American Julie Culley was the surprise U.S. Olympic Trials champion in the 5,000 meters this past June and on Tuesday advanced to the Olympic final in the event, slated for Friday evening in London. Prior to her Trials breakthrough her biggest career highlight was finishing seventh in the event at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials and 21st at the 2009 World Cross Country Championships.
Competitor.com got the chance to talk with Culley from New Jersey before she set off for her Olympic odyssey. Culley, who is sponsored by ASICS, runs for the New Jersey-New York Track Club, a nonprofit organization designed to support post-collegiate elite runners on the East Coast.
Competitor.com: Talk about your progression as a runner. How did you get to where you are now, as an Olympic Trials 5,000-meter champion and Olympian?
Julie Culley: I ran in high school. I started off as a soccer player and switched over to cross country my junior year in high school after I had done track my freshman and sophomore years. My distance relay team in high school was All-American. I’d done well at state but I wasn’t a phenom. I was solid for where we were. In college I went to Rutgers and dealt with a lot of injuries. They were biomechanical and not related to the coaching by any means. I had wonderful coaching and a wonderful support system, and I really flourished given the issues I was dealing with. I had some back injuries and stress fractures, and my back was really what kept me out of a lot of competition. I left Rutgers as an All-American but feeling like I had a lot of unsettled business. My whole fifth year I had been injured. I was really burned out. I ended up landing a head coaching job at Loyola College in Baltimore. I was the head coach of the women’s track team for two years, and I had an epiphany that I wanted to be the one on the starting line instead of the one watching, so I resigned and took an assistant coaching job at American University in Washington, D.C., under Matt Centrowitz, Sr. I did that for three years and made three world championship teams under him, which was awesome. When I went back to New Jersey, which is where I am from, I started working with Gags [Frank Gagliano] in 2010.
You mentioned you had biomechanical issues. How did you end up solving them?
I think a lot of that happened as I matured as a human being and a runner. For me, it was really in the last two years that I just kind of looked at everything I was doing. I stared myself straight in the face and said, “I have to make changes.” Something I’m doing is wrong. I need to make changes in my training. And very seriously, too, and I need to be confident enough to make those changes and know that I can still be a great athlete. I had this light bulb go off in my head where I thought, “I really think I can do great things if I can get to the starting line healthy—if I have a progression of healthy training and making sure I get the right rest.” I can do above and beyond what I had done before. I was injured through the fall of 2010.
How did you make those changes?
The first thing was to take one day a week off, and for a runner that can be an extremely difficult thing. Most of us are type A, and if you’re not running one day you think the competition is getting ahead of you. I have a physical therapist friend who is a runner and loves to run and who is involved in the sport, and he’s the one who sat me down and said you need to incorporate rest as part of your training regimen. Think of it as part of your training regimen as opposed to something you do when you’re broken down. The days you take off you feel terrible, and the day after you take off you feel terrible. But as I started to take time off, I realized I was feeling better in my training overall. Giving myself that rest day was allowing me to recover and reap all the benefits of the really hard training and what it was doing. I took a day off every week from the beginning of 2011 to the end of 2011, and that’s when I met the Elliptigo guys, who also kind of embraced that idea, and then I met Bob Augello [a running coach and cross-training guru known for helping runners and triathletes run injury free] and he kind of confirmed for me everything that I had been talking about, and I really started to build a relationship and talk about the different things I could be doing supplementally in my training and at the same time still becoming a better athlete. On my days off I would go for an Elliptigo ride if I didn’t feel like taking a complete day off. Or, I’d supplement mileage with some time on the Elliptigo—I’d jump on the Elliptigo instead of doing a four- or five-mile jog in the afternoon if I was really tired. As my training was getting more and more intense this spring before the trials, that was really, really huge for me. It wasn’t that it would take the place of those workouts, but it would complement those workouts.
After you crossed the line at the [Olympic] Trials, what was going through your head?
Oh my gosh! It was really such an incredible moment for me, just the product of years and years and years of ups and downs, and it was so overwhelming at that moment. I believed I could do it, but you don’t ever really believe it until you cross the finish line. It was a cool moment and the crowd was incredible. I think my expression was, “Oh my gosh!” I was staring at the board because I needed to see my name to see it was actually me who won. You dream about that stuff for so long—about that moment and executing the moment the way you want to and so often that doesn’t happen. It’s an overwhelming feeling, and when I go back and watch it, it’s more overwhelming. I don’t even know who that girl is. I can’t believe it.
How are you mentally approaching the Olympics after coming down off of such a high?
I think that the nature of the athlete, the track athlete in particular, when you do have such tangible feedback, is to always want more. I think that’s what keeps people in the sport for so long. You always want more. You take pleasure in the moment, but one of the first things I thought [after winning] was: “I can run so much faster. I can do better.” Obviously you need to really enjoy the moment and embrace the moment and being with family and friends really helps you understand the power of that moment. In my mind right now, I’m so excited to get back into another training cycle and really see what I can do in London. You want to celebrate for a little bit, but then you’ve got to shut it down and realize there’s a bigger task at hand. You want to do that to the best of your ability.
Can you talk about the New Jersey-New York Track Club?
It’s Gagliano’s dream to have this organization. He’s been coaching for 50 years now and was always under a shoe company. He’s started this group, and it’s the United Nations of shoe companies. It’s a forum for post-collegiate athletes to really develop. We’re two years in and looking for more support going forward. He’s our coach and I’ve helped him kind of set up the nonprofit and the organization. But he is the man behind it all. It is his dream. We have athletes for the 800 up to the 5,000, including steeple, on both the men’s and women’s side. There’s so much talent that comes out of the East Coast, and now we don’t have to travel so far to develop.
How many athletes do you guys have?
I think there was 22 of us at one point. We had 14 qualifiers to the U.S. Olympic Trials. We have five or six foreigners.
You live in a house with other runners as part of the group?
Yeah, right now I do. I live in a house with seven of us in the house earlier this year. Then we have an apartment across the street that has two girls and apartment with two guys. And then some people in Philadelphia and central Jersey.
The group is a nonprofit?
Yep. I think right now we do have the support of the USATF Foundation, and we also have the support of the U.S. Road Runners. The rest of it is really private donation. It’s somewhat of the athlete’s responsibility going forward to raise money, either through friends and family or through university contacts and donation and things like that.
What was everyone’s reaction in the group when you won the trials and qualified?
I think it was such validation for the group. You know, that we can do it where we are—we don’t have to have any unique or special situation. It can be as simple as training in New Jersey to win a national championship. It’s really not about necessarily the exact location as long as you have the support, good facilities, good training, and a great coach. It was a huge validation for the group that, hey, we can do this. It doesn’t have to be the most state-of-the-art technology. We can make it happen here on the East Coast in our own backyard.
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