This month we wanted to highlight one of the newer teams on our app, Grand Canyon University’s cross country team from Phoenix, Arizona. Coach Sara Slattery (4 time NCAA Champion, 2007 Pan Am Games Gold medalist, and the last American to win the Bolder Boulder 10K) answered a few question on topics ranging from her comeback to qualify for the Olympic Trials in 2016 after having two children to the best trails in Phoenix and how to build a successful distance program! Download the app to log your own training and follow the GCU team’s profile to see their training this summer!
1.) Having been such a high level athlete on some of the biggest stages in our sport, how has the transition been to the coaching side of things?
I had success in high school, college and post collegiately. I attribute a lot of my success to all the great coaches guiding me along the way, especially my high school coach Sabrina Robinson, college coaches Mark Wetmore and Jason Drake, post collegiate coaches Terrance Mahon, Ricky Simms, and Steve Jones, and my husband [2003 USATF 3000m Steeple Champion] Steve Slattery. They have all helped shape me as an athlete, person, and now as a coach. I had such a great experience running and I learned a lot along the way. I want to help guide my athletes to be as successful or more successful than I was.
2.) Was this a path you had envisioned for yourself once you were done competing?
I got my degree in Economics and I thought I was interested in working in running sports marketing. I even interned for Nike my Junior year in their Running Sports Marketing division. When I graduated I got a professional running contract so I didn’t pursue my economics/business degree. While I was running professionally I did some corporate coaching with Ric Rojas at White Wave Foods in Colorado. I really enjoyed working with athletes and helping them achieve their goals. Coaching wasn’t what I envisioned but something I was very lucky to get involved in. When I got offered the Head XC Coaching job at GCU I couldn’t pass it up.
3.) Running at University of Colorado, you were able to run for one of the best coaches in the world under Mark Wetmore. What kind of impact did your time in the CU program have on you as a coach?
The reason I decided to go to Colorado was because of Coach Wetmore. At the time CU had not won a National Championship and they weren’t the powerhouse they are today but they were becoming a strong program. There had been successful athletes that had come through the program like Adam Goucher, Shayne and Alan Culpepper, and Kara Goucher(then Grgas-Wheeler) who was going into her senior year and one of the top runners in the NCAA. I was impressed by the success of Coach Wetmore’s athletes, but what made me decide to come to CU was the connection with him. I felt he truly cared about my long-term development and the development of his athletes. I knew I wouldn’t be a number at CU.
My freshman season we won the first NCAA Team Title for XC. I ended up winning two individual titles(2003 indoor 3K and 2005 outdoor 10k)and another XC team title my senior year. However, there were several bumps along that road (mono, injuries, surgery etc.) and through it all Mark always made me feel confident I could get back and accomplish the goals I had and made it feel possible. Mark is very realistic but makes you feel confident in your abilities and strengths. I am very grateful to have Mark as my college coach. He has made a huge impact on my coaching. From coaching style to training and workouts there are a lot of things I have used in my program from Coach Wetmore. And there have been several times I am stumped or need advice and I call Coach Wetmore. He has been a huge mentor in my coaching.
4.) While many people know you for your NCAA titles and USA teams you made a decade plus ago, you had a comeback in 2016 for the Olympic Trials. Can you talk about what it took to come back after a lengthy absence from high level competition after you had your children, and what is was like to be both coaching and competing on such a high level?
A little backstory on how I got there: I competed professionally from 2005 up until the 2012 Olympic Trials. At the 2008 Trials I was 4th in the 5K and I was very determined to make the team at the next trials. I put everything into my training and probably needed to back off a bit. I had a rocky road from 2010-2012, with several injuries in that time frame from trying to push the envelope a bit too much. I would have a period of healthy training and start to get back to form and then another injury would pop up. I had a period of 6 months where I was getting super fit leading into the 2012 Olympic Trials and two weeks before the trials I tore my hamstring and was unable to race.
My husband Steve had his last Olympic trials in 2012. We had been planning on starting our family after the 2012 season. I was lucky and got pregnant right after the trials. I had my son Stevie Slattery on March 19, 2013. I competed in road races after having Stevie and ran 1:14 for the half marathon and qualified for the Olympic Trials in the marathon. Then right after that I got pregnant with my daughter Cali. She was born April 11, 2015. I had made a goal to run another Olympic trials in the marathon. I got back into training and that summer, 4 months after having Cali I got offered the head XC coaching job at GCU.
When I took the job, Tom Flood (our head track coach) said we know you are still competing, and you are a new mom. We want you to coach and will figure out a way to make it work if you are interested. With his support I took the job. When I started coaching I ran with the team on all non-workout days. It was so fun getting into coaching, it revived my running and made it fun again. Seeing my athletes achieve their goals and watching my fitness progress along with them helped me find the love in my running again. From 2008-2012 running had become stressful and I lost the joy in running. Don’t get me wrong, I trained really hard to get back into shape, but it wasn’t work anymore. It was fun again.
