Constien Paves Her Own Way To Olympics
BOULDER - On June 27, 2021, Val Constien became an Olympian. A title that many dream of but few will ever obtain.
Like many of the athletes she raced against that night in Eugene, Ore., in the finals of the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials, and many races before, she had put in numerous hours of training. It all paid off when she crossed the finished in third-place to earn the final spot on the U.S. roster in the steeplechase, joining fellow University of Colorado alum Emma Coburn.
But Constien's journey to the Olympics is not your typical one. She was not an NCAA champion and she did not break records along the way during her collegiate career. In fact, she was not really satisfied with her performance in college.
"I always thought I could have done more in college," she said. "A lot of unfortunate things happened in college. For example, My last year at CU I got mono and had to take a month off training and right when I started training again in March I got hit by a car while I was on my way to school. I had a concussion and was not allowed to participate/practice with the team until I was healed."
But the biggest thing that held her back in college was her mental health since she was not sure how to handle a lot of internal issues she was dealing with at the time.
"I suffered from some mental illness and I felt like that is part of the reason why I never reached my full potential in college," Constien said. "By the time I got help, I was getting to the end of my junior year, so there wasn't much time left.
"Mental health plays a huge role in your ability to perform athletically. It might be scary to ask for help, you might not know what is going on, but the sooner you can talk to someone, whether it is a coach, athletic trainer, psychologist, the better."
Constien was able to get help through CU's Psychological Health & Performance department and after she did, things came together for her. In her final athletic season at Colorado, Constien and the women's cross country team won the 2018 NCAA Championship. In the process, she earned her first All-America honor as she placed 30th overall.
In the months to follow, she would win the 2019 Pac-12 Steeplechase title and place sixth at NCAAs in the event. But with the disruptions she faced in her final year with mono and the car accident, Constien knew she wanted more and started to make a plan to keep training after the NCAA Championships in June of 2019.
Again, Constien did not take a typical route to training as a professional athlete. She did not have a sponsor, so she needed to find a part-time job so she could have time to train and pay the bills. Then in December, Constien took an internship in the Buff Club at CU. She was working 30 hours a week and training with her college coaches, Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs, before the pandemic hit and everyone was sent home to work.
When her internship ended, she knew she needed to get a full-time job because part-time employment was not getting it done. That's when Constien found Stryd, a Boulder-based company which developed the first wearable run power meter technology, and she started working there full-time. It has been a huge turning point for her and her running career.
"That was the first time in my life I had true financial security and stability," she said. "And then everything else just fell into place. Sure I was working eight hours a day and sure I had to be ready to work by 9 and had to work until 5, but you could always get stuff done before work, which is what I did. I really focused my whole life on that point on around work and running and trying to save up some money so that I could compete when the time came."
Constien was doing everything she could to give herself the best chance to be competitive and that included every aspect of her life.
"From the moment I graduated, I tried to line up everything in my life in such a way that I could at least have an opportunity to compete at the trials," she explained. "And I did it so well that I overachieved and now I get to go to the Olympics. Mark and Heather always talk about its all the little things and they all add up. I really do think about that. Every night when I cook dinner I think, 'Is this going to sit well on my stomach for tomorrow's workout?', 'If I eat dinner at 6 p.m. is that going to give me enough so I can be in bed at 8:30 so I can try to be asleep by 9 p.m. to get up at 6 a.m. to get nine hours of sleep?.'"
Since she stayed with her collegiate coaches, they too noticed the changes and bigger commitment to racing she made after graduation.
"She took every aspect of her training and recovery to another level," Burroughs said. "And it worked."
"We often say of the excellent people we have, what makes them special is they do everything right," Wetmore added. "I think Val was a more than above dedicated collegiate athlete but when she was out on her own, paying her own way, working a full-time job, she realized the value of athletics to herself and raised her game again and did everything better than ever. She is definitely a completely different athlete."
Constien's goals too have shifted a lot in the last two years. At first she just wanted to make the trials and then the goal became making the finals.
She didn't really think she could be an Olympian until the Portland Track Festival, May 28-29, just a few weeks before the trials. That's because until that race, she did not have the Olympic 'A' Standard, but that all changed when she ran a personal best 9:25.53, an Olympic 'A' Standard, and finished second to Courtney Frerichs (9:21.13). As soon as she had that time, Constien knew there was a shot of making the Olympic team.
And that is exactly what she did. Constien placed fourth in the first heat (9:28.37) to advance to the finals. She wanted to race the finals tactically and put herself in a position to do just that. With three laps remaining, Coburn and Frerichs took off and Leah Falland went with them. Constien left them going knowing she was not in shape to run 9:10 like Coburn and Frerichs could.
She was thinking to herself, "Well, I guess I'm going to be fourth," as she saw her Olympic dream running away from her.
But then Falland tripped and was not able to recover quickly enough. Constien kept her composure and was pretty much neck and neck with Falland with two laps remaining and pulled ahead, earning the third-place finish she had dreamed about with a personal-best time of 9:18.34.
"I just had a better day that day," she said. "I ended up having a huge PR. For most of that race, I just tried to stay relaxed, making sure my hurdle form was perfect, my water jumps were perfect. I just tried to really lean on the practice I had done with Mark and Heather."
Her objectives have constantly been changing in the last two years and now that she is making her Olympic debut on August 1 in Tokyo (6:40 p.m. MT July 31), she has another goal.
"I really want to make the final," she said. "It's such a rare thing to do. Only 12 people get to do it every four years. And then once I'm there run as hard as I can and place as high as I can."
Constien has proven with her hardwork and determination that everything is possible. It's very rare to see an athlete qualify for the Olympics who works a full-time, 40-hour a week job but as Burroughs pointed out, it is seen in the field events more than the running events. But Constien has now shows that runners are capable of it as well.
"I don't know if she is unique," Wetmore said. "There are a lot of people trying, but Val is extremely rare."
If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental health issues, here are two different websites that can help: https://coloradocrisisservices.org/