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After Double Knee Surgery, This Runner is Poised to Make Team USA for the Paris Olympics

Val Constien has surmounted obstacles along every step of her career—including a devastating knee injury just 13 months ago. Now the 28-year-old is a favorite to make her second Olympic team in the 3,000-meter steeplechase heading into the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials.

Val Constien started 2023 in the best shape of her life. She had been an Olympian in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Tokyo Olympics. And yet, she had no professional sponsorships.

Constien, then 26, had spent the several years after graduating from the University of Colorado in 2019 continuing to train for the steeplechase under her college coaches while working a full-time job mostly because she loved it, and partly because she was betting on herself that she could continue to progress to a higher level.

While studying environmental engineering at CU, Constien twice earned All-American honors in the steeplechase and helped the Buffaloes win a NCAA Division I national championship in cross country.  She then finished 12th in the steeplechase at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. And yet the Boulder, Colorado-based runner hadn’t been able to attract a sponsorship deal from a shoe and apparel brand. She squeezed her workouts in before work, paid for her travel to races, and remained determined and hopeful.

But then, after winning a U.S. indoor title in the flat 3,000 meters in early 2023, she caught the attention of Nike, which signed her to a deal that would lead into the 2024 Olympic year. Finally, it was the break she’d be hoping for.

However, less than three weeks after signing the contract, while running the steeplechase in a high-level Diamond League meet in Doha, Qatar, Constien landed awkwardly on her right leg early in the race and immediately knew something was wrong. She could be seen visibly mouthing “Oh no!” on the livestream, as she hobbled to the side of the track out of the race.

It was a worst case scenario: a torn ACL in her right knee. That meant surgery and a long road back to running fast again.

“That was awful,” said Kyle Lewis, her boyfriend who was watching the race online from Boulder. “The doctors over there initially told her they thought it was a sprain, but she came home and two days later she got an MRI and found out that it was a completely torn ACL, and she was obviously very upset. That was only a couple of weeks after she signed the Nike deal. But that’s just kind of been like with Val’s whole career. Nothing has ever come easy to that girl.”

How Constien, now 28, returned to top form a year later to become one of the top contenders to make Team USA in the steeplechase heading into the June 21-30 U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon—her preliminary race on June 24 will be only 398 days after her knee was surgically repaired—is a testament to the grit and confidence Constien possesses.

“It’s all just an extension of how tough I am and how willing I am to make hard decisions, and how badly I want it,” Constien said. “I love running. If I didn’t love running this much, I would’ve quit a long time ago.”

Constien had surgery last May 2023 at the Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colorado, not far from where she grew up. But that also presented a challenging twist.

One of the most popular types of ACL reconstructions for athletes is called a patella tendon graft, in which the doctor cuts off pieces of bone from the patient’s tibia and patella and several strands of the patella tendon and uses those materials to replace the ACL. Usually those grafts are harvested from the same injured leg, but doctors determined Constien’s right patella had a bone bruise on it and wasn’t healthy enough to use. So instead, they grafted the replacement materials from her left leg. That meant undergoing surgery on both legs, rendering her recovery even more difficult.

For the first two weeks after surgery, she couldn’t stand up or sit down on her own. She had trouble moving around and even had to sit down to take a shower. It took a full month until she started to get comfortable enough to go on short, easy walks and start to regain her mobility.

“The first month post-op was really devastating,” she said. “I was in a lot of pain, and it was hot and I was uncomfortable. I’m glad he did it the way he did it, but it was a really, really challenging recovery.”

All the while, though, Constien never stopped thinking about getting back to racing and the prospect of what 2024 might hold. That’s what helped her make a huge mental shift two weeks after the surgery and refocus all of her energy into returning to peak form and chasing another Olympic berth.

That was obviously easier said than done, but Constien has grown used to working hard and battling adversity. Her college career had been disrupted by injuries and slow progress. She was overlooked by brands when she got out of school in 2019 and again in 2021 after she slashed 7 seconds off her personal best time to finish third at the U.S. Olympic Trials and earn a spot in the Tokyo Olympics. And after she ran two strong races in Tokyo—the first international races of her career—to make it to the final and place 12th overall.

Even when she’s been overlooked or discounted, Constien has always believed in her potential. And that’s why, after a year of hyper-focused dedication, she’s on the brink of making it back onto Team USA to compete in this summer’s Paris Olympics.

