By Robert McKinney, Assistant Athletics Director, Communications
SALEM, Ore. -- Hannah Swanson (Sr., Seattle, WA/Roosevelt HS) entered her senior season as a track and field athlete at Willamette University with three years of experience competing mostly in the 1,500-meter run and the 800-meter run. She qualified for the NCAA Championships in 2016 and placed 13th in the nation in the 1,500-meter run. She showed strength in the 1,500 at the Northwest Conference Championships by placing second in 2015 and 2016, and by finishing third in 2017.
Even so, after the 2017 cross country season ended with Swanson placing in the top 100 (95th) out of 279 runners at the NCAA Cross Country Championships, she told Willamette Head Coach Matt McGuirk that she would like to compete in a new event in the spring of 2018. She wanted to compete in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
"Previously, I had focused on the 800-meter run and the 1,500-meter run. I'd had success in the 1,500, but felt a little uninspired about the 800 going into my last season. I wanted to move up in distance but did not want to mess with the 5,000. That left me with the 3,000-meter steeplechase -- a distance I felt was more reasonable. Coach seemed excited about my interest and gave me some hurdle drills and mobility to work on over Winter Break. I also felt like after 3 1/2 years of running and building strength, my body could handle the hard impact of the race without injury."
McGuirk was open to Swanson's suggestion and looked forward to working with her on developing her skills as a steeplechase runner.
"It came pretty easy to her, she was a natural," McGuirk said. "She was very efficient from the first hurdle on."
Learning how to compete in the steeplechase means developing a plan to deal with the barriers (hurdles) and water jumps included in the race. After running half of a lap without any obstacles, competitors in the steeplechase face an additional seven laps, each with four barriers and the water jump. It's important to get over the barriers without losing much speed or momentum, and the water jump presents its own set of difficulties. First, the water jump has its own barrier. The barrier is located just before a pit that is filled with water. The bottom of the pit is slopped and is deepest near the barrier. Landing in the water jump is different than any other skill in track and field.
"We practice hurdle work every Monday and we focus on charging in and rolling out the other side. It is extremely important to take off in the right spot, which is usually 5-6 feet in front of the hurdle," McGuirk said. "We also practice dry water jumps onto the turf every week. The actual water jump is not something we practice very often."
Many runners leap onto each barrier and then jump off the other side. Swanson was able to hurdle the barriers without touching them. With good timing, she could get past the barriers a bit faster than her competitors. Swanson, like most steeplechase runners, followed the normal technique on the barrier at the water jump -- leaping onto the barrier and then into the water pit.
Swanson's ability to breeze over the solid, unforgiving barriers, made her running look smooth and easy.
"Because of my height, I think it did appear natural or easy for me over the barriers," Swanson said. "It definitely wasn't easy at first though. The timing is the hardest part -- not losing momentum or stutter stepping as you approach a big wooden barrier at a decent pace took awhile to get used to!"
She did have a mishap early in her efforts to learn the steeplechase.
"I actually clipped my toe on a barrier and ate it pretty hard during my first race on the second to last lap," Swanson recalled. "Luckily I didn't get hurt, but I definitely realized how much sustained focus the steeplechase takes, especially as you feel more fatigued in laps five through seven. While some components of the race felt natural, I definitely learned something new every race."
In addition to learning to manage the special features of the steeplechase, she also had to adapt to a new distance on the track.
"The steeple was the longest track race I'd ever raced," Swanson commented. "The distance took a bit of adjusting, and the mentality is very different compared to a race like the 800-meter run. There's more time to think and strategize. There's also more time to screw up the pace. If there's one word to describe the mentality of the race, it'd be 'grit.' This mentality was intense and new for me in some ways, but I really loved it."
After practicing the steeplechase during the early weeks of the spring semester, Swanson competed in the event for the first time during the Willamette versus Corban Dual on March 15 at Charles Bowles Track. Swanson took first place out of six runners with a time of 10:49.91 that moved her rapidly into fifth place on Willamette's all-time list in the women's steeplechase. She won the event by 54.90 seconds.
Rapidly earning a spot on the top 10 list was quite an accomplishment. Willamette's list includes such outstanding steeplechase runners as Kimber Mattox, Michaela Freeby, Taylor Ostrander and Jena Winger.
In addition, McGuirk believes Swanson's time against Corban was the fastest recorded in the women's steeplechase by an NCAA Division III runner competing for the first time in the event. He doesn't know of any faster initial time during his 20 years on the Willamette coaching staff.
