Dispatching from Rio: Ashley Higginson, US 3000-Meter Steeplechaser

by Grace Masback

For Ashley Higginson, an American 3000-meter steeplechase runner, the path of her professional running career has been far from linear. She was a star athlete and successful student in college, attending Princeton University where she won seven Ivy League Championships. In 2012, she finished fourth at the U.S. Olympic Trials, just missing a spot on the Olympic team. Although she had initially planned to quit running and go to law school, after the trials she realized she was not ready to give up yet, found a law school close to home, and kept training. She represented Team USA in the 2013 World Track & Field Championships and took gold at the Pan American Games in 2015. While her ultimate performance at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials did not earn her a spot on the team for Rio, with her law degree and years of professional running experience she is excited to begin the new chapter of her life as a lawyer this fall. School of Doodle recently had the chance to sit down with Higginson to get her perspective on life, finding your passion, and her sporting career.

School of Doodle: How did you get interested in running?

Ashley Higginson: Running was always something that came fairly naturally to me. I played soccer and basketball on club teams and was the girl in gym who wanted to beat as many boys as possible in everything, but especially the mile run. So once I started middle school, I flipped a coin between track and softball and the rest is sort of history! Thankfully, I picked track as I do no have the hand/eye coordination for softball!

SOD: What advice do you have for your high school self?

AH: I was quickly humbled when I went to college. I worked hard and felt I had been a success in high school, then entered an entirely new pond where I found how small I truly am. I think that if I could brace myself high school self for the impact and remind that girl that she will get through the next stage, in time, it would have helped! However, another thing I wish I remembered was to just enjoy the experience. High school is often a time when you are rushing; to becoming an upper classman, toward prom, to graduation, to turning 18. Savor them.

SOD: Talk a little bit about your college experience? How were you able to balance intense academics with intensive athletics?

AH: After a high school experience that was filled with phenomenal experiences, teammates, and (lucky for me) great coaching, I was blessed with the opportunity to attend and run for Princeton University. For me, the balance was always natural. Running is the type of sport that inherently creates order and a planning mentality. When I was injured is when I can say with certainty I was at my worst academically. To have track and practice with many of your best friends for a couple hours a day was the breather I needed amidst any academic rigor and pressure. Moreover, the patience and planning it takes to create a successful track season I think is quite like a semester experience, so the two combined well. I am unsure if running attracts type-A people or creates them, but planning, color-coding, and organizing have always been things I love (Yep, I’m a nerd!)

College running has defined who I am and what I can look back on as the cornerstone in understanding what it is about running that I love. You enter college an 18-year-old girl who thinks she knows everything. You leave a 22-year-old adult who knows she knows nothing! In the time in between, I believe I gained the skills I needed to at least get by and figure things out. Sure, phenomenal classes and professors are a critical component of that, but running was essential. It certainly was not the All-American accolades either. Running has taught me that I will fail, and has given me skills to slowly fail a bit more gracefully. Moreover, it has given me the strength to get back up. My college experience gave me friends to last a lifetime, mentorship, and room to grow and create who I wanted to become.

SOD: What is your pre-competition ritual (if you have one)?

AH: I try really hard not to live in rituals. In high school I had so many! A lucky bra, socks with monkeys and pom poms, the same meal, the same everything! However, now I would say my typical race day involves a few hours of sitcoms such as Law and Order or Curb Your Enthusiasm, hair straightening, and a coffee on my way to the meet to perk up! Oh, and race days are basically the only time you will find me with eyeliner on — look good, feel good!

SOD: What was your greatest success or failure? What did you learn from it?

AH: Successes are always fun, but failure inevitably is when you learn. A quote, one of many, I keep on my wall sums this up: “Two things define you, your patience when you have nothing and your attitude when you have everything.” It is in some ways crazy to consider it a great failure, but not making the Olympic team this year is the one that comes to mind. Perhaps that is because it is still so recent and hopefully it is the greatest failure of my life for many many years as, wow, how lucky to even have the chance to compete on such a stage. I think what I have most quickly learned from watching Rio from my couch, however, is that daring greatly and falling short of the goal does not take away from the commitment and chance you took on yourself. I have watched with just as much love for this sport as ever and with so much gratitude to have had the experiences I did this year, to learn to handle nerves, to challenge myself, and to improve to levels I never would have imagined at the start of this journey. That is why we put a goal out there, to see where it takes us and who we become along the way!

