SHE ONLY MADE an NCAA final once while competing for Hampton, and that 7th place at the ’16 Indoor didn’t do much to put Ce’Aira (like Sierra) Brown on the board as a Team USA contender in this Olympic year. Four years ago she ran a PR 2:02.82 at the Florida Relays and made it to the Olympic Trials, only to finish a non-advancing 7th in the first round. She wanted more—thus began the grind that transformed the onetime 2:11 high schooler from Philly into a world-class runner.
“Coming from the college I came from you don’t always get the chance to race the best in the country and that’s something I’ve always dreamed of,” she explains. “I wanted to reach new limits and take my body places it’s never gone before and in order to do that I knew I had to get into the races with girls that are more experienced than I am. I also knew I had to train harder in order to do that.”
She signed on with the Hoka New Jersey/New York TC and veteran coach Frank Gagliano. In her first year working with Gags—as well as former steeple star Tom Nohilly—she made solid progress, lowering her best to 2:00.84 and running respectably on the Euro B-circuit. For the first time she ventured into longer races, running a mile best of 4:47.34 and hitting 17:18 for 5K on the road.
Then came ’18. The distance work and strength work all paid off as she finished 3rd at USATF in a PR 1:58.65, and improved that to 1:58.01 a month later. Along the way she improved to 4:09.44 at 1500. The rapid rise continued into the ’19 indoor season. Brown ran an indoor best of 1:59.74, took 3rd in the USATF 1000 at 2:35.62, and brought her mile best down to 4:28.12.
But then disaster hit outdoors. She ran a 1500 in Nashville, impressing with a 4:06.06 PR. But her foot was on fire. “That was my first injury,” she points out. “I had never had one before. I came off a good year before that and I started off good [in ’19]. I was really looking forward to running faster than 1:58 but it didn’t happen; I was overworking myself. Everything was hard, from the recovery runs to reps on a track. And my mileage went up; I was close to 70mpw. Just overworking myself, not being smart because I was so hungry and happy to feel fit.
“I was really down on myself. My teammates and coaches, they kept me going. I had to cross-train for about 6-7 weeks before USATF. I tried my best at USAs and you know how that turned out.” She was unable to make the final, missing the last qualifying spot by just 0.03 to Sammy Watson. However, because she already had the World qualifying standard, she earned a trip to Doha. There she hit her season best 2:00.12 to make the final, where she placed 8th. Overall, she says, “It was kind of a disappointing season. But I felt better with the way I finished. Making top 8 at Worlds was really like a redemption to me.”
Now the 26-year-old is back training well, finishing up an altitude phase before testing herself at the Millrose Games in February. “I’m with the 1500 girls on strength days and the 800 girls on speed days,” she says, noting that she may consider doubling at the OT: “I have to talk about that with my coach. Honestly, I really wanted to focus on the 800 this year, but as long as I stay healthy, I’ll have a good chance in both.” To get there, she says, “I just have to believe in myself a little more and push a little harder. I feel like I have that fight in me to have a chance to be on the podium.”
For Brown, being focused is all-important: “You have to have laser focus because a lot of people can try to get into your head. During the season, I don’t watch other people’s times. I don’t watch their races. When you’re doing that, you kind of lose focus and start to compare yourself to other people, like, ‘Why am I not running this?’ Instead, I just worry about what I have going on and listen to my coaches.”
For the coming campaign, she says, “It’s all or nothing. That’s kind of the mindset I had in ’18. It was just being fearless and giving everything that you have.”