By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Olympic trials have been just that for Sara Hall.
Reaching the 5,000 meter finals eight years ago was tough enough following a tiring college season. Four years later Hall faded after positioning herself for a Beijing bid in the 1,500 meters.
Now running strongest when results count most, Hall — formerly Sara Bei, from Montgomery High — is back contending for the U.S. Olympic team. A new event — the steeplechase — and fresh legs helping Hall stride through a remarkable season could make these trials a triumph.
“My training has been going awesome. I feel like I have different legs,” Hall said during a break in Redding, where she and husband Ryan Hall, preparing for the Olympic marathon, are now based. “I feel really reinvigorated. I’ve moved from being hopeful to being where I should make the team.”
Qualifying for the women’s 3,000 meter steeplechase is Monday with the finals set for Friday at famed Hayward Field on the University of Oregon campus.
Competing in a familiar venue from her Stanford meets — Hall ran well at the Prefontaine Classic there earlier this month — adds to her confidence. So too does having the third best qualifying time among the women racing.
“It’s an exciting atmosphere. It definitely gives you a little more adrenaline when you step on the track,” Hall said. “I feel the most excited I have as a professional.”
There were times since turning pro seven years ago Hall considered hanging up her spikes. Never making an outdoor World Championships or Olympic team in the 1,500 or 5,000 meters, Hall’s hopes were renewed with early success in the 3,000 meter steeplechase.
Such a major shift in a professional career runs risks. Yet the new event to women’s distance running — the debut Olympic women’s steeplechase was 2008 in Beijing — suits Hall. The distance combined with hurdles and water jumps are an exciting challenge, she said.
“There’s an element of danger in it. It’s up and down and through water. It’s kind of like a cross country race,” Hall said. “I feel like I have good natural athleticism. I really feel I made the event my own.”
Adding the event to her training little more than a year ago, Hall won her first steeplechase at the Stanford Invitational in May 2011.
That same month Hall ran a personal best in the event at the Rome Golden Gala — her 9:39.48 met the Olympic “A” qualifying standard.
A month later Hall was disappointed with fifth place at the national championships. She was determined to be more aggressive in training and racing.
The Halls left their longtime team in Mammoth Lakes and have divided training between Flagstaff, Ariz, for altitude work, and Redding. Sara Hall also is back with her Stanford coach Dena Evans.
“We’re both really enjoying running right now,” she said.
The move to Redding was to join a church community and do a school ministry. Great trails in surrounding hills and along the Sacramento River also make the area ideal for training.
“We’re making decisions based on what’s best for our spiritual life. That’s where we experienced the most growth,” she said.
“The running has definitely fallen into place. Training wise it’s been awesome.”
A significant moment in Hall’s run for the London summer games followed in October. Winning gold for Team USA at the Pan American Games, in Mexico, elevated Hall on the international scene. Hall’s was the first ever steeplechase medal for an American woman in any major international competition.
“That was really fun. It was a dream come true,” Hall said.
A great year got better.
First was Hall’s win at the USA Cross Country Championships, in St. Louis, in February. Then she made Team USA in the 3,000 meters out of the national indoor championships, in Albuquerque. Two weeks later Hall made her first world final at the World Indoor Championships, in Istanbul, Turkey, where she finished eighth.
“I was surprised how well I ran,” Hall said. “My coach and I have taken a very long-term approach to the season to ensure that I am firing my best for the trials and games.”
What she is reaping are the benefits of avoiding overtraining, staying healthy and strong with much assistance from therapists, nutritionists and training partners, Hall said.
“I am responding well to the training,” Hall said. “Injury prevention is the main thing. I have a great team of people that take care of my body.”
Still, she was not training specifically for the steeplechase earlier this year. Hall was reluctant to give up on any event.
While having options is a good thing, Hall later recognized the steeplechase could be the surest shot at the Olympics. Hall ran only the steeplechase outdoors this season.
“I think I can make an impact in world competition,” she said.
To reach the Olympic stage, Hall knows she first must finish on the podium in Eugene.
“It all comes down to that day,” she said. “I feel like I’ve prepared myself to give my absolute best.”
Event: Women’s 3,000 meter Steeplechase
High School: Montgomery, 2001
College: Stanford, 2005
Recent achievements: 2011 Pan American Games gold medal (Steeplechase); 2012 USA Cross Country Champion; 2012 World Indoor Championships finalist (3,000 meters); 2011USA Road Mile champion; 2011 Rome Golden Gala met Olympic qualifying standard with personal-best 9:39.48 (Steeplechase); 2006 USA 5 kilometer champion; Twice NCAA runner-up (5,000 meters); Seven time NCAA All-American; 2003 Third at NCAA Cross Country Championships.
U.S. TRACK AND FIELD TRIALS
University of Oregon, Eugene, Ore.
When: Continuing today through Monday, plus Thursday, June 28 through, Sunday, July 1
Empire athletes competing
Jake Arnold: Decathlon, Friday and today (five events each day)
Sara Hall: 3,000-meter steeplechase qualifying, Monday
Kim Conley: 5,000-meter qualifying, Monday