Runner Has Eyes On Two Prizes: Olympics, Ph.D.
Among the dozens of athletes hoping to leap, throw or run their way to London as part of the U.S. track and field team is 24-year-old runner Shannon Leinert.
Leinert, who will compete in the 800-meter dash, has dreamed of the Olympics since she was 10 and winning races in St. Louis, her hometown. If that weren't enough, she's also working on a doctoral degree in special education.
Leinert now trains at the University of Missouri-Columbia track that revived her college career and allowed her to think seriously about the Olympics. It was also on this campus that she fell in love with special-needs students and decided to try and earn a doctoral degree.
Leinert then chose to tackle training and studying at the same time.
"At the beginning ... it was such an easy decision," Leinert says. "Because I felt like school and running is a great complement for each other."
Dan Quigley, Leinert's boyfriend and sometime training partner, wasn't alone in thinking that probably wasn't the best idea.
"I've continually challenged her to lighten her load a little bit in terms of school so she can be more competitive," Quigley says. "I see this as a kind of once or twice in a lifetime opportunity, but she continues to challenge herself both in school and off the track. She never backs down from anything."
Leinert appears to be the ultimate multitasker, but acknowledges it took time to adjust to the demands placed on her by the high level of both academics and athletics.
"I think my running suffered a lot," she says. "Then this year, I'd say I've been a little more selfish with my running and I'll close my laptop around 11:30 and just go to bed."
Fred Binggeli, who coached the 1988 Olympic champion in the men's 800 meters, has worked with Leinert for the past two years. He says once everything clicked for her, the difference was night and day.
"You saw a happy person; you saw a positive person," Binggeli says. "She only had one two-week period during the whole year that she seemed like she wasn't going to be able to handle everything; she was able to fight through that and get better and better and better."
That ability doesn't surprise Leinert's college coach, Rebecca Wilmes, who says for athletes in Leinert's situation, there's a lot of soul-searching.
"She had to go through it, and get to the other side, still rolling and loving it," Wilmes says. "Things come together for her. It's a pattern."
Leinert is definitely rolling. When the outdoor track season started in March, she was completing the two laps of an 800-meter race in 2 minutes, 7 seconds. Earlier this month, her time was down to just a hair over 2 minutes.
She'll need to be even faster though to get to London, just under 2 minutes. Does she think she can do it?
"Yeah, I do. Especially after my workout the other day, I really would not be surprised this time if I went under 2 [minutes]," she says.
Binggeli is just as confident. He says it's nice to see Leinert end on a high note after struggling.
"If nothing else, she's going to come out with a personal best time wise," he says. "She's still young enough that if she doesn't make this Olympic team, you need to look four more years down the road."
The 2016 games in Rio are already on Leinert's mind. On her agenda before that: defending her dissertation next year.
The U.S. Olympic trials in track and field begin Thursday in Eugene, Ore.