Julie Culley graduated from Rutgers University in 2004 and quit running.
Last night, she won the women’s 5000-meter race at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in a time of 15:13.77.
“I’m in shock,” said Culley after passing American record-holder Molly Huddle, who finished in 15:14:40, in the final meters for the victory. Fighting for third with a furious closing kick was Kim Conley, an unheralded runner who entered the race without the Olympic “A” standard of 15:20. She finished in 15:19.79.
A member of New York Road Runners who lives in Annandale, NJ, and trains with the New Jersey–New York Track Club, Culley called the race tough. “The biggest thing for me was just trying to stay calm through 4000 meters,” she said. “That was a challenge the other night. I knew that if I was in reach and in touch with a K to go, that I was just going to turn it on. I followed Molly and then came around for the last 100 meters and just threw everything I had into it. Luckily I had one more gear right before the finish line.”
After battling injuries for much of her college career, Culley felt she needed, at the very least, a break from running, so she accepted a job as head coach of the new cross country program at Loyola College in Maryland. A year later, she bumped into American University coach Matt Centrowitz at a meet. “Call me when you decide you want to run again,” he said. In the spring of 2006, she was watching her Loyola team line up for a meet and suddenly realized that she wanted to be on that line. So she picked up the phone.
By 2007, Centrowitz was coaching her, and she made Team USA at 3000 meters for the 2008 IAAF World Indoor Championships. Culley built on that success in 2009, making the U.S. teams for the IAAF World Cross Country Championships and the IAAF World Outdoor Championships at 5000 meters. In July 2010, she moved back to New Jersey to train with the NJ–NY Track Club under the legendary Frank Gagliano, and in 2011 she won the national 5K Championships on the roads.
“It feels so awesome to do this for him,” said Culley. “Coach Gags has been in the sport for 50-something years now. I couldn’t give him anything more than this.”
Gagliano, who was the first coach of the Oregon Track Club in Eugene, the site of these Trials, left the club and moved back east in 2009 to be with his family when his daughter-in-law was diagnosed with cancer. The NJ–NY Track Club was formed in 2010.
Four years ago, Culley finished seventh at the Trials. “In 2008, it was my goal just to get here,” she said. “And then once I got here it was my goal to make the final. I did both those things, and surprised myself. I was being coached by Matt Centrowitz then, and we thought if we’d put a year and a half into it then, what could we do with four years?”
Plenty, as it turns out. Healthy and coming off of a string of good training, she said “it’s almost like the stars start to align. You can feel it and you know it. But your biggest challenge of the day of is your head, and not talking yourself out of it. You just have to dig deep and believe from really, really far within that it’s in there for you.
“People have been telling me for the past few weeks, ‘You gotta believe you can win it,’ and I really started to believe that.”
Simpson Has Eye on Wildfire
Jenny Simpson had no problem making it though the first round of the women’s 1500 meters, finishing second in her heat in 4:16.70. A more serious issue was on her mind, however: the wildfires back home in Colorado.
“That’s what we really should be talking about,” she said in the interview zone after the race. “It’s really scary. There’s a lot of friends and family involved. My house is totally fine. We’re going to be OK; we’re east of the highway. It’s really a tragedy, and I know I won’t be able to go back there between now and my European races [because of the smoke].
Simpson, who lives in Monument, CO, and trains with her coach, Juli Benson, at the threatened U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, said she doesn’t think that her neighborhood has been evacuated. “We have someone house-sitting and I feel like he’s not giving us enough updates. I’m suspicious that everyone just wants me to focus on my racing here,” said the 2011 IAAF World Champion, smiling.
Morgan Uceny, ranked #1 in the world for 2011, led all qualifiers with a time of 4:14:07.