7 months after having my daughter I ran the Olympic A standard in 10K 32:12 and was only 15 seconds off my PR. Getting into coaching made me find the fun and passion in my running again and that is something I try to show my athletes. If you are having fun it is so much easier to work hard and be successful! I ran all of my PR’s when I was relaxed, having fun and looking forward to racing. That is something I want my athletes to understand.
5.) It seems like everyone is coming to train in Arizona these days, whether it be Flagstaff for altitude or down in the Valley in the winter to escape the cold. What makes Arizona such a great place to train in your opinion?
The diversity of Arizona makes it such a great place to train. I love running in Phoenix! Phoenix has miles of soft canal paths, desert trails, and awesome training facilities. From October to April you can train in shorts and a T-shirt and your training is never impeded by weather. Several professional athletes make Phoenix their home in the winter, including Molly Huddle, Emily Sisson, the Bowerman Track Club, Furman Elite, OTC Elite, and many others. When I was training professionally my husband and I would spend most winters training in Phoenix. Phoenix is great because you have access to sea level and can get to 7000ft of altitude in 2 hours. I have lived and trained all over the world and I think Arizona is one of the best places in the World to train!
6.) Being a native of the Phoenix area, you probably know the running routes and trails there like the back of your hand. What is your favorite run in Phoenix? Favorite Trail? Best long run spot?
My favorite run in Phoenix is the National Trail at South Mountain. It is an uphill 9 mile desert mountain climb (18 round trip). When you get to the top the views of Phoenix are amazing! It is fairly rocky but it is a run that makes you very strong. It is not a run you want to wear your Garmin for because if you are running 7:30/8 min pace on that trail you are moving! I was so lucky growing up because South Mountain was a 5 minute jog out my back door. I ran the trails all the time in high school and always looked forward to running them when I would come home in college and post collegiately. Now I make my athletes run it once or twice a month.
7.) Not many people outside of Arizona and the surrounding states have heard of Grand Canyon University, but it is one of the largest Christian universities in the world. Being at such a large, growing, and innovative institution, how has it been to build this program since you took over in 2015? What have been the biggest advantages and disadvantages in terms of recruiting that you face? Any advice or tips for coaches that are just starting at a new program?
It has been exciting to build it and watch it grow. I was lucky when I came in because I had athletes that wanted to really work hard and be successful. 99% of the athletes bought in right away and that’s all you can ask for. Each season we have taken steps to improve and been getting more and more talented recruits coming in. My goal each season is to improve off the last, both as a team and with each individual athlete. If we are not doing that then I am falling short as a coach.
As a team we want to podium at the WAC conference meet, win the conference XC title, and qualify a team to nationals. Those are big goals for our program and are things that get me excited everyday. We have made big improvements, but still have some big goals to achieve. By far the biggest advantage in recruiting is the support I have from our administration and my coaching staff. My head coach Tom Flood has been very supportive in me balancing being a mom with coaching. He has high expectations for me but has allowed me to do a lot of my recruiting and work outside the office. Not many coaches have that support. Tom and our administration have also supported me with a healthy budget to travel and recruit. I also have a husband that has encouraged me and understands the demands as a college coach. He is my biggest supporter and I am very lucky to have him. The biggest hurdle is getting athletes to know who we are as a school and a program. We are lucky that we have a lot of commercials and advertising in other states. As a distance program we are building something special and it’s educating recruits and athletes on that.
8.) Since you have taken over at GCU, the team has improved tremendously, and your athletes have been consistently lowering school records and continuing on an upward trajectory. How daunting of a task was this position at first, and how have you steadily built up the program and developed your athletes over the last four years?
The most important things to me in building the program was having a close team that was willing to work hard and think big. I was lucky because the team I walked into bought in right away and wanted to work hard. We started putting in good work and each week and each meet we had little improvements. Those little improvements yielded school records and individual conference championships over time. Each season we have gotten better. Having the improvements and building something special has helped us get better recruits each season. We are starting to get some of the top recruits in the state and country. Seeing those successes makes it fun!
9.) Finally, how did you hear about Trackster? How has the app changed or helped you as a coach and your team?
I saw some of my other coaching friends and athletes using the app on social media. I was very curious because I was trying to find a way to keep track of splits during workouts and have a way for my athletes to keep track of their training online. We just started using the app this summer and it has been a great way for my athletes to keep track of their training and keep in touch with each other. Several of my athletes are out of state so they can keep track of what their teammates are doing in training.