Former PU Track Star Bird Exceeds Expectations, Placing 9th In Steeplechase at Tokyo Olympics
BIRD IN FLIGHT: Lizzie Bird flies over a hurdle in a 3,000-meter steeplechase race during her career with the Princeton University women’s track team. Last month, Bird ’17, competing for Great Britain, took ninth in the women’s steeplechase in the Tokyo Olympics, setting a new British national record of 9:19.68 in the process. (Photo provided by Princeton’s Office of Athletic Communications)
By Justin Feil
Lizzie Bird felt that she could run better after graduating from Princeton University, but even she was surprised by the level of her recent success.
The 2017 Princeton graduate and native of St. Albans Herts, England, set a new British national record of 9:19.68 and placed ninth in the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in August.
“I wouldn’t have expected this three or four years ago when I just graduated,” said Bird. “I feel like the progression since 2018 has been steady.”
Bird closed her racing season by taking 12th place in the women’s steeple at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., after the Olympics, and shifted attention to starting law school.
Given her recent success, Bird has no plans to stop racing, but the build-up will look different while she studies and trains quite fortunately in the running mecca at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
“I know not being full-time, I won’t be able to train at the same rate,” said Bird.
“I can’t do two-a-days. I think I still have a lot more in me. I think I can still improve. At the Olympics, just seeing I was third European, maybe I can be challenging for a medal at Europeans or Commonwealths and that can be a pretty cool thing for this year. I have to be realistic that by taking on law school at the same time it will be more challenging and I might not improve at the same rate; but this is a decision I made that I’m ready to do something else on the side that’s a little less of a selfish pursuit.”
Bird put off law school to chase her Olympic dream that only began to feel more realistic after finding a new coach and starting to see development while staying healthier than she had been earlier in her career, including at Princeton.
During her Princeton career, Bird was an honorable mention All-America steeplechaser in 2015 in her second year in the event, and was a regionals qualifier each season with the Tigers. She was Ivy League champion twice in the event. After graduation, she kept running.
“I had a couple injuries my junior and senior years and I felt I hadn’t quite been able to fulfill my potential in college athletics and I wanted to keep doing it a little longer,” said Bird.
“I think probably my goal was to qualify for European Championships or some major championship, but I never thought I could actually go to the Olympics.”
Bird made serious breakthroughs under the direction of Pat McCurry, who began coaching her in 2018. McCurry’s original pitch was to get Bird, who has the second fastest steeplechase time in program history at 9:54.76, under 9:40 in the steeple. Her times dropped, and each achievement gave her more confidence to try for the Olympics, including a personal best 9:30.13 in the 2019 World Championships after battling back from a career-threatening stress fracture.
“After running World Championships, which was something I didn’t think I’d be able to do but somehow managed to do, I decided to give full-time running a go for a year,” said Bird.
“And when the Olympics were postponed, it became two years.”
Finishing her master’s degree in international studies at the University of San Francisco, Bird was able to focus on training in the lead up to the Olympics. Her times got better and better right up to the Olympics. Bird reached the Olympic qualifying standards when she ran 9:26.73 at the Portland Track Festival in May. Then in July she set the new British national record with a 9:22.80
clocking at Monaco in a Diamond League event.
“I struggled early in the season in April and May,” said Bird.
“I went to a bunch of steeplechase races and at that point I was just trying to get the Olympic standard. It was a really hard mental block getting under 9:30, which is funny to say now because once I managed to do it everything went smoothly and I knocked off another 11 seconds. The season started a little slow, but once I got into the swing of things and hit my stride and got into some races and getting a little success, as the season came to a peak I was able to run a little faster.”
Bird felt more confident than ever as she entered the Olympics. She became the first British female to qualify for an Olympic finals when she placed fifth in the semifinals in 9:24.24. She set a new personal best and lowered her own British record with a strong run in the finals.
“I was really happy, my goal going into it was to make the final,” said Bird.
“I didn’t really have any goals beyond that, other than to finish as high as I could and get the best time I could. I knew it was pretty tough to medal or be top five, but I thought top 10 would be a really achievable but difficult goal, and I finished ninth so I was pretty happy.”
Bird has been encouraged by her progress in recent years. Being able to train full-time before advancing her education further helped. She found a perfect window to do so after graduating from Princeton and before entering law school
“Training hasn’t changed a huge amount from Princeton,” said Bird.
“It’s a little more intense. I don’t do very high mileage or really fast. But one thing my training full-time allowed me to do is to
recover between sessions, which between studying and working it never really let my body recover between runs. That was the main thing that changed from being at Princeton.”
When Bird came to Princeton, she focused on being a 1,500-meter runner. It was something that then-head coach Peter Farrell and some Tiger teammates encouraged. Bird had come in with strong times from the 800 to 3,000 meters but transitioned into the new event.
“I never even thought of trying steeplechase until I went to Princeton,” said Bird.
“As a freshman, Peter Farrell definitely pushed me into it. And our captain at the time, she was relentless to get me on board. I was a little skeptical. As soon as I tried it, I really enjoyed it.”
Just as has happened when she began running professionally, seeing success in her event at Princeton encouraged her to put more energy into it. She had a fun introduction to it in her spring break trip with the track team, and she relished the extra training time it took to work at steeplechase.
“I felt smooth going over the hurdles early on and always enjoyed the water jump,” said Bird.
“I did long jump as a kid. It feel like maybe that early introduction helped me get into it. I qualified for regionals freshman year and from then on I did pretty well in it and became a steepler.”
Despite her emergence in the steeplechase, Bird remained a strong runner across the board for the Tigers. She holds Princeton’s indoor mile record of 4:39.32, and has a top-five time in the 3,000 as well as sharing in two top-five relay teams. Her time at Princeton kept her interested in competing beyond graduation.
“I think Peter was a fantastic coach,” said Bird. “He focused on helping us develop as humans and students as well as athletes. I never felt I was pushed so hard that I was burned out. Even if I had a couple injuries I still had a love of the sport and that meant I wanted to keep doing it after Princeton. I give a lot of credit to Peter and Brad Hunt my final year and the whole team.”
Her former Princeton teammates were some of the most supportive as she headed to the ultimate level in running. Their encouragement before the Olympics was some of the most heartwarming and meaningful to Bird.
“The week before the Olympics, I got a video from one of my teammates who got my Princeton teammates to make a video,” said Bird.
“They were all saying good luck. It was very nicely done. That was probably the best good luck message I have ever received, and it was a nice reminder of how great the Princeton track team was.”
Going forward, Bird is hoping to give them more reason to cheer for her. Next summer, she has the potential to compete in a trio of huge meets at the end of the 2022 summer with the World Championships, Commonwealth Games, and European Championships all within a month beginning mid-July 2022. She won’t look beyond that as she continues to look to progress in steeplechase.
“It’s a pretty packed summer,” said Bird. “And I think for law school you’re supposed to get an internship but I’m pretty set on just competing that first summer. I’m not sure how it will go with school and running. I did it at Princeton and I don’t think it’ll be harder than Princeton was. I think Princeton was pretty hard. I’m just going to try to find a balance — do training in the morning and do my reading in the afternoon. And school finishes in May so it’ll be good timing to then be able to compete and train full-time through the summer.”