GVSU track and field’s Jessica O’Connell proving skeptics wrong in junior season

GVL / Courtesy - Al Steible
NCAA Indoor Championship on Saturday March 11, 2017.

GVL / Courtesy – Al Steible NCAA Indoor Championship on Saturday March 11, 2017.

Jacob Arvidson

Silence can show thoughtfulness, selflessness and maturity. It can also give others a reason to doubt.

Grand Valley State junior hurdler and 400-meter runner, Jessica O’Connell, has seen both sides.

Silence says nothing about an athlete’s confidence, but O’Connell’s quiet personality caused some people to question her ability to contribute on the national level. Her performances heading into the 2016 outdoor season were consistently good, but there were doubters who did not believe she could compete nationally.

“Somebody told me a year ago that she wasn’t the answer,” said sprints and hurdles coach Alan Dunson.

O’Connell went out and did nothing but prove the skeptics wrong.

She became an All-American as part of the 4×400-meter relay team and placed 14th in the country in the 400-meter hurdles during the 2016 outdoor season. Then she returned for the 2017 indoor season and helped the relay team finish second in the nation and break a GVSU record.

The junior has continued to impress with a win and a provisional mark during the 400 hurdles in the first outdoor meet of the 2017 season Friday, March 17. She posted a time of 1:01.74, just .14 seconds short of her time at nationals in 2016.

“A lot of people don’t expect how fierce she is on the track just because she’s so quiet,” said fellow 400-hurdler Kylie Hicks. “She’s not cocky. She knows what she can do and she’s not going to go out and brag about it. She’s super humble.”

O’Connell has always been humble, yet confident, since becoming a Laker. That combination has allowed her to find success and will ultimately be a key factor in GVSU’s chance at winning a national title.

Dunson has seen it in her all along.

“I hope she knows, from our perspective, from my perspective, from her teammates’ perspective, that she belongs at the (national) meet, that she can score when she gets to the meet and that she’s going to score one, two, three or four points in the right direction for us to win it all,” he said.

Even one point can make the difference at nationals. O’Connell knows this and has shifted to an extremely team-driven approach to each race, whether it be an individual event or a relay.

“My perspective is to do everything I do here, not for myself, but for the team,” she said.

The smile beaming across O’Connell’s face after finishing a 400-meter race, complete with hurdles and a lot of pain, isn’t a sight one would expect. Sprinting a hurdle-filled 400 meters, even for a trained athlete, is generally seen as grueling task.

Yet there she is after each race, teeth gleaming and eyes shining as she smiles.

“She’ll finish her race in the 400 hurdles and she’ll be smiling,” said relay teammate Angela Ritter. “It’s so weird.”

The reason: she’s doing what she loves.

“Doing 400 hurdles outdoor is kind of a treat for me,” O’Connell said.

After spending more than three months inside for the indoor season where she only runs open 400s and relays, the outdoor season brings more than fresh air and sunshine. It brings happiness into O’Connell’s running and makes all the hard work of running for months without hurdles worth it.

“She hates the 400, yet she spends a whole season doing it,” Ritter said. “She’s always working to get better at it even though she hates it. When she gets to outdoor season, it’s not that her attitude changes, but you can just tell how much happier she is when she’s doing hurdles.”

Even with the disdain, O’Connell is quite talented running the open 400. She is especially dangerous in the 4×400-meter relay. Dunson started trying her out in the relay during the 2016 season.

“The first time last year, when I was told I was going to run on the relay, I wasn’t very confident about it and I didn’t think I was going to stay on it,” O’Connell said. “But I did. I started to get more confident and by the end of the season I started to feel like that’s actually where I belonged.”

Heading into the 2017 outdoor season, O’Connell has cemented herself as a staple in the relay. She was a part of the team that set a record during the indoor season at the GVSU Big Meet and then broke it again at the indoor national meet with a time of 3:42.50.

The four-year-old GVSU outdoor record of 3:41.48 is still on the table though and it gives the 2017 relay team something extra to strive for, O’Connell said.

Her talent has helped O’Connell solidify herself as a member of the relay team, but her personality is an added bonus for her three running mates.

“I really enjoy having her on the relay team,” Ritter said. “It just makes me feel calmer. Something about her is just special.”

O’Connell said being a part of the relay team is an honor, but it’s also more enjoyable because you can celebrate a win or a big moment with others.

“It’s just fun to share those moments with people,” she said. “When you break records on your own, or win races on your own, you enjoy it yourself and other people are happy for you, but when you do it with a relay team the moment is multiplied by four. There’s nothing better than sharing that moment with three other people who are feeling the exact same way that you are.”

That team-first mentality is what teammates like Ritter and Hicks point to as one her strengths.

“We do a lot of racing in practice,” Hicks said. “She’s always happy for the person if they win or if they do better.”

Another trait that makes O’Connell so effective on the track is her attention to detail off it.

“She does all the things you have to do to run your best,” Ritter said. “Seeing that, and being around her, positively influences me too. Seeing her eat healthy, I know I need to do that too. A lot of the little things that she’s done I’ve picked up on and done.”