MAY 04, 2008 11:18 PM

Bend Bulletin

 

Alyssa O’Connor prepares to compete in the 800-meter event during a track meet at Mountain View High School on Wednesday. O’Connor won a state title at 1,500 meters as a freshman in 2006 and has the best time at the distance this season in Class 5A.
 Alyssa O’Connor prepares to compete in the 800-meter event during a track meet at Mountain View High School on Wednesday. O’Connor won a state title at 1,500 meters as a freshman in 2006 and has the best time at the distance this season in Class 5A.
Devin Wagner / The Bulletin

Back in stride

After serious injuries to both legs, Summit’s Alyssa O’Connor has returned to form as one of Oregon’s premier prep distance runners

By   Beau  Estes / The Bulletin
Published: May 04. 2008 4:00AM PST

Nothing Alyssa O’Connor does these days should come as a surprise to anyone, let alone to Dave Turnbull, her track coach at Summit High School.

The Class 4A state champion at 1,500 meters as a freshman in 2006 - the last year Summit was a member of Oregon’s highest athletic classification - O’Connor took third in the 1,500 at last weekend’s Oregon Relays at Hayward Field in Eugene, turning in the best Class 5A time in the state so far this season by more than 14 seconds.

Running in just her third 1,500 of the season, the Storm junior posted a mark of 4 minutes, 38.44 seconds. And amazingly, she did it less than seven months after fracturing her left thighbone.

And less than two years after she broke her right thighbone - in three places.

“I’d like to say nothing she does surprises me,” says Turnbull, who guided the Summit girls team to its first state track title last May. “But that’s sick, to be this good that fast.”

Freshman phenom

In fall 2005, O’Connor exploded onto the Oregon high school running scene.

She placed second in her first-ever high school cross-country meet, the High Desert Shootout at Crooked River Ranch, and shortly thereafter she won the 22-team Danner Invitational in Gresham.

After finishing second at her first Intermountain Conference district meet, O’Connor placed third at the 4A state meet to cap an impressive freshman season.

“She has an amazing kick, (enough) to scare even a boy,” Summit cross-country coach Dave Clark said after O’Connor’s performance at the 2005 state meet.

Her freshman track season brought more of the same. At the IMC district meet in Redmond, she exacted revenge against Hermiston’s Jennifer Macias, who months earlier had defeated O’Connor at the state cross-country meet. Summit’s 5-foot-5-inch running prodigy first won the 3,000 and then the 1,500 for a district distance sweep. She also contributed a leg to the Storm’s IMC-winning 1,600-meter relay team.

O’Connor concluded her stellar freshman season by winning the 1,500 at the 4A state meet, outlasting Oregon State University-bound Casey Masterson of Sheldon and defending state champion Sheryl Page of Sandy to win by more than four seconds.

There was no limit to what her future held.

Her first break

The preseason favorite to win the state cross-country meet in the new 5A classification in 2006, O’Connor started her sophomore year much as she had as a freshman. She won races at Salem and Seaside, and she finished fourth at Bend’s Puma Classic, an annual showcase for some of the best racers in the Pacific Northwest.

Heading into Portland’s Adidas Classic in the middle of October, O’Connor’s times were among the fastest in the state.

“The season was going great,” recalls O’Connor, without a hint of bitterness. “My times were right where they should have been. At (the Adidas meet) I was about to break 18 (minutes) when it happened.”

“It” was a season-ending break of her right thighbone, or femur, only 50 meters from the finish line in northeast Portland’s Fernhill Park. O’Connor’s femur - the largest bone in the human body - was fractured in three places, an injury that required seven surgically inserted screws and a metal plate to repair.

Arguably the best girls cross-country runner in the state at the time of the injury, O’Connor spent the next 10 weeks confined to a wheelchair.

“I was in disbelief - shock,” says O’Connor. A budding nordic skier, she would miss that winter’s ski season, and she would sit out track the following spring as well.

“Initially,” she reflects, “it was pretty hard to handle.”

Four weeks

Not a year after her right femur had shattered, O’Connor the workhorse was back competing for the Storm. Entering her junior year, O’Connor won Summit’s team time-trial event at the end of August 2007 before placing 23rd a month later in the elite Danner Division at the Nike Pre-Nationals in Portland. Her times were improving, and she was again the top runner for a Storm squad looking to compete at the state championships.

And then “it” happened - again.

About the beginning of September, O’Connor’s upper left leg had begun to bother her.

“It felt like the muscle,” says O’Connor, who at the time was working with a physical therapist as part of her continuing recovery from the earlier injury.

“We worked on it,” she says of her left leg. “The (physical therapist) massaged it and we iced it.”

