Will Katie Rainsberger fulfill her mother’s Olympic dreams?
Parents can often be heard yelling well-meaning tips from the sidelines of their kids’ sporting events. More often than not, however, kids zone-out the parental white noise. But not cross-country runner Katie Rainsberger, a junior at Air Force Academy High School in Colorado Springs, Colo.
In fact, the 16-year-old Rainsberger, who finished second in the 2012 and 2013 Colorado 4A state meet, seeks out her mom’s sage advice. You can’t blame her. Katie’s mom is Lisa Rainsberger, a former professional runner and the last U.S. woman to win the Boston Marathon.
“I always knew we were an active family and my mom has always encouraged an active lifestyle, but I didn’t fully realize the extent of my mom’s running and athletic career until we started working together in seventh grade,” says the younger Rainsberger, who recently won the St. Vrain Invitational at Lyons High School in Lyons, Colo., with a time of 18:01. “When I was 5 or 6, we would go on family hikes on Sundays. After we hiked to the top, I would run all the way back down.”
Rainsberger never thought her daughter would compete, but she says it’s innate for Katie, a multi-sport athlete who is on varsity teams for cross-country, soccer and track & field.
“Katie realized you get to places faster if you run,” Rainsberger says. “As a freshman, she ran the 800 in 2:08.”
Rainsberger, 53, was one of America’s best marathoners in the 1980s and 1990s. She ran a 2:28:15 PR and won six marathons during her career, including her historic Boston Marathon win in 1985 and back-to-back victories at the Chicago Marathon in 1988 and 1989. She also finished a heartbreaking fourth place in the 1984, 1988 and 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials, each time finishing one spot away from the chance to run in the Olympics marathon. After turning her attention to triathlon in the late 1990s, she retired from competition and started coaching endurance athletes of all ages and abilities.
Once Katie approached Lisa for help, Lisa began giving advice on nutrition, rest and training. Navigating the coach-athlete relationship can be tricky, all the more so when mother and daughter dynamics are added to the mix. But the Rainsberger’s have learned their boundaries. It helps that Lisa is a coach for all levels of runners, including 80 kids for Junior Olympics cross-country through the Kokopelli Kids Program—something she calls her “passion, heart and soul.”
“Sometimes I have to ask, ‘Are you mom or coach right now?’” the younger Rainsberger says. “At the end of the day, I respect her advice and decisions because she knows the sport better than anyone I know.”
Tall, lanky and blond, just like her mom, Katie played soccer from an early age and began running in seventh grade. The elder Rainsberger started as a swimmer, qualifying for the 1980 Olympics, which the U.S. boycotted, before switching to running. Even Lisa admits it’s easy to compare the two, going so far as calling Katie a “mini me” with the same sass, grit and determination Lisa had as a youth.
“The difference with Katie is that she speaks softly but carries a big stick where I did not. Katie is much wiser about race strategy and nutrition and makes great choices,” Rainsberger says. “I wish I could go back for a ‘redo’ after watching her maneuver through the sport.”
When talking about the future, Katie says that running is “part of her” and will always be her passion. She runs because of the self-gratification and happiness she gains, and the way running allows her to test her limits and break through them. She also admits that running “isn’t always a pleasurable sport, but it would be harder to quit running than it would be to finish a workout or race.”
Katie says she wants to run at the NCAA Division I level in college and aspires to possibly pursue running as a professional. But, for now, she is focusing on her training and upcoming races instead of jumping too far ahead. Her immediate goal is winning the Colorado state championships for both cross-country on Oct. 25 in Colorado Springs and the 1600-meter run on the track next spring. She placed second in the state cross-country meet as a freshman and sophomore behind record-setting rival Elise Cranny, who is now a freshman at Stanford.
While her primary goals are centered around winning races in Colorado, Katie is already a national caliber runner. She finished 13th at the Nike Cross Nationals national championship meet in Beaverton, Ore., as a freshman and sixth last fall as a sophomore.
Where Katie sees nothing but opportunity, her mom sees opportunities and also the positive results from years of fighting for equality in sports.
“Once Title IX was passed, it wasn’t instantly executed—there were times when I refused to run races because the men made more prize money,” Rainsberger says. “Katie lives in a gender-neutral society, and doesn’t realize that there ever was a difference.”
Even though Katie may never fully grasp the challenges her mom and others faced, she is able to pursue her passion for sports in part because of the groundswell of excitement generated by the addition of the women’s marathon to the 1984 Olympics. That’s an event that Rainsberger credits with giving her the option to have a career in running.
“I look at my daughter and think, ‘it’s working,’” says Rainsberger, who sees Katie not only fulfilling her dreams of running in college, but also ultimately contending for a spot on a U.S. Olympic team.