“We’re really good at pushing each other in workouts,” says Kate O’Neill of her twin, Laura. “I would not have made it as far without a constant training partner. Laura motivates me.”
They pushed each other to a total of 13 All-America selections and twin CoSIDA Academic All-America women’s cross-country/track and field first-team selections. They also set Heptagonals (the Ivy League’s track and field championship) records in different events. Laura won the 10,000 meters three times, while Kate won the 5,000 meters three times. The pair was named the most outstanding performers at the 2003 Outdoor Heps.
In addition, Kate won the Connecticut NCAA Woman of the Year Award and was a Honda Award cross country finalist for her consistent senior season. She placed second in the NCAA Cross Country Championship, second in the NCAA Indoor 5000 meters, and second in the NCAA Outdoor 10,000-meter championship. She then placed second in the USA 10,000-meter championship and then qualified for the Olympics at the Trials.
Kate’s fondest Olympic memory is the Opening Ceremony. “I don’t know what other experience like that I could have in my life — with so many people from all over the world.”
Her race did not go as she would have liked. She finished 21st with a time slower than she had run earlier in the year and felt somewhat intimidated by the competition, as she remembers, “I wasn’t going for a top-10 finish. I felt the whole front pack was out of my league.”
But O’Neill believes women distance runners get better in their late 20s and early 30s and expects her best Olympic performance is yet to come.
Kate and Laura grew up in Milton, Mass., where their father has taught high school history for 30 years. They found distance running after several attempts. “I tried everything — soccer, basketball, softball, tennis. I started running because I was horrible at the other sports,” remembers Kate.
Actually, the twins were good swimmers as well, but “unfortunately, our school didn’t have a swim team. We wanted to keep swimming with our club team, but our parents wanted us to try a high school sport. Looking back, I’m very glad I followed their advice.”
When they were high school juniors thinking about college “my father drove us to New Haven. It was the first college tour I took,” says Kate. “I immediately fell in love with the campus. Everyone we met was excited to tell us how much they loved the school.”
At Yale Kate and Laura majored in history. Kate has no regrets about what she missed in order to participate in athletics three seasons a year. “I do sometimes wish I had gone abroad for a semester,” she says, “but running has allowed me to travel to different places and meet people from all over the world. I never think of the things I gave up for running as sacrifices.”
She balanced running and academics by being organized and budgeting her time. “My undergraduate years were the busiest four years of my life,” she says. “I loved my time at Yale, beginning with my first week freshman year. I loved being surrounded by a wide range of people who were passionate about so many different causes.”
One of the first things Kate did at Yale was run, jumping right into cross country. She describes her coaches as “amazing. My main coach was Mark Young, Yale Class of ’68. I don’t think I would ever have made it to the Olympics without him. The best thing about him is the support he showed during difficult times.”
Of her many Yale running memories Kate O’Neill’s favorites are of the 2000 cross country team. The pevious year they finished seventh at the Heptagonals, beating only two teams. The next year “we easily won the Heps and went on to place seventh in the whole country.” What made the difference? “The team was made up of the same girls. The difference was the way we approached the season mentally. We talked over the summer and came to an agreement we could be a much better team. It reminds me of how much of sports is mental, not physical.”
Currently Kate is running professionally for Nike, training to try her first marathon later this year, while Laura recovers from an injury. She claims the two have never had any rivalry, even in races. “We put in 100 percent in races, but it isn’t competitive. Whatever happened, happened. We didn’t want to beat each other, didn’t care. We just wanted to improve.”
As a child, O’Neill fell in love with the Olympics when she watched the 1988 Opening Ceremonies on TV. When she became an Olympian herself “it was even better than I imagined.”
But the dream hasn’t been fully realized. As Laura heals and the two mature as runners, they could push each other all the way to Beijing.
This story was written by Suzanne Eschenbach in 2007 in conjunction with the Ivy@50 celebration.