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Ceili McCabe’s Olympic run in 3,000-meter steeplechase a mixture of danger and patience

MORGANTOWN — There is something you need to know about the 3,000-meter steeplechase event that WVU star Ceili (pronounced Kay-lee) McCabe will compete in during the Summer Olympics in Paris on Aug. 4.

“It’s actually quite dangerous,” WVU track coach Sean Cleary begins. “If you get stuck back in a pack and can’t see what’s in front of you, it can become very dangerous. It takes a certain level of confidence and bravery to compete in the steeplechase.”

It takes a well-rounded athlete, and more than just a good distance runner or hurdler to thrive in the event.

Enter McCabe, a native of Vancouver, British Columbia, who earned her Olympic spot on Team Canada by winning the event at the Canadian Athletics Bell Track and Field Championships in Montreal last month.

Her winning time of 9:32.97 was 10 seconds faster than the next competitor.

Before McCabe became an All-American distance runner at WVU, she had her hand in just about every other athletic competition.

She was a soccer star, and if it had not been for a knee injury the summer before her senior year, she was likely headed to Notre Dame on a soccer scholarship.

She also loved basketball, tennis and field hockey. She was the catcher on her baseball team up until the ninth grade.

“When you think about it, playing in all of those other sports and developing her athletic abilities is what made the steeplechase the perfect race for her,” Cleary said. “Some people think of the race as where you stick runners who don’t excel elsewhere, but that’s the absolute wrong approach.

“You have to be a great athlete to compete in the event, and Ceili definitely fits that mold.”

What exactly is the steeplechase?

Think of it as a two-mile race, well, technically it’s just short of two miles, that includes 28 jumps over barriers, not to be confused with hurdles.

“Those are wooden barriers out there,” Cleary said. “If you hit them, they’re not moving like a hurdle would. If you hit them, you’re basically smacking right into them.”

Those barriers are stretched out over four lanes, so this is a race where runners will use half of the track, switching back and forth from inside lanes to outside lanes.

Runners will also make seven jumps over a hurdle and into a water pit that is roughly 28 inches deep. The seventh and final water jump marks the final 60 meters of the race.

“You get out of that final water jump and it is a mad sprint to the finish from there,” Cleary said. “There is so much anticipation going into the final water jump. You have to hope for the best, because everyone in contention is at full speed and it can get really crazy at that point.”

McCabe had some experience in the event in high school, but really began to take to the event at WVU.

In 2023, McCabe won the Big 12 championship in the event and took third in the NCAA championships, which was when Cleary and McCabe put their plan into place to get McCabe ready to qualify for the 2024 Olympics.

It required her to take a redshirt year in the fall of 2023 and spring of 2024, meaning she sat out the cross-country and outdoor track seasons.

“That was not easy for her and it was a difficult time for her,” Cleary said. “She told me a number of times that she was not used to not competing. She’s been a competitor her whole life. I needed her to trust our plan.”

Rather than running for the Mountaineers, she trained in Morgantown and competed as an unattached runner at steeplechase events around the country.

“What most people don’t know about that is Ceili had to do all of it on her own,” Cleary said. “NCAA rules prohibit WVU from sponsoring her. She had to save her own money and make her own travel arrangements.”

That included her trip to Los Angeles in May, when she took first place in the event at the USATF Los Angeles Grand Prix with a time of 9:20.58.

That time set a Canadian national record in the event and paved her way to competing in the Canadian national finals.

She’s training in Morgantown until the end of the month, before taking a flight to Boston and then to Paris.

The Olympic qualifying heats are scheduled for Aug. 4. The finals are set for Aug. 6.

Realistically, McCabe’s goal is to qualify for the finals and then simply see what she can do from there. Peruth Chemutai, of Uganda, won the event in the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 with a time of 9:01.45.

Cleary said the bigger goal for McCabe just may be the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.

In between will be her senior season at WVU. Following the 2024 Olympics, McCabe will take it slow, but will compete again for a national championship in cross-country in November before her final collegiate track season begins.

“People ask me if I saw an Olympic-caliber athlete out of her in the beginning,” Cleary said. “Honestly, no I didn’t. What I did see was someone who was fiercely competitive. You could see that in her eyes.

“I knew if she was able to be dedicated and put in the work, she could get there. But she had to make great efforts to get to where she is today.”