It starts and ends at Oregon.
And while Katie Rainsberger acknowledges the startling synchronicity, she’d rather focus on the race and see past the setting.
Rainsberger — a fifth-year senior from Colorado Springs — competed as a distance runner for two years at Oregon, before transferring to Washington in 2018. She earned 12 All-America honors along the way, both in cross country and track and field. And fittingly, she’ll return to Eugene, Ore., this week to close her college career at the NCAA Outdoor Championships.
On Monday, Rainsberger took a familiar route 285 miles south, past Portland, to her former home.
Come Saturday, she’s hoping to leave with hardware.
“It is kind of funny that it is coming full circle, this time in purple,” Rainsberger said Monday, while making the drive south from Seattle to Eugene. “But I’m trying to really not approach the race any differently than any other race that I would be competing in. I think you have to be pretty level-headed and be able to manage the stress of a championship-style race, and not really approach it any differently.
“So while it is special and I’m really excited and super grateful for the opportunity, I’m just trying to approach it the same way I’ve been approaching races all season.”
Speaking of which, more has changed for Rainsberger than a jersey color. After previously competing primarily in the 1,500 meters, she made a sudden switch this spring to the 3,000-meter steeplechase — an obstacle race that includes both hurdles and water jumps.
The move was met with immediate, transcendent success.
Specifically, Rainsberger finished second at the Pac-12 championships in May, simultaneously breaking a school record and posting the fourth-fastest time in Pac-12 history (9:38.84). She then easily won her heat with a time of 9:47.38 at the NCAA West Preliminaries in College Station, Texas, qualifying for an Oregon homecoming to close her college career.
Not bad for a fifth-year senior who has competed in the steeplechase four total times.
“I was talking about this with (UW director of track and field and cross country Maurica Powell) the other day, and I don’t think either one of us was like, ‘Hey, you should run the steeple.’ It was a mutual decision to give it a go, and if it didn’t go well, no harm, no foul. It doesn’t matter. You just try something new,” Rainsberger said.
“I’ve always been pretty athletic. I do some pretty dynamic weight-room lifts. So we were just like, ‘Let’s just see how this goes.’ The first one out I just fell into this rhythm. I loved the technical aspect, the thrill of having to clear the barriers. It’s not very often that you get to say as a fifth-year senior that you’re trying a new event, and there’s something exciting about that as well — seeing the progress.”
Of course, that accelerated progress shouldn’t come as a surprise. While her mother, Lisa Rainsberger, won the Boston Marathon in 1985, Katie grew up primarily as a soccer player. She actually started running as a way to stay in shape for soccer, before a 4:40 mile in her sophomore year of high school forced her to consider an alternate competitive path.
In that sense, the steeplechase — which combines soccer’s athleticism and distance-running’s agility — is uniquely suited to Rainsberger’s skill set.
“The more success I had in running, the more I started to love it,” she said. “But at the same time, soccer is such a team sport. It’s a team atmosphere. I really wrestled with not wanting to give that up. But I fell in love with the way that running made me feel.
“I’m really grateful for soccer, because I feel like it made me a more well-rounded athlete and it prevented me from specializing in a sport at a young age. It gave me a bit of athleticism, which I’m now using in the steeples.”
On Thursday, she’ll use it in the NCAA championship preliminaries, before hopefully advancing to the finals on Saturday. Meanwhile, nearly 300 miles north, her UW graduation ceremony is set for Saturday as well.
“I will be missing the graduation ceremony for a very good reason,” joked Rainsberger, who has earned degrees in human evolutionary biology and medical anthropology.
So yes, in a sense, it ends at Oregon.
But Rainsberger’s race isn’t over quite yet.
“Every time (the thought of this being my last collegiate event) pops up I shut it down,” she said, “because I have some business to take care of before I think about it.”