What It’s Like to Be an Olympic Trial Athlete (in College)

By July 25, 2016Live

A few months ago, Jesse Garn competed in the Olympic trials. Jesse is a recent graduate from Binghamton University. He graduated this past May, meaning that all of his pre-Olympic training was done during his final senior semester. 

Jesse grew up in Marcellus, NY. There, he attended Marcellus High School, graduating in 2011. He continued his education at Binghamton University for 5 years, and is now 23 years old. Post-graduation, Jesse is planning to continue his running career through the next Olympic cycle and hopes to have a better shot of making the next Games (Tokyo 2020). In addition to running, Jesse is also a certified ACE personal trainer and a certified lifeguard.

The accomplishments of Olympic athletes are incredible: competitors dedicate their lives to their bodies’ ability to perform, risking everything to make it to the big event. Jesse, though he talks of his pursuit of the Games quite casually, is no exception. In an average week, he runs 50-60 miles– broken up into various increments, of course. On top of a full course load (and not to mention a social life), his ability to find time for his Olympic-level training is an impressive feat in itself. (It’s a good thing he runs fast.) 

jesse garn

When I heard about Jesse’s accomplishments, I reached out to see if I could ask him a few questions. Through his answers, I got to know an Olympic-trial athlete who– shockingly– seems like a totally normal college guy. 

1. How did you get started with running competitively?

Jesse started running (starting the domino effect that has led to his Olympic aspirations) in 7th grade. He ran modified cross country for his middle school, and claims that since then, he has “simply kept up with it”. He definitely did more than keep up: by the time he graduated senior year of high school, he had become a sectional champion more than once, and was also a New York State Champion for the 1,000 m run. 

After graduation, he decided to attend Binghamton University to run Division I cross country at the collegiate level.

2. What does your training look like?

“My training changes depending on the time of year,” Jesse says, “but a typical week would include 50-60 miles of running.”  Those runs would be broken down into a few distance runs, 2 track workouts, and one long run.

“It’s normal for me to take one day off a week to rest,” he explained. (Yes, even Olympic-trial-running athletes need rest days.) 

Jesse also does a little bit of cross-training. “Outside of running, I enjoy swimming to stay fit. So I’ll do that to cross-train, as well as strength, conditioning, and biking.” In short: Jesse’s legs do a lot. 

3. How do you fuel your training? 

Jesse doesn’t have a terribly struct diet. While many athletes track their food and make sure to eat certain types of foods before or after training days, Jesse eats like any other normal college student. “I ate at the dining halls on campus more often than not,” he explained. 

However, Jesse does make sure he’s eating enough. “As long as I was having 3 meals a day with snacks, I considered myself okay.” 

Since Jesse trains in the afternoons, his lunch tends to be his smallest meal. No one like running on a full stomach. Helloooo cramps, am I right? 

“The day of a competition, it’s difficult for me to eat due to nerves,” Jesse confesses. “But I usually have a big breakfast, a small sandwich, and snack frequently after leading up to the race.” What are examples of pre-race snacks? He says he usually grabs a protein bar, some pretzels, graham crackers, and Gatorade. Foods he knows won’t upset his stomach, but that will give him the fuel he needs to perform well. 

4. How do you balance training and classes?

Seriously, I think Jesse got pretty lucky that the trials didn’t happen to fall on finals week. But Jesse says he never really had any class conflicts. He was able to make his running practices every day, and managed it all just fine. In fact, Jesse graduated this past May with a B.S. in Biochemistry and minor in Health and Wellness studies. 

“I had plenty of time after practice to finish schoolwork and study as necessary,” Jesse insists. “Frankly, I think being a student-athlete made my life more structured, and in a sense, easier to balance.”

5. What was the hardest part about making it to the Olympic trials? 

“The trickiest thing with qualifying for the Olympic Trials is the obvious one – hitting the A standard.” The A standard is the running time needed in order to qualify for the highest marks to be considered for the Olympic Games. 

For the 800 m, which was Jesse’s run, the time to beat was 1:46.00. This was coincidentally also the Olympic Standard for that event, which is the time needed to qualify for the Games.

“My personal best remains 1:46.98, and my season best was 1:47.11,” Jesse explains. “So I actually never hit the standard, but since they take 32 people to the field, I had to wait on others who had run faster than myself to declare/scratch.” This means that Jesse had to wait for the groups of runners who had records better than his own to compete against each other first. Jesse ran with a group of runners with times comparable to his own.  “When all was said and done, I entered as the 28th seed.” There are some fast runners out there– the competition sounds intense. 

6. What does it mean to you to have the potential to be going to the Olympics?

“If someone had asked me at the beginning of my college career if I had the potential to make the Olympics, let alone the U.S. Olympic Trials, I would have seriously doubted them,” Jesse confessed. He never would have put himself up to the task. However, those that saw his talent thought otherwise.

“My coach recognized my potential, and each year I continued to develop and run faster.” And he’s still improving.

“I am amidst the search for a post-collegiate, professional group to train with,” Jesse continued. He’s planning to compete again in the 2020 Olympic Trials– this isn’t the end of Jesse’s running career. “There,” Jesse explains, determined, “I will hopefully stand a better chance at becoming a finalist in the event I go with competing in.” Right now, Jesse’s think it’s either going to be the 800 m or 1500 m/1 mile run.

7. Tell us about the trials! Were they anything like what you expected?

“The U.S. Olympic Trials were insane, in the best of ways,” Jesse began. “Eugene, Oregon has hosted the event many times, and their venue is like no other. I have raced at their track, Historic Hayward Field, four times now.” But this experience wasn’t like the rest. The energy in the familiar venue was entirely different, much more emotional and electric.

jesse garn

Jesse at the Historic Hayward Field

“I actually felt I handled the pressure best going into this event, better than any other.” Jesse says that this might be due to his familiarity with the venue, in terms of the check-in and warm-up procedures leading up to the race. He knew what formalities to expect.

Jesse claims that “the race itself wasn’t by any means perfect, finishing 6th of 7 in [his] heat”. However, only a half second (exactly) separated Jesse’s time from the winner’s. “So I was content being in the mix,” he says. 

The race! Jesse's the one in the green.

The race! Jesse’s the one in the green with the yellow shoes.

Despite the fact that he didn’t finish first, Jesse is altogether pleased with his run and with the experience of the event. “Having battled a few injuries this past year, it was really icing in the cake. Afterwards, I had the opportunity to be a spectator and witness the emotion of other runners in their successes and/or short-comings.” I can’t even imagine the tensions running high and the intense determination Jesse was surrounded with.

“It was truly an event of upsets and surprises. Every single race, jump and throw was thrilling.”

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Author Holly Van Hare

Holly is a recent graduate from Northeastern University from Boca Raton, FL. She loves writing, math, and all things nerdy, as well as fitness. Holly is a health and wellness online influencer, group fitness instructor at BURN Fitness Studios, and future podcaster. Her favorite classes right now are HIIT training and cardio boxing.

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