There just isn’t any quit in Lynn Jennings. When she first started running in high school, she remembers not just finishing last in every race, but in every practice as well. Granted, she was the only girl on her team and in the league. But the persistent isolation would have led many to give up.
Instead, as Jennings remembered in a recent interview, “I would run home after school, collect my Springer Spaniel, Otis, and run back to school and have him for a training partner at practice. He provided great company.” And so she kept on running.
As it turned out, Jennings ran all the way to the history books as one of the greatest distance runners the United States has ever produced. Her body of work as a professional runner — on the track, the cross country course and on the road — is impressive in both depth and breadth.
Her crowning achievements would have to be her three World Cross Country Championships titles and her Olympic bronze medal in the 10,000 at the 1992 Barcelona Games. But those accomplishments only begin to tell her tale.
In addition to her bronze medal in 1992, Jennings also competed in two other Olympic Games — the inaugural women’s 10K in 1988 and the 5,000-meter event in the 1996 Atlanta Games. Displaying remarkable range, she also won two World Indoor Championships medals in the 3,000 meters and set indoor American records at both 3,000 and 5,000 meters during this time.
In cross country, her three consecutive World Championships titles (1990-92) came in the midst of eight straight appearances for Team USA at the event. She finished no lower than sixth in any of them and made the top three two other times earning a silver in 1986 and a bronze in 1993 for a complete medal set.
In her heyday she was equally dominant on the roads winning numerous American titles at five different distances in addition to setting American records in the 8K, 10K and 12K.
All told, she won 39 national titles, the most by any American runner of either gender. She was, quite simply, the most fearless — and fearsome — distance runner in the country and one of the most respected in the world in her prime.
Ironically, the drive responsible for such remarkable success arose from disappointment. Although her high school career may have begun inauspiciously, Jennings and Otis were apparently doing some effective training in the back of the pack. By the end of high school she was a blue-chip recruit with numerous offers of full scholarships.
She chose Princeton for its commitment to academics in addition to athletics, and earned a letter in cross country during her freshman season. She went on to earn All-America status, and set several school and Heptagonal records that still stand. She is the Princeton record holder in the indoor 3,000 and two-mile events and the outdoor record holder in the mile and 3,000. She stands second on the all-time list in the 3,000 and still holds the Heptagonal record in the 5,000 meters.
Yet her college career was marked by frustration as well as success and it is the former that spurred her to redeem herself as a post-collegian. “Those years (at Princeton) served to make me a fiercely hungry and focused adult athlete.”
As a professional, Jennings trained and raced with a determination not often seen even amongst the highest levels of professional athletics. Her discipline in training and racing was legendary in track circles. And she showed why at race time. She prepared herself to withstand the most grueling pace, and towards the end of the race when her competitors were nearly spent she would unleash a deadly sprint to outkick anyone within striking distance.
When she won her bronze medal in 1992 it was far more than just a personal accomplishment. Jennings’ medal was the only medal won by an American, male or female, in a distance event until the Athens Games in 2004. And while Deena Kastor and Meb Keflizighi both medaled in the marathon in Athens, Jennings’ bronze still remains the only distance medal won on the track since that time. Many have speculated that with the American dominance in the sprints, jumps and other disciplines, it has been said that a simple lack of toughness has accounted for the lack of American distance success. With Lynn Jennings there is no such thing as a lack of toughness.
After living and training in Newmarket, N.H., during her professional running days, Jennings now lives and runs (for fun and fitness) in Portland, Ore. Some things have not changed. She still runs daily and still runs with her dog — now it’s Towhee — for companionship. But there are some new things in her life as well. She is now an avid road cyclist and competitive rower.
Jennings was recently inducted in to USA Track & Field’s Hall of Fame — the highest honor bestowed on former track and field athletes — as a member of the Class of 2006. Her honor was as fitting as her acceptance remarks. She recognized the honor as well as her fellow inductees, but also took the opportunity to speak out against doping.
Just like her racing days, she remains fearless and tough.
This story was written by Meredith Rainey Valmon in 2007 in conjunction with the Ivy@50 celebration.