Swanson went on to take second place at the Northwest Conference Championships in the steeplechase to earn All-NWC recognition. She lowered her time to 10:44.86, which solidified her hold on fifth place all-time for the Bearcats. She then placed fourth in the 1,500-meter run at the NWC Championships in 4:40.86 less than one day after competing in the steeplechase.
She ran competitively in the steeplechase one more time during the regular season and took fifth place out of 17 runners at the Portland Twilight in 10:47.27. She was ranked 11th in the country and was one of 22 athletes who qualified to compete in the steeplechase at the 2018 NCAA Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships. Prior to running at the national level, she had just three competitive runs in the steeplechase, but all three of her times were under 10:50.
With such a strong initial time in the Willamette versus Corban Dual, Swanson knew pretty early in the spring that she would likely be competing at the NCAA Championships. That helped her relax while racing.
"Qualifying early essentially takes a lot of the pressure off," Swanson said. "In many of the bigger meets, I could focus more on the strategy of my racing rather than time. This has always been a more fun approach to running for me -- focusing on competing with the folks around you rather than the clock ... although a personal record always rocks!"
Swanson was one of 22 athletes who qualified for the NCAA Championships in the women's 3,000-meter steeplechase. The national competition included preliminary heats on Thursday, May 24, with 14 runners advancing to the championship race on Saturday, May 26. Swanson placed sixth in the second heat and was one of four runners to receive at-large bids into the championship race. The top five runners in each heat earned automatic bids into the final.
Most of the 11 runners in Swanson's preliminary heat remained in the lead pack for about half of the race. Eventually, several runners gained a bit of separation. Later, Swanson moved briefly into third place and settled into fourth place. She was in the top five until being passed shortly before the finish line. Swanson's time of 10:55.12 allowed her to achieve the primary goal of the prelims -- to advance to the final and have the opportunity to run for a national title.
Even at the NCAA Championships, there were still things for Swanson to learn and areas to improve in the steeplechase.
"By the end of the season, the barriers felt 'easy' enough, but the water pit was always a physical and mental challenge," Swanson said. "Landing on one leg in a slanted water pit and maintaining forward momentum was pretty tricky, especially at the national meet with other competitors on all sides."
In the final, Swanson took 13th place in 11:03.15 while running the steeplechase for the second time in three days. She was thrilled to run the championship race and to earn a solid national finish in her first season of steeplechase competition.
"Placing 13th at nationals was a big accomplishment for me," Swanson commented. "A national meet is always a humbling experience and the opportunity to compete with some of the strongest female runners in the country is truly awesome. My goal going into the meet was to qualify in the prelims for the final, and then to just see what happened. Running two steeplechase races in three days took a number (toll) on my body, and I was thankful to finish my final race on two feet feeling pretty strong. I missed the final in the 1500-meter run two years ago by 0.64 seconds, so this year was some sweet redemption."
"She was pretty unflappable and durable," McGuirk said about Swanson's strengths as a runner. "In fact, I don't think she missed a single race due to injury in her four years. I'm happy for Hannah that she got to compete at the national level several times, which in NCAA Division III now means that you are pretty darn good."
Including two trips to nationals in track and field and three trips in cross country, Swanson was able to run at five NCAA Championships during her Willamette career. She competed at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in 2014, 2015 and 2017. She helped Willamette place 10th in the cross country team standings in 2015 after contributing to a 15th place finish for the team in 2014.
"Running at national cross country meets was always a wild experience," Swanson recalled. "The Midwest courses are truly cross country -- usually with some mud, snow, freezing temps, wind, rain, or a mix. My first two years were a ton of fun. Traveling and competing with the team at the national meets were some of my favorite memories. I always felt the most motivated running as a pack with my team -- the women I'd run countless workouts with and respected so much. It always meant a lot to us to qualify for a high caliber meet and I remember thinking during those tough races, 'do it for your team.'"
During her junior and senior seasons, Swanson was an inspiration to her teammates and a quiet leader for the Bearcats. She was a strong competitor and a consistently strong performer in both cross country and track and field.
"Hannah has been a fantastic representative of our programs and Willamette University. We are certainly going to miss her," McGuirk said.
Now, as Swanson moves on as a Willamette graduate, she has some short-term plans. After some time for relaxation, she will put her degree in biology to good use.
"Currently, I am traveling through Canada in a camper van with my cousin," Swanson said. "After, I will move to Seattle where I'll teach environmental education in local Seattle parks. For the time being, I plan to become the ultimate hobby jogger and try out some other activities like mountain biking."