Patience Carried Constien To Second Olympics

Following rehab from a right ACL tear in May of ’23, Val Constien won an historic Trials race with a PR 15.12 faster than her pre-’24 best. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

JUST A FEW MONTHS before the Olympic Trials, Val Constien had no intention of being on the steeplechase start line at Hayward Field, much less winning the race and booking her ticket to Paris.

Since making the team for the last Olympics, the 28-year-old Colorado grad has faced a series of setbacks. A plantar fasciitis issue compromised her ’22 campaign, and she finished 8th at the U.S. championships.

She rebounded for the ’23 indoor season, winning the USATF Indoor title in the 3000. That led to a new sponsorship deal and renewed confidence. Alas, the forward momentum came to a crashing halt at the Doha Diamond League when she tore her ACL on the second water jump.

Following surgery in late May, a long recovery period awaited, so Constien accepted that her shot at her second Olympic team seemed to have evaporated. But thanks to a very patient approach to rehab and training, she came through with an epic performance, leading the deepest race in U.S. history.

“I didn’t think I was gonna be here, to be perfectly honest,” she said in Eugene shortly after slashing 11 seconds off her PR to win in 9:03.22. “I was like, well, it’s a bummer that I’m going to miss 2024, but at least I’ll be healthy for 2025. So taking that pressure off and just really focusing on trying to be healthy and doing everything right was how I got to this point.”

She began running on the ground in September, did her first track workout in December and started going over hurdles in February. “I never pushed myself. I really just listened to my body, and I was extra picky, took it day by day, did my PT and it just came together at the right time,” Constien says. “I wasn’t rushing to get back into it. I was giving myself time and it all just came together well.”

She took her time getting back into racing. “In March I was still dealing with some weird aches and pains after steeplechase workouts,” she says. “Finally in April it all started to come together.”

On April 13 she won her section of the 1500 at the Bryan Clay Invitational in 4:12.27. Then on May 11 she ran her first steeple since Doha, winning at the Sound Running Track Fest in LA in 9:27.22 and qualifying for the Trials. That led to a spot in the Prefontaine Classic field on May 25, when she surprised herself with a 5th-place finish (the top American) in 9:14.29. That got her under the Olympic standard and lowered the PR she set when finishing 3rd at the ’21 Trials (9:18.34)

The door had opened: “After I did my first steeplechase at Sound Running, I was like, wow, I qualified for the Olympic Trials. This is awesome, I’ll get to participate. And then after Pre, I was like, I’m probably gonna do more than participate at the Trials.”

Indeed. After following the hot tempo that Courtney Wayment set over the second half of the race, Constien finally sprinted to the front with 350 meters to go and steadily extended her lead. She covered the final kilometer in a pedal-to-the-metal 2:54.70 en route to breaking Emma Coburn’s meet record of 9:09.41 from ’21. That moved her into the No. 3 slot on the U.S. all-time list, behind Olympic medalists Courtney Frerichs and Coburn.

She was sure to give credit to that duo, who missed the Trials with injury but were a major influence on the historic race. “They’re titans, they’re the best ever,” Constien said. “It’s sad that they’re not there, but we’ve all been inspired by them, so in a sense they will be there [with us in Paris]. I was on the Olympic team with both of them last time I got to go, and I learned so much from them in that experience.”

Constien has a full-time job as a quality assurance specialist for the running-technology company Stryd, which she credits for bringing balance into her often chaotic life as a professional athlete.

“This should just be fun,” she says, “and for me it always has been fun. It’s a fun thing that I get to do. I mean I work a full-time job and I do this as my side hustle. It’s always been kind of lighthearted. And the years that it wasn’t lighthearted were the years that I didn’t really run that well. I’ve always just have to take it race by race, day by day.”