“She now is confident enough to know, ‘Hey, I’m pretty good.’ And I think now she believes, ‘Hey, I am good,’ whereas last year she doubted that a little bit. I think she really believes it, and that is enabling her not to be stressed about all of the little things. She’s a very detail-oriented person, but I think she sees how they fit together now. Step back a little bit from the running and realize, ‘I can have fun with this, and it doesn’t have to be something that creates so much pressure. This is a fun outlet, and let’s see how far I can go with this.’”
As far as how good O’Brien can be and how far she can go, Seago’s answer is simple. And striking.
“I have no doubt in my mind (that she can run competitively after college),” Seago said. “I definitely believe that she can. She is very driven. It does take a special person, and you have to be comfortable with yourself, and you have to be comfortable being different. No matter where you are, at that level, to talk about going to the Olympics, to talk about being professional down the line, you have to be willing to do things differently than other people. I think she is, and I think she really believes that.”
But the Olympics, and even the Southeast Regionals, are still beyond another horizon. For now, O’Brien’s goal is to be happy at the end of the day.
“My biggest thing is that when I lay down at night, I want it to still be fun. I want it to be refreshing. I think that’s why I’ve done as well as I have since I’ve been here, just that is hasn’t been as much of a job. I’m doing it because I want to get better. I don’t ever want to be too satisfied with anything, either, because I’m not going to get better if I do that. I just want to see where it’s going to take me.
“The sky is kind of the limit, to see what I can do.”