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Steeple star

Valerie Constien, number 303, flies over a water jump in the steeplechase during the NCAA Division 1 regionals at the University of Kansas. Constien, a Battle Mountain graduate, made the national championships in Eugene, Oregon.
Elizabeth Constien|Special to the Daily |

About the steeplechase

The steeplechase is an obstacle race that derives its name from the steeplechase in horse racing. It’s 3,000 meters long, and has 28 hurdles and seven water jumps.

The event originated in Ireland. Horses and riders raced from one town’s steeple to the next, because steeples were easy to see, jumping streams and stone walls along the way that separated estates.

Humans at the University of Oxford first did it in 1860.

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

EDWARDS — Valerie Constien does not go around obstacles. She runs over them.

It’s a life lesson Constien has always known and put to good use when the University of Colorado recruited her to run the steeplechase. She advanced to this year’s NCAA Division I track and field championships as a sophomore, and took a tough road to get there.

But before we can tell you that story, we have to tell you this story.



Four sport star

At Battle Mountain High School, Constien was a four-sport athlete, competing in cross-country, track and field, Nordic skiing and soccer. She owns or is a part of seven school records.



In track she competed in the high jump, triple jump, middle distance and distance events. Her success in field events raised some eyebrows among the college coaches recruiting her: Brown, Iowa State, Nebraska and a dozen others.

“You need someone who’s coordinated, someone who know where their body is in space,” Constien said. “There are lots of people who, if you put them on a track can run very, very fast for a long time. Put some obstacles in their way and it’s completely different.”

CU track coaches have been wildly successful in steeplechase. You’ll see one and maybe two CU steeplechasers in the Summer Olympics. Constien’s CU teammate steeplechaser Erin Clark is fourth on CU’s all-time list behind three Olympians: Jenny Simpson, Emma Coburn and Shalaya Kipp.



When Constien first sat down in CU track coach Mark Wetmore’s office, several other coaches had already suggested she might try the steeplechase.

Wetmore asked her, “So Val, do you know what the steeplechase is?”

One of her Battle Mountain track coaches ran the steeplechase at CU, and because she’s curious, she did some research. So yeah, she knew what it was.

After her freshman cross-country season at CU, Wetmore set up a couple hurdles and asked if anyone wanted to try the steeplechase, including Constien.

“I trust the coaches at CU so much. They may make a suggestion, but I take it and run with it. It has worked out very, very well for me,” Constien said.

Good and lucky

You know how people say it’s better to be lucky than good? Sometimes you have to be both.

Constien qualified for this year’s NCAA Div. I nationals in Eugene, Oregon, one of six CU distance women, the most since 1999. Madeline Alm and Dani Jones competed in the 1,500; Erin Clark and Constien in the steeplechase; Kaitlyn Benner in the 5,000 and Mackenzie Caldwell in the 10,000.

But Constien’s road to the track finals took some tough and unexpected turns.

At 3 a.m. before her regional race in Lawrence, Kansas, she awoke with a painful infection, flipped on a light and was horrified to see her leg swollen and discolored. She knocked on her CU trainer’s hotel room door, and they rushed to the emergency room. Doctors gave her a dose of antibiotics and things started to return to normal.

She was awake anyway and had been since 3 a.m., so she started preparing for her 10 a.m. race. She ran well enough to make it to the nationals, but her infection was getting worse, so back to the emergency room she went for an IV and another dose of antibiotics.

While all this was going on, her grandfather’s cancer fight took a bad turn. He lives in that corner of American where Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia all come together. He had about two weeks to live, and Constien wanted to say a proper goodbye. She didn’t even return to Boulder, instead catching a plane for Pittsburgh, the nearest major airport.

She was able to say that goodbye, and her grandfather lived long enough to see her run in Eugene. He died a few days later.

In the meantime, the infection started to subside, but it didn’t get better for a couple weeks. She trained through it as best she could, but said given the circumstances she wasn’t as well prepared as she wanted to be.

There was all that, plus in the nationals she was surrounded by women as fast as her, so she was always in a pack.

“It will be the most competitive collegiate track race any of them have been in,” said Heather Burroughs, CU track and field associate head coach, before the race.

Burroughs was correct. Constien was eliminated in the preliminary heats. She was excited to make nationals, but was disappointed that she didn’t make the finals.

“I was sad after the race, but I don’t think there’s anything else I could have done,” she said.

The goal is to make it back to next year’s nationals and set a personal record when she’s there.

Back in Boulder

For now, though, she’s back in Boulder, taking summer classes and training for cross-country. CU was last season’s national runner up and almost the entire team is returning.

“We’ll have a target on us, but we’ll go into this season ready to race and win,” Constien said. “That’s the goal every year.”

Burroughs said the current women’s team is the “combination of some good recruiting decisions, some lucky recruiting decisions, and a very supportive and very righteous hard-working ethic among the team. What’s important to remember is that it’s not just the freshmen and sophomores who have created that culture. We have some older women who have been a big part of building that. But there’s no doubt there’s some momentum with this younger group. They have a chance to be really, really good.”

Constien was born March 21, 1996, in Vail and is the beloved offspring of Ron and Ann Constien, of Edwards, and has one sister, Elizabeth. She was a member of her high school’s band and pep band all four years of high school. She is majoring in environmental engineering at CU.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.


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