Always a competitor
Kelly Strong excels as a University of Washingon coach while also training for a shot at the Olympics in the steeplechase
That's one word that Kelly Strong uses to describe herself.
It certainly looks to be a very accurate description - although, other words could be used to describe Strong (the former Kelly MacDonald), a 1997 Tualatin High School graduate.
Words like mentor, friendly, ambitious, dedicated, successful, determined and winner easily could be used.
But the word competitor just seems to sum it up pretty darn well.
Whether it be as an assistant coach with the University of Washington track and cross country teams, or as an athlete - an athlete that has her sights set on the 2008 Olympics - Strong's competitive side shines through.
'I realized that what it comes down to is that I love the competition,' Strong, 27, said last month while she was back in Tualatin for a weekend. 'I'm a competitive person and that is why I do what I do.'
That shouldn't come as a surprise to those who saw Strong during her days as a standout athlete for the Tualatin High School cross country, girls basketball and track teams.
Her competitive side carried over to Arizona State University. Strong, a 2002 ASU graduate, earned five All-American honors and won three Pacific-10 Conference titles while running for the Sun Devil cross country and track teams. She also set five Arizona State school records.
Now, Strong seems to have the best of all worlds.
She's back home, she's close to family, she celebrates her second wedding anniversary this month (to fellow ASU track All-American Brandon Strong) and, of course, she's coaching and running.
'It's great,' Strong said with a smile. 'I'm having a great time right now. I'm enjoying everything - the running, the coaching.'
But, being a competitor, Strong is looking for things to get even better.
Becoming a coach
Strong says that she's been strongly influenced by her former coaches. That group includes her Tualatin High School coaches, such as Gary McGrath, Dean Stiles and Paul Zitzelsberger as well as Walt Drenth, who coached her at ASU.
'I learned so much from my coaches,' she said. 'They taught me things I still think about now.'
Strong, after graduating from ASU, stayed down in Arizona for training. But, she also wanted to get into coaching. In addition, she also was looking to get back up to the northwest. She wanted to get closer to family, including her parents, Doug and Linda MacDonald, who moved to the Seattle area from Tualatin in 2001.
'But nothing lined up,' Strong said.
So, she and a cousin traveled to Italy for a couple of weeks.
Strong was in Rome when she got a call from her mother, telling her that University of Washington cross country coach Greg Metcalf had just been hired as the school's head track and field coach.
'I knew Greg and his coaching staff, and everything happened quite quickly after that,' Strong said.
A month after she returned from Italy, Strong was hired as an assistant coach for the Huskies. She moved in with her parents in their Renton, Wash., home and was quickly busy working with the Husky women's cross country and track teams.
'I wanted to get into coaching, but I didn't envision starting off at a Division I, Pac-10 school,' Strong said. 'I love it. I grew up a Husky fan. It was close to my dream job.'
She excelled in a hurry with that dream job.
'Kelly has played an incredibly important role in the success of our women's programs,' Metcalf said. 'To have someone that the girls can look to, who has been in their shoes, is very crucial. From that standpoint, Kelly has been a tremendous role model. She deals with the young women in our program and connects with them as I can't.'
Strong certainly seems to have connected with her runners.
'Watching their success is gratifying, but it's also different than when I run myself,' Strong said. 'When Lindsey Egerdahl (former Washington cross country standout) called me crying because she was named an All-American, that meant the world to me.'
Then, there is Amy Lia.
Lia, then a Husky sophomore, triumphed in the 1,500-meter run, in a time of 4 minutes, 14.63 seconds at the NCAA national championships, held in June in Sacramento, Calif. It marked the first time one of the athletes that Strong has coached has won a national title.
'That really touched me,' said Strong, who recently finished her fourth year coaching at the University of Washington.
Among her coaching duties for the Husky programs is recruiting.
