Not many qualifiers for the Olympic Track and Field trials would take a shot at qualifying in a different event the week before the trials, especially in an event they'd not run in three years.
But as Becky Wade toured Rice's Ley Track surface on June 16 in the 3,000 meter steeplechase during an all-comers meet, it was more than just an attempt to gain a second entry to the trials and the chance to toss aside her spot in the 10,000 meters. It was a return to the event that perfectly meshes her earliest love in track with the skills that made her an All American three times in her senior year at Rice.
When Wade takes to the starting line early Monday evening in Eugene, she'll do so with the ninth fastest time in the field (9:48.04), recorded nine days earlier time trial on her home track. The goal will be to finish in the top 14 and advance to the final on June 29 where a finish in the top three will give her a second chance to don the uniform of her country, something she last did as a freshman in 2008. That year, she won the US Junior title in the steeplechase and went on to compete in the Junior World Championships in Poland that same year.
The journey between that race in Poland and the one in Eugene on Monday has been filled with challenges that might have brought lesser souls to surrender. No one would have thought the worse of her if she had called it a career. Instead, they are just benchmarks along a successful construction of an amazing set of accomplishments.
Wade earned All American status in cross country in the fall with a 23rd place finish at the NCAA Championships, followed by a second honor during the indoor season by finishing 13th in the 5,000 meters at the NCAA Indoor Championships. She capped her season by scoring a point for Rice with an eight-place finish in the 10,000 meters, earning a berth in the Olympic Trials along the way.
She was awarded the Joyce Pounds Hardy Award as Rice's top female student athlete, inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, named an Academic All America and was awarded a Thomas J. Watson fellowship.
But even with all her success and accolades, nary a week went by in her training for her epic senior season when Wade did not pester her coach Jim Bevan with a familiar request.
"She was always very nice about it, but also very persistent. She wasn't going to let me forget that she wanted to try it again," Bevan recalled.
Wade's grueling recovery from surgery to repair a torn labrum, requiring countless miles of running, built her strength and endurance to allow her to achieve the kind of success Bevan always believed was in her future. Both also knew that one day the steeplechase would re-enter the discussion.
"I knew I had to be conservative with the comeback from my surgery, but I never let Jim forget that I wanted to run it again at some point," Wade said. "Whenever we'd reach a new milestone and things were going well, I'd ask about doing some hurdles, but Jim would always say we needed a couple more weeks. Jim has always been there to pull the reigns and keep me in check and that's something I've needed."
For Wade, it was a return to the skills that had been her specialty when she first competed in high school track.
As a freshman at Dallas' Ursuline Academy, Wade had been identified by hurdles coach Dan Hardy as a candidate to run the 300 meter hurdles and she quickly found the event to her liking.
"He (Hardy) told me he thought I had potential in the hurdles, so I tried it some in the preseason and I thought it was fun," Wade recalled. "I enjoyed it and ran it as a freshman and sophomore. Cross country was more of a training time for me at that time."
After two years of focusing her competitive energy on the 300 meter hurdles, Wade's track future took a turn away from launching herself over barriers on the track towards the sport's longest distances.
Hardy passed away prior to her junior season and at the same time, Maureen Shinnick returned to the school as cross country coach. Shinnick saw Wade's vast potential in a sport she had only treated as a conditioning exercise and set about convincing her of where her true potential lay.
"She saw the potential in me that I hadn't really shown at that point," Wade recalled "She is a great coach and did a great job in motivating me to see that my real potential was in cross country. Before her, I really didn't know how far I could go in track."
Over the next two years, Wade validated Shinnick's vision, becoming one of the top distance runners in the state. She caught the eye of Bevan, who recruited her to Rice and to a sparkling first year that ended with a chance to represent her country in international competition.
Her introduction to the event that took her overseas was almost by accident.
"I really didn't know that the steeplechase existed when I first came to Rice." Wade recalled. "I think the first time I was exposed to it was when I saw some of the men's team working on it. We had just finished with the indoor season and I reminded Jim about my hurdling experience. He set up some hurdles on the grass infield and I guess he liked the way I took the hurdles, so I started running it that spring.
"It really was too good to be true, to find an event that combined something that I had loved doing earlier in my track career with the training I was doing for cross country," Wade added.
Along with a place on the 2008 US Junior team, Wade went on to finish second at the 2009 C-USA Championship in a time of 10:19.81, but her continued growth in the distance running events sidetracked any further time navigating the hurdles and water jumps until her return to the event less than two weeks before the Olympic Trials.
As soon as she began the race, Wade's found herself loving every step, especially in comparison to the rigors of the 10,000 meters.
"It's so fun to run the steeplechase," she noted. "It's so refreshing to be doing something new. You have something to anticipate each lap and prepare for. When you run the 10,000, you spend a lot of time thinking about splits. You run for 29 minutes to get to a lap to go. Now I run for a few minutes, clear some hurdles and get to the final lap."
Unlike most of their fellow student-athletes, college distance runners do not have an off-season. From the fall cross country campaign, through indoor and outdoor track seasons, the need to maintain a competitive focus rarely wanes.
When you consider the rigorous academic expectations at Rice, Wade's ability to maintain a 4.02 GPA while triple majoring in history, sociology and psychology, is astounding.
To do so while also enduring a long and often painful rehabilitation process is hard to comprehend, and to then see all these elements come together to place her in contention of earning a ticket to London makes the story almost too good to be true.
Wade will admit now to dreaming big dreams in the course of her long road back, but the pace with which some of those dreams come tantalizing close to reality has surprised even her.
"I always had big dreams for the outcome of the surgery, but would never share them with anyone but my parents and Jim," she admitted. "To tell people in the first months after the surgery that I expected to be running in the Olympic Trials this week would have been preposterous. But I knew I would be able to get over the challenge of rehab. This was always the goal, be it this year or in 2016. "
When Wade shattered the school 10,000 record with a 32:40.82 clocking early in the outdoor season to earn a berth in the Trials, Bevan quickly did the match and knew what it foretold.
"I knew that she was not going make the team in the 10,000, but the pace she ran to get the school record put her right in the mix for the steeplechase," he said "It was something we had to do gradually and always with an eye on keeping her healthy. We had a first workout with some hurdles, and then she came back the next day feeling great. A week later, we added more hurdles with the same result. We worked up to a final full workout that was designed to reflect a full steeplechase and she handled it like a champ.
"It was then that I knew we had to go for it. She might have had a chance to be an NCAA champion in the steeplechase, but that would have required rushing the process and risking a setback. It also might have beaten her up to the point where she might have won that race, but this would not be possible." Bevan added.
One additional advantage of switching events has been the time it has given Wade to take in some of the atmosphere surrounds the trials. She and Bevan had booked their travel to coincide with the 10,000 meter race, which was held last Friday.
She has taken full advantage of the additional time.
"I've been able to watch a lot of the competition to this point. The finish of the decathlon, with the world record, was amazing to see in person," she said. "This is an awesome place to compete and the fans here are so knowledgeable about all the events. You could see that in the way they cheered during the end of the decathlon."
Wade could soon find herself awash in a similar atmosphere as she once again combines the two distinct disciplines that defined her early track career, showcasing her trademark endurance and her affinity for hurdles, a ticket to London waiting at the finish line for the top three finishers.