Troy Reeder ’17 “didn’t want to go out there and lay an egg” at the NCAA Track and Field Outdoor Championships earlier this month at the University of Oregon’s legendary Heyward Field. That would have been possible without obliterating the Furman record in the 3,000-meter steeplechase on his way to becoming the University’s second All-American in the sport and potentially qualifying for the Olympic Trials, but better safe than sorry.
In what could be described as the exact opposite of laying an egg, Reeder ran a blazing 8:36.51 to earn a spot in the men’s final two days later. No men’s track final at the NCAA Outdoor Championships had ever featured an athlete wearing a Furman uniform until the evening of June 10, and in the biggest race of his life Reeder came up huge again with a seventh-place finish that validated coach Robert Gary’s belief in the junior from Fishers, Ind., and put a cap on arguably the most impressive season by the University’s athletic program ever.
“Last year, Coach Gary said that he wanted me on the starting line of the NCAA final next year,” Reeder said. “And I was thinking about that going into the race, what he told me a year ago.”
The top eight finishers out of 13 were named first-team All-Americans. A day later, Allie Buchalski ’17 finished 14th in the 5,000-meter run with a time of 16:22.64 to earn second-team All-American honors, becoming the first Furman woman to accomplish the feat. She reached the finals after setting a Paladin record with a time of 16:08.10 in the East Preliminaries.
“We thought Troy was going to be a pretty special athlete. He did a lot of things in practice that got us really excited,” Gary said. “He never quite put it together in a race, but we thought that this year (he would).”
Eugene, Ore., has earned the moniker TrackTown USA, and Heyward Field has attained reverential status in the sport. Competing there is akin to a baseball player taking the field at Yankee Stadium, and Reeder said the experience, even before his outstanding performance, lived up to its reputation.
“They take you out and walk you around at the start of the steeplechase. I couldn’t stop smiling it was so awesome,” he said. “The crowd was great, and being in that stadium, knowing how many great runners had run on that track, to line up with the best kids and prove yourself, was pretty sweet. It was a lot of fun. I really love Heyward. It was everything people said it was.”
Reeder came to Furman with a state championship in the 1,600-meter run on his resume, but Gary saw quickly he had the athleticism and temperament to excel in one of track’s most unusual and grueling events. Reeder had never tried a steeplechase, and clearing a three-foot-high wooden barrier 35 times, including seven with a pit of water on the other side, over seven-and-a-half laps isn’t for the faint of heart.
Setting the Furman record in the 3,000-meter run during the 2014-15 indoor track season prompted Reeder to give the steeplechase a serious look, however, especially coupled with the fact that Gary was a two-time U.S. Olympian (1996, 2004) and two-time World Championships qualifier (1996, 2003) in the event.
“He always pushes the steeplechase. That’s his baby,” Reeder said. “And after I ran a pretty good 3K, I thought, you know what? Maybe we should give it a shot.”
Reeder took a redshirt during the 2015 outdoor season to learn the event, which gave him time to work with Gary as well as assistant coaches Cory Leslie and Craig Forys, who are both active steeplechasers themselves with Olympic ambitions.
“I’ve never had to jump over anything in a race, and you can imagine having to run hard and then coming up on a barrier. There’s a lot of technique involved in it, making sure you get over the hurdle efficiently, and Coach Gary really pushes that on us,” Reeder said. “If you looked at my hurdling last year to this year, it’s greatly improved. That’s probably the toughest thing about it. You’ve got to be so efficient over the hurdles so when it comes late in the race you haven’t wasted all this energy barely jumping over a hurdle back in lap three.”
Reeder’s time in the semifinals (he ran an 8:42 in the final) didn’t just break the school record set by Tripp Hurt ’15 by five seconds; it also briefly qualified him for the Olympic Trials, which will be held July 1–10 at Heyward. Now, however, his hopes rest on bettering his personal best Thursday at the Stumptown Twilight meet in Gresham, Ore.
A time of 8:32 is necessary to automatically make the Trials field, but the field must be at least 24 runners meaning the top 24 times qualify even if slower than 8:32. Thirteen athletes have met the automatic mark—including both Leslie (8:19.12) and Forys (8:27.19)—and Reeder’s 8:36 had him in the race until several faster times run over the weekend dropped him down to 26th, less than a second from the cutoff.
He must run at least an 8:35.58 on Thursday to earn a return trip to TrackTown.
“It’s so close right now. If you run like two seconds faster you can hop eight or 10 guys,” Reeder said. “It’s crazy.”
If Reeder, a communication studies major, makes the field it would mark another first: It’s believed no Furman undergraduate has ever competed in the U.S. Olympic Trials, though David Segal ’63, a 2008 inductee into the Furman Athletic Hall of Fame, competed in the 1956 and 1960 Olympics for his native England.
Records of the NCAA Outdoor Championships only go back to 1965, but since that time no Paladin, male or female, had ever competed in a track event until Hurt finished 20th in the steeplechase in 2014. In 2015 Hurt was joined by Sinead Haughey ’15 in the 10,000-meter run.
Kim Piersol ’69, a 1983 HOF inductee who still holds the school record in the triple jump with a leap of 51 feet, 7 inches, was an All-American in the event in 1968, when he finished third nationally. He finished fourth in 1969, but at the time only the top three were awarded All-America honors.
Beginning with five Southern Conference team championships and five trips to the NCAA tournament in the fall alone, Furman enjoyed a banner athletic season. In all, the Paladins won six league tournaments—in men’s and women’s soccer and cross country, volleyball and women