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Olympic Marathon trial

O'Neill found sport she can accelerate in

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Barbara Matson
Globe Staff / April 16, 2008

She's one of us.

Smarter, maybe. Faster, certainly.

But Kate O'Neill started out just like the rest of us, a kid growing up in the Boston suburbs, spinning through a carousel of sports as the seasons passed, looking for one that was fun and that she was a little good at.

Kate and her twin sister Laura, the only children of Joe and Peggy O'Neill of Milton, tried them all: soccer, basketball, tennis.

They never got that winning feeling. Nothing clicked. Kate described her experience with

soccer as brief; she touched the ball only once, and that was when it ricocheted off her face and knocked out a tooth.

"Anything with a puck or a ball," said Joe, "was not their strong point."

"They just wanted to be on a team," said Peggy, remembering, with an amazement that has not faded, how their twin girls ran away from home and became world-class athletes. "You know, Saturday mornings, everyone's up at youth soccer, or basketball and they just wanted to be where everyone was."

Peggy, a school librarian, and Joe, a retired high school history teacher, didn't force their girls into activities, but they kept offering them new ones.

"They tried ballet when they were in kindergarten," said Peggy, "but, well, the teacher said they didn't skip very well. Then the next year, they were watching swimming on TV one day and I said, "So what's up, do you want to sign up for ballet again or not?' And they said, 'Nah. We don't look like ballerinas.'

"And I said, 'Oh, really?' and they said, 'Yeah, we look like those girls - and they pointed at the swimmers. They said, 'We're never gonna look like ballerinas.' "

"It's funny what 7-year-olds realize, huh?" said Joe.

There were no middle school sports in Milton, so the O'Neills joined a swim team in Weymouth.

"They loved it," Peggy said. "If the high school had had a swim team, they probably would have gone out for that."

But when they got to Milton High, there was no swim team. They moved on again, this time to cross-country.

Bingo.

On Sunday, Kate O'Neill returns home to Boston to run in the women's Olympic marathon trials, one of 162 qualifiers for the race, and one of a handful of contenders for the three spots on the team. Laura, who broke her foot in 2006 and required heel surgery, is now studying for her master's degree in library science at the University of North Carolina.

A 2004 Olympian in the 10,000 meters, Kate will be running just her second marathon. In her first, the Chicago Marathon last October, she finished in 2 hours 36 minutes 15 seconds, not such a great time, but she earned a spot on the podium, something she didn't expect, finishing third on a day so hot and humid that the race was abandoned after 3 1/2 hours.

O'Neill, 27, said she felt sluggish for almost two months as her body recovered. In January, she won the US Half-Marathon Championship in Houston in 1:11:58. She has been training since then at the US team centers in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., and San Diego.

"I'm so excited my first marathon trials is in my hometown," said Kate. "I really loved growing up there and I feel so lucky to have friends and family there.

"I'd like to run fast, but my overriding goal would be to get in the top three."

Off and running

It was Uncle Jimmy who first persuaded the 12-year-old twins to join him in the Milton Road Race, a 10K.

"We just thought we'd give it a try," said Kate. "It was a lot harder than we thought."

"I drove them around the course beforehand," Peggy said, "and I said, 'Geez, this is pretty long, girls.' But they said, 'No, we can do it.' Then we were waiting at the finish line and we were surprised to see them so early."

Laura's memory is a little different; she recalls walking across the finish line the first time. But it wasn't long before the twins left their uncle behind.

"The big thing was that when we went to high school, our parents thought it was really important we do a sport so we could meet people," said Kate. "It was a great life decision."

Kate and Laura's running story was one of gradual and steady improvement, from freshman races at Franklin Park, to state cross-country titles (Kate was first, Laura seventh in the Division 2 state championships as seniors), to the Yale varsity team and All-America status, then on to professional racing, and for Kate, the Olympics.

"They liked running," said Joe. "The big thing is they had each other."

"We could let them go out and run alone," Peggy added. "Well, they weren't alone because there were always two of them running. You wouldn't be real happy about sending your eighth- or ninth-grade daughter out to run by herself, but it's all right if she's with her sister."

The twins had immediate success in cross-country, but Laura said it wasn't until the end of their first high school season that she began to learn about the sport.

"That's when I realized I should finish a race and be uncomfortable," she said. "We didn't realize at first we needed to push ourselves."

Of course, the twins provided the perfect complements for each other, pushing ahead with the force of two. They were driven academically, too, and stayed up late together studying.

"We were helping each other reach the highest level we can," Laura said. "Either of us would have put the work in either way, but it's so much more enjoyable."

Their competitive natures baffle their parents.

"If they commit to something, they commit," said Peggy.

"We're not that way," Joe added.

"We didn't push them for good grades or anything, they just wanted to do well," Peggy said. "Whatever they do, they just don't do anything halfway, even when they bake. If they're going to bake brownies, they've got to be the best brownies."

Bulldog mentality

Milton High coach Dale Snyder took the O'Neill twins to a variety of races to build their experience.

"We didn't realize it at the time," said Joe, "but they were running at the zenith of female cross-country runners in Eastern Mass. You had Sheela Agrawal, and of course Shalane [Flanagan], and a girl down in Duxbury, Julie Spolidoro, and the girl from Brookline, Lauren Matthews."

"It was really a matter of setting goals and being confident going in to the race," said Kate. "Our eyes were opened to a lot of possibilities. We started shooting higher."

Laura's decision to stop running after her surgery was a sad one, she said, and she sometimes feels guilty she is not still pushing Kate.

"Mostly the thing that helped us be successful was having each other to run with," said Kate. "I've been lucky enough to fall into this great training group [at the US Center], but I still miss running with her."

Laura, however, will be running with Kate at the trials, jumping around the course to catch her sister and encourage her.

"She's had great workouts the last few months," said Laura. "So many runners are really tough. Kate has an amazing ability to dig really deep during a race. I could dig deep, but she has a whole 'nother level. I wouldn't miss this race for anything."

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