'That's one of the biggest jobs,' she said. 'It's something that I really enjoy now. I remember when I was recruited by Arizona State. I really enjoyed talking with the coaches there. You have to build a relationship. It's a process and you have to enjoy it. I do.'
'She knows what it takes and she does a good job,' Metcalf said. 'She has a good connection with the girls. I think recruiting is the hardest part of coaching. You have to take it personally and she's ridden that roller coaster.
'I think Kelly has everything it takes to be a good coach. Her level of expectations are incredibly high. She has very high standards.'
There could be plenty more coaching success in Strong's future.
'I love coaching,' Strong said. 'It gets me up every day. I definitely enjoy it and I see it in my future. My goal is to be a head coach. It would be great to develop a program.
'I love the competition. I love going to practice every day. I enjoy going to the meets and want, more than anything, for our women to run well.'
Running the steeplechase
As if her coaching duties don't keep her busy enough, Strong is also still competing - at a very high level with very high goals.
She's looking to earn a spot, running the 3,000-meter steeplechase, on the USA track and field team that will compete in the 2008 Olympics, which will be held in Beijing, China. The 2008 Olympics mark the first time that the women's 3,000-meter steeplechase will be contested.
'I've been competing in that event for awhile now,' said Strong, who is sponsored professionally by Asics. 'I won't stop now.'
Strong has competed for spots on the Olympic team before. She competed in the 2000 Olympic Trials, where she finished 13th in her preliminary heat of the 5,000-meter run - 'I was over my head a little bit there,' she said - and also in the 2004 Olympic Trials, where she finished fifth in the 3,000 steeplechase finals in a time of 9:56.60.
The 2008 Olympic Trials will be held at Hayward Field in Eugene. That's a venue where Strong has had plenty of success, going all the way back to her days running for the Timberwolves.
'I hope it's going to be my turn,' she said with a smile.
Metcalf, who coaches Strong in the steeplechase, thinks it very well could be.
'I believe wholeheartedly that she's got a shot to make the team,' he said.
If competitiveness has anything to do with it, Strong may have a leg up in her quest to earn an Olympic team bid.
'I want to challenge myself - see how fast I can run it,' she said.
This year, that's been pretty darn fast.
In fact, at the 2006 Ken Shannon Invitational, a low key meet held May 6 at Husky Stadium in Seattle, Strong ran her fastest steeplechase yet, beating her previous personal best in the event by nearly 8 seconds with her winning time of 9:48.90.
That time was the seventh-fastest mark for the event, to that point, in the world in 2006. It also was the eighth-fastest time in U.S. history.
'That time answered the question for me,' Strong said. 'Running down the homestretch, I saw the clock and got a mental boost. Because it was such a low key meet, I knew I could run 10 or 15 seconds. I still feel young, fit and fast.'
On June 24, Strong ran to fifth place, in a time of 10:07.64, in the 3,000 steeplechase finals at the 2006 USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships held in Indianapolis. Strong was in second place with 150 meters to go in the race, but faltered at the end.
Strong didn't say anything about it, but Metcalf pointed out that the former Tualatin track star was ill the day of the race.
'She just got sick at the wrong time,' Metcalf said.
Now, it's just a matter of making sure that everything goes right at the right time - meaning making, and running well at the 2008 Olympic Trials in Eugene.
'That's what we're aiming at,' Metcalf said. 'That's the goal right now.'
If that happens, Strong, who now lives with her husband Brandon, who is still a devout ASU fan ('he won't even wear a Washington sweatshirt,' Kelly said with a laugh) in Kirkland, Wash., should have a strong local contingent cheering her on in Eugene.
'That will be an advantage,' she said. 'It will be very exciting. It's something to aim for.'
Meanwhile, there's plenty to keep the competitive Strong busy, with all of that coaching and all of that running.
'I really enjoy doing both,' she said. 'Every year, I think I'm becoming a better coach. And I want to keep on becoming a better runner.'
Yeah, she's a competitor.