“I’ve told her many times, no matter what happens after this point, what a comeback it’s already been,” Lewis said. “But what’s amazing about her is that, after that initial rough part, when she wasn’t able to walk, she just did an incredible job of compartmentalizing and being focused. I never saw her get sad or upset. She was always just super clinical about everything and really happy.  It’s been incredible to watch.”

All last summer and fall, she continued building strength and began rejuvenating her aerobic strength—running more miles, getting stronger and getting faster. And that was amid working full-time doing quality assurance work for Stryd, a Boulder-based company that makes a wearable device to monitor running power and gait metrics. Heather Burroughs and Mark Wetmore, who have coached Constien since 2014, knew she had made considerable progress. But it wasn’t until early February that they began to realize the magnitude of her comeback.

“There was a point this winter, when she wasn’t running races, yet but she had some workouts that impressed me,” Burroughs said. “I wasn’t really worried about her ability to get fit enough the last four months, but it was whether her knee could handle the steeple work, especially the water jump.”

They never discussed that—because there was no point—and Constien went boldly into the outdoor season with her goal of breaking the 9:41.00 Olympic Trials qualifying standard. She started training outdoors in March and started her season by running a strong 1500-meter race on April 12 near Los Angeles (she won her heat in 4:12.27). But it wasn’t until May 11—roughly a year after she blew out her knee in Doha—that she ran her first steeple race.

At the Sound Running Track Fest, she ran patiently (with a smile on her face most of the way) just off the lead for the seven-and-a-half-lap race. She then unleashed an explosive closing kick to outrun Kaylee Mitchell down the homestretch and win in 9:27.22—securing her place in the Olympic Trials. That got her an invitation to the Prefontaine Classic, an international Diamond League meet on May 25 in Eugene, where she ran the best race of her life and finished fifth—and first American—in a new personal best of 9:14.29.

That put Constien at No. 7 on the all-time U.S. list. But more importantly, Constien closed hard after Uganda’s Peruth Chemutai had split the field apart en route to a world-leading 8:55.09, the sixth-fastest time in history.

“I’m more impressed by her comeback than she is, and it’s because I think she expected it,” Burroughs said. “It’s not that I didn’t expect it, but it was still improbable. But even now that she’s come back, she’s not impressed with herself at all. After the Prefontaine meet, I texted her about the race, and I got a five-word response—‘Let’s get back to work’—just very businesslike. She’s just dialed in and, to me, that says, ‘My big goal is yet to come.’”

For the last decade-plus, Emma Coburn and Courtney Freirichs have dominated the U.S. women’s steeplechase. They both suffered season-ending injuries this spring (broken ankle and torn ACL, respectively). Their absence leaves the event wide open for the likes of Constein, who is ranked second, and Krissy Gear, who enters the meet at the top seed (9:12.81) and as the defending national champion. But rising stars Courtney Wayment (9:14.48), Olivia Markezich (9:17:36), Gabrielle Jennings (9:18:03), and Kaylee Mitchell (9:21.00) are among several fast, young runners eager to battle for a spot on the Olympic team.

Constien knows she has two just goals to execute: run smart and fast enough to qualify for the finals on June 27, and then do whatever it takes to finish among the top three in that race.

Burroughs believes she’s as fit and as strong as she’s ever been, much improved since 2022, when she finished a disappointing eighth at the U.S. championships (9:42.96) while recovering from Covid. In fact, she’s even much better than her breakout year in 2021.

Over the past several weeks in Boulder, Constien has sharpened her fitness, including a final tuneup on June 12: a robust tempo run on the track with two hurdles per lap, which was preceded and followed by several fast 200-meter repeats. She’s also sharpened her perspective.

“There were definitely some dark times where I doubted myself and I doubted the process,” Constien said. “But I kind of just had to lock those thoughts away and just try to focus on the positive. And it’s really paid off.

“I never gave up when I didn’t have a sponsor and had to figure it all out on my own,” she added. “So tearing my ACL, yeah, that really sucks. That was really, really hard. But a part of me was like, ‘I’ve already done the hardest thing ever’ just by staying in the sport on my own. I look at it like, ‘I am the toughest person out here regardless of that ACL.’”

(06/22/2024) Views: 174 ⚡AMP
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