Sometimes, when Valerie Constien’s eyes first pop open in the morning, it’s easy to dismiss the very new and completely overwhelming memory as a dream. A wonderful dream, sure, but a mirage nonetheless.
That’s why there is a strategically-placed decoration reminding Constien before she starts her day that, indeed, she’s officially an Olympian.
Hanging from Constien’s dresser is the third-place medal she won last month in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials. It’s an event that has been dominated in America by runners from the University of Colorado over the past decade-plus, and at the upcoming Tokyo Games, Constien, a 2019 CU graduate, will represent her school and country alongside another famous former Buff, reigning Olympic steeplechase bronze medalist Emma Coburn.
“It still kind of feels surreal,” Constien said. “It’s starting to sink in, but I’m definitely starting to understand the term ‘Imposter Syndrome’ now. I watch these interviews and I watch my race, and I’m thinking, ‘No way, that wasn’t me. I ran so well, how could I have possibly done that?’ But I think it’s going to feel very, very real when I get on that Dreamliner to Tokyo.”
Constien’s achievement, of course, was very real. And her journey to Tokyo that was forged over the past two years was, as CU track coach Mark Wetmore described, “Not an uncommon story among semi- professional runners. But she’s a very uncommon story among Olympians.”
When Constien graduated two years ago, she wasn’t certain what was coming next, either athletically or professionally. Following a post-graduation vacation, Constien began training again and took a part-time job as a concierge that she admits was less than satisfying. In the fall of 2019 she suffered a significant foot injury that waylaid her training.
Constien already had qualified for the 2020 Olympic Trials, as her time of 9 minutes, 44.51 seconds recorded late during her senior season is the fourth-best women’s outdoor steeplechase mark in CU program history, trailing three Olympians in Jenny Simpson, Coburn, and Shalaya Kipp. With about six months to go before the Trials were scheduled to begin, Constien was injured and mired in a job she didn’t enjoy.
Then fate intervened. A random conversation with CU athletic director Rick George helped Constien land a nine-month internship with the CU Buff Club. Being back on campus allowed her to resume training with Wetmore and Heather Burroughs. And as Constien started ramping up her post-injury training to take her best shot at the Trials, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and scuttled the athletics calendars for every sport at every level.
That included moving the 2020 Games to 2021. For Constien, it was a blessing in disguise, as it allowed
her to fully recover from her injury and reboot her training for the Trials.
“I had just started running and was starting to get fit, but luckily the pandemic hit. And I know that sounds horrible, but it honestly gave me an opportunity to just get fit again,” Constien said. “I probably would have run 9:40, maybe. If I was lucky. And who knows if I would’ve been able to PR, because I was working so hard to catch up from that injury, that I might’ve injured myself again.
“We went back to base mileage training in March (of 2020) and I had six months of solid base mileage training.”
Since last fall, Constien has dutifully pursued her Olympic dream while pushing through a demanding schedule, running in the morning before cleaning up for an eight-hour work day, then training again in the evening. It all paid off last month at the Trials in Oregon. A fall in the latter stages of the race by Leah Falland allowed Constien to surge into third place, and she finished with a personal-best mark of 9:18.34 — more than 26 seconds better than her top time at the end of her CU career two years previous, and nearly 10 seconds better than her previous personal-best.
The Coburn-Constien pairing in Tokyo will be the second time two CU athletes have filled the three-person U.S. women’s steeplechase team at the Olympics, as Coburn and Kipp competed together at the 2012 Games in London.
“Four months ago, she was happy to have a qualifying time and get to go participate (in the Trials),” Wetmore said. “But then as the ’21 races unfolded, she kept getting better and better. When she entered the Trials, she had the fourth-fastest US time going into the Trials. In the last couple weeks before them, it began to look like a spot on the team was possible.”