Though she reduced her weekly training mileage, O’Connor - always the competitor - continued to run. By the time the Puma Classic rolled around in the first week of October, she finally decided to give the tender left leg a rest.

“It hurt more and more, and so I decided to drop out,” O’Connor says about her race-day decision to not run in the big hometown meet. “Later that week I went to see the surgeon who took out my screws.”

The surgeon ordered an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) procedure on O’Connor’s left leg.

“It was fractured three-quarters across the neck (of the left femur),” O’Connor recalls. ”I had surgery that night.”

Although injury No. 2 could have been much more traumatic had it not been discovered by the MRI - a clean break in the neck of the femur can lead to a hip replacement - O’Connor needed only two screws to repair the fractured left leg. And she was able to begin her rehabilitation while on crutches instead of in a wheelchair.

“It’s anybody’s guess,” says Alyssa’s mother, Dawn, as to why her perfectly healthy teenage daughter suffered serious femur injuries to both of her legs. “We’ve seen specialists all over. We’re just hoping for the best.”

Despite having to undergo a second operation, O’Connor refused to wallow in self-pity.

“The (second) recovery was a lot shorter,” says the refreshing and ever-optimistic O’Connor. “I was only on crutches for four weeks, as opposed to being in a wheelchair for 2 1/2 months.”

Quick comeback

Two operations, nine screws and one metal plate later, O’Connor began her second comeback to athletic competition. By the start of the new year she was back on skis. By the end of February she had placed third overall in the Oregon High School Nordic state championships, helping Summit to the state team title.

“Most people would just give up,” observes cross-country coach Clark, who coaches the Storm’s distance runners during track season. “(O’Connor’s ski success) just shows what a great athlete she is and how hard-working she is.”

After building back her strength and endurance on the snow, O’Connor returned to the track this spring with no real expectations of how the season would turn out.

“I had no clue,” says O’Connor, who trained through Summit’s first two meets before making her 2008 track debut in the Storm’s April 3 dual meet at Bend High. “My coaches had a lot more faith than I had in myself.”

Against the Lava Bears, O’Connor ran her first race on a track in almost two years. She won the 1,500 with a time of 5:04.84, and she ran a leg on the Storm’s winning 1,600-meter relay team. Nine days later she took second at the Roseburg Twilight Meet with a time of 4:53.7 and was named Summit’s athlete of the meet.

“Right now she’s just getting used to competing again,” says Turnbull, the Storm’s veteran track coach. “It’s been so long since she’s competed on the oval. She’s done the cross-country thing, but it’s radically different on an oval.”

Back to her former self

Three weeks into April, O’Connor, now visibly stronger and several inches taller than she was two years ago, still didn’t know if she could approach the elite-level racer status she had achieved as a freshman. She had yet to run the 800, and her fastest 1,500 time was 18 seconds off her personal best.

“I had no idea where I was,” says O’Connor. “I didn’t know if I’d come back to freshman season (times). I had no idea. But at the Oregon Relays, I saw a lot of girls had some really good times and I was really excited.”

Nicole Cochran of Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma, Wash., and Alexandra Jones of St. Mary’s of Portland were both set to compete against O’Connor in the 1,500. Cochran has Washington’s best time at 1,600 meters (Washington high schools run 1,600 meters instead of 1,500) and Jones currently owns Oregon’s best 1,500 and 3,000 marks for 2008.

After what started as a slower, tactical race, Cochran, Jones and O’Connor began to pick up the pace. And by the final 800 meters, the crowd at Hayward Field saw the Alyssa O’Connor of old.

Although O’Connor didn’t win the race - Cochran finished first with a time of 4:34.39, followed by Jones at 4:37.56 - the Summit sensation took third in 4:38.44, shaving 15 seconds off the time she posted in her most recent 1,500 and coming within three seconds of her old personal record. With her time in the Oregon Relays, O’Connor joins Jones as the only two Oregon girls to go under 4:40 in the 1,500 so far this season.

“At the end of the race I saw the time and was so excited,” says O’Connor, who exudes a sense of relief and unabashed excitement when talking about returning to form. “It just felt so good to come back from these injuries just as strong, if not stronger.”

O’Connor’s 2008 Oregon Relays time was actually faster than her mark in the same meet in 2006, putting her on pace to break to her 1,500 PR of 4:35.21, which she set in May 2006.

“That shocked her system a little bit, and that’s exactly what she needed,” says Turnbull.

“It’s almost like she’s a freshman again. She’s got to learn her body and learn how to race all over again. But she’s doing it. And to be only three seconds off her lifetime PR … that’s just ridiculous.”

Beau Eastes can be reached at 383-0305 or at beastes@bendbulletin.com