Last Saturday at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon, the 22 year-old Franek lined up for her first ever race as a professional athlete. Gone was the blue and white Penn State uniform she had worn for the last four seasons, replaced by a purple and black kit from her new corporate sponsor, Nike. Franek, the 2010 NCAA steeplechase champion, was a little nervous going into the meet.
“A lot of doubts were going through my head,” Franek said. “It had been a long season, and stuff. I was not really sure that I would be able to, you know, step on the line with this kind of competition.”
But despite having 20 races in her legs since January 1, Franek didn’t squander the opportunity. She stayed within striking distance of the leaders, and ultimately finished fifth in 9:32.35 — a four-second personal best which solidified her position as the sixth best U.S. steepler of all time.
“My coach (Beth Alford-Sullivan) was huge in giving me confidence, lifting me up,” Franek said. “When she’s confident, I’m confident.”
Franek attempted her first steeplechase in 2007, and cracked the ten-minute barrier on only her second try. She finished 12th in her first NCAA championships that year. In 2008, as a sophomore, Franek finished third in the NCAA championships, and qualified for the USA Olympic Trials. She didn’t make the final, however, missing the cut by just one place. As a junior, Franek dropped a notch to fourth at the NCAA meet, but finished third in the U.S. Outdoor Championships. Although she earned a spot on the world championships team with that performance, she passed on the opportunity to rest up for the fall cross country season at Penn State.
This year, Franek was the dominant steeplechaser in the NCAA ranks, and a big contributor to the Nittany Lions’ success as a team. At the Big Ten Championships last May, Franek scored 21 points for Coach Alford-Sullivan by finishing fourth in the 1,500 meters, third in the 5,000 and first in the steeplechase, lifting her team to their third consecutive conference title. After winning the NCAA steeplechase title in Eugene last month, Franek went on to place fifth at the U.S. Outdoor Championships in severely hot conditions in Des Moines, Iowa. That race took a lot out of her, and she wasn’t completely motivated to compete at Prefontaine just a week later.
“I have to say, I have to admit actually, I was the opposite (of being motivated), kind of giving myself the out for the season because it’s been so long with college and stuff,” Franek explained. “USA’s was definitely a body shutdown, not like necessarily a mind thing. So, I kind of just took that as maybe it’s just time to be done. But I had signed up for this and it was a great opportunity, a great chance to try, like, a good European competition on our home soil. I was just, like, let’s do this. Let’ see what I’ve got. What’s the worst that can happen.”
Franek isn’t sure if she’ll stay in State College, Pa., where she’s lived and trained the last four years.
“I’m not sure yet,” said Franek who went to Crestwood High School in Hiram, Ohio. “Let the summer play out and see what happens.”
Franek competed today in Barcelona, finishing fifth in the steeplechase in 9:43.06. Last week in Eugene, she was hoping there would be a second European trip for her later this summer after returning home from Friday’s competition.
“Then I’ll come home for a while, clean back up, and maybe go back over at the end of August,” she said. “I definitely have more in the tank.”