SOD: What advice do you have for other young, female athletes?

AH: Whenever I get a chance to speak to female athletes younger than me, I tend to come back to one very crucial thing. Your teammates, the girls you surround yourself from perhaps age five to adulthood will become some of your best friends in the world. Finding your sport and your team helps you to glean confidence, support, and a belief in who you are amidst a lot of pressures that come along the way trying to push you away from that path. I have always been so proud to be a female athlete, to want to beat boys in gym class, and I have never apologized for expecting a lot of myself. I think athletics and a commitment to my health and well-being have cemented important pillars into my personality. I cannot imagine a time in my life where I will not want to run. More importantly, however, I cannot imagine life without the friends I have made at the high school, college, and professional levels through track. Those girls and women have pushed and challenged me and made me proud to be their teammate. Savor the easy day conversations, or the bus rides home. Those are the moments that create who you are and the right people to surround yourself with, people who inspire you!

SOD: Who is your role model why?

AH: The easiest answer that comes to mind is definitely my parents, though none of you know them so that isn’t as much of a fun one! However, I have to credit them with their amazing ability to always put my needs first, teach me discipline and morals, and also how to not give up on the people who get you to where you are going. My mom moved to the U.S. from Poland when she was in high school with her three sisters and father and just figured it out. I admire her so much for her commitment to family, her graciousness, and her innate ability to make me keep perspective. My dad grew up in Newark, N.J., and he was the Newark Fire Chief while I was growing up. What a baller! He has been my #1 supporter always in athletics, school, and frankly everything! More importantly, he has always made me feel like everything was possible and was the perfect blend of tough, yet loving and caring. Together my parents make a perfect blend and their abilities to balance one another out is something I hope I can have one day. I just love them to bits!

SOD: You do so much, how do you find balance in your life?

AH: I cannot stress the importance of having an inner circle you trust and love. I think balance has most to do with finding time, even when you think you have none, for those you love. Put the paper down. Get the run finished and get to the family party. Unconditional support has helped me make light of things when I get too far in my own head and reminds me of the bigger picture. From a more pragmatic sense, however, timing is everything. Take the time to plan out things that are important to you and they will always get done. It is the stuff “you will find time for tomorrow” that seem to never be completed.

SOD: What was your decision like to go to law school?

AH: What a tale that was! The decision in and of itself to go to law school sort of seemed natural for me. In college, I majored in Politics and I was most interested in policy and government affairs in my time there. I wrote my thesis on female incarceration and its effects on families and a new generation of crime and drug addiction. I applied to various law schools and initially planned to attend Colorado Law, after a year off for running. I deferred there and proceeded to come in 4th place at the Olympic Trials in 2012, which completely changed the course of my life. Long story short, I watched the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 Games and changed my mind about starting law school at Colorado. I ended up groveling to the Dean of Rutgers Law. I had been accepted there originally and asked him to reconsider my admission so I could continue to train with my professional track club in New Jersey. His response? “You are lucky I was once a runner!” Indeed I was! I turned the car around in Indiana with all my life in the trunk, found a studio apartment, and started practice and orientation less than a week later!

Law school itself was a dream and certainly the right choice for me. I think it matched the way I learn and think, stressing organization and planning throughout the year so you were prepared with a body of work for a final. Moreover, the material fulfilled my interests in government and trying to find some order within it! The way law school teaches you to think is invaluable for the types of business and legal interests I have.

SOD: What are you most looking forward to about starting your law career full time this fall?

AH: I am looking forward to many things! I look forward to entering a world where I am new again! I find joy in learning and in starting anew, knowing you are the bottom of the totem poll and needing to prove yourself! A new competition, as always! I am also looking forward to starting a profession, that when done correctly can truly help others. Running, while it has given me so much community and joy, inherently is a selfish pursuit. I look forward to trying to utilize my skills to improve the lives of others.

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