Last November at the NCAA Cross Country Championships, Michigan’s Jaimie Phelan was barely edged at the finish line by Oregon’s Maggie Schmaedick, who claimed 64th place by 0.1 seconds over the Wolverine junior.
Neither runner had any way of knowing it as they crossed the line, but that tenth-of-a-second difference between Schmaedick and Phelan gave the Ducks the team title, with a score of 125 points to Michigan’s 126.
Fast forward to the 1,500-meter run at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Ore. last Saturday. With one lap to go, Phelan sat in last place — not exactly a desirable position when taken out of context. But with such a tight lead pack — just .68 seconds separated her from the front — she knew she was far from out of it.
“It was a pretty tight pack, and at that point I just knew that I have to get out,” Phelan said. “Once I got out then I saw a clear path and just decided to go with it.”
Seeing her opportunity, Phelan shot all the way into the lead on the backstretch. She maintained this slim advantage into the final 100 meters, even as Arkansas’s Nikki Hiltz closed quickly behind her.
“I know as soon as I started feeling someone on my shoulder I just wanted to dig a little bit deeper and keep the legs rolling and finish stronger,” Phelan said.
She did just that — and this time, Phelan was on the right side of another impossibly close finish.
Two-hundredths of a second — the second-narrowest margin of victory in NCAA championship history.
With a time of 4:13.78, the junior from Kitchener, Ontario became the Michigan women’s track and field team’s first-ever national champion in the 1,500 meters.
“Definitely took a moment (to realize),” Phelan said. “I wasn’t quite sure — I looked over and I saw Nikki Hiltz and a couple girls out of the corner of my eye to the right. Once I looked up to the screen, then I knew and it kind of sunk in a little bit, but it’s still somewhere in disbelief.”
Phelan earned All-American honors in the 1,500 last year with her eighth-place finish and won the Big Ten championship in that event last month. But with three former national champions in Saturday’s final field, she wasn’t exactly among the biggest favorites to win.
However, Phelan knew that depending on how the race was run, she’d have a chance. She would likely have a tougher time contending if the pace at first was quick — her personal best is slower than all but two of her opponents — but a steady, tactical race would play right into her hands and allow her to use the speed she had developed from the 800-meter training of her youth.
Phelan had already utilized this “sit-and-kick” strategy at the Big Ten Championships. After the first 1,100 meters were run at around 70 seconds per lap, she covered the last 400 meters in 62 seconds to pull away and win the title. However, she expected that Saturday’s race would start out faster, making this strategy tougher.
“I was definitely expecting it to go out really fast. I was ready for a fast race,” Phelan said. “(Saturday), it just seemed more tactical. It was anyone’s race.”
So when the field cruised through the first 700 meters at a controlled pace of just over two minutes, Phelan was able to remain mostly calm and composed despite running at the back of the pack for much of the race.
“Going into the race I think with the speed in the last 200 and the last lap I really like to give it everything and just focus on those gear changes,” Phelan said. “I’m always ready for anything in a race, but (a tactical race) definitely plays into my favor more.”
Phelan’s tactics were executed to perfection. As the bell rang, signifying the last lap, it was clear that the race would come down to a final test of finishing speed.
And here, no one could match Phelan. She ran the last 400 meters in a blazing 1:01.62 — even faster than at the Big Ten championships, and tops in the field by over half a second.
Phelan’s victory marked the fifth year in a row that the Wolverines have had an All-American in the 1,500 meters — the longest such streak in the country. Not only is she now a back-to-back All-American, but she also follows in the footsteps of previous teammates and past Michigan greats such as Shannon Osika and fellow Canadian Nicole Sifuentes.
Phelan praised both Osika and Sifuentes after the race, along with assistant coach Mike McGuire for his work with the Wolverines’ distance corps.
“Ever since freshman year for me coming into Michigan I’ve had some unbelievable training partners,” Phelan said. “Shannon Osika last year coming in 4th in the NCAA 1,500 — she’s been an unbelievable role model for me as well as Nicole Sifuentes. Nicole’s also Canadian so she’s always been a role model for me growing up. Just seeing how hard they work and having them by all of our team’s sides just helps enormously to keep us all together.”
And Saturday, Phelan accomplished something that neither Osika or Sifuentes — or any other 1,500-meter runner in Wolverine history — had ever done.
She became a national champion.
“I’m beyond grateful for all the support I’ve had at Michigan and with my friends all over, and the messages that I’ve gotten this weekend and this past year and through all my time at Michigan,” she said. “It’s been unbelievable.”