Katrina Coogan does not remember finishing her first cross-country race.
A dual-sport athlete in high school, the now collegiate All-American in both cross-country and track and field came to Georgetown having never run an event longer than the 3000 meters. But on a fall day three years ago in Pennsylvania, Coogan toed the line at the Paul Short Invitational Meet, ready to take off for her first time as a Hoya — on a 6000m course. For the freshman runner, who at that point had spent just as much time on the soccer pitch as she had on the track, the result was predictable.
“It was not fun,” Coogan said, remembering the race with a wavering smile. “I ended up falling short.”
Despite Coogan’s valiant effort, the end of the race did not go according to plan.
“I was running and was doing great — and then with 200 hundred meters left I passed out,” Coogan said with a laugh. “I crossed the finish line, but I don’t remember crossing it. Apparently I walked and crawled a little bit.”
The race was deeply symbolic of Coogan’s relationship with the sport from the moment she stepped onto the track in seventh grade. From the beginning of her athletic career, the now nationally renowned distance runner had avoided long-distance training. Soccer was her collegiate dream — running was something her friends had talked her into joining. Among a highly competitive group of runners at Exeter, Coogan was markedly different from the rest. Running just 20 miles a week to prepare her for club soccer practices during the winter and fall, track seemed to always take the back seat to soccer. All of this appeared counterintuitive for the daughter of two Olympic distance runners.
“She was fun to coach but also challenging because with her pedigree, she faced a lot of expectations to be really talented,” Coogan’s former high school track and field coach Brandon Newbould said. “She was always gifted, but because her parents held off on pressuring her, she took her time coming around to it.”
That time for Coogan would come at the end of her junior year, as college prospects for soccer dwindled while opportunities on the track became more plentiful following a successful spring season. Suddenly, she realized that she would, in fact, be following in her parents’ footsteps. Regardless of whether or not it had been the plan all along, Coogan refocused her efforts toward trying to run in college. The results for the would-be prodigal daughter were immediate.
“There was this pretty marked jump in her running that happened in the postseason after her junior year,” Newbould said. “There was just this change where she realized she was going to be headed [in] the direction of running in college, and if she was going to do it, she was going to have to run [the necessary] times.”
Georgetown Director of Track and Field Patrick Henner glimpsed the future greatness resting beneath Coogan’s raw talent and brought her on as a freshman in 2011.
“You’d rather recruit somebody who’s been undertrained than over trained,” Henner said. “You want to look at the whole picture, you don’t want to just look at their times. Hopefully you’re picking out the athletes that have the most upside in the long term.”
Yet even after Coogan had made the transition to fully focus on the sport, her parents still did not weigh in on her track career. Despite their remarkable backgrounds as world-class athletes and current coaches, Coogan’s parents have maintained the same hands-off approach to their daughter’s running that they have adopted since she started middle school.
“This is going to sound a little bit strange, but probably one advantage she has is we know not to give her little tips and advice,” Coogan’s mother Gwyn said. “What we know from being involved in track and field is to let her have a great relationship with her coach and let that do its work.”
The strategy has proven wildly successful, especially since Coogan arrived at Georgetown and began training for cross-country and track full time. The same season that saw Coogan collapse in her first race ended with her assuming a crucial role as the fifth member of Georgetown’s 2011 NCAA Cross-Country Championship team.
“It’s just kind of a Cinderella story that she showed up at Georgetown and ran her first season of cross-country in her life and they won nationals,” Newbould said. “It’s like a fairytale.”
From there the Cinderella story has progressed, leading up to this past cross-country season where Coogan, now a senior, was named Mid-Atlantic Region Women’s Athlete of the year, followed by a fourth place finish at nationals in the indoor season in the 3000m event. By no means has she become the Blue and Gray’s best female runner by conventional methods, but few can doubt that, since blacking out in her first race as a Hoya, Coogan has given us plenty of finishes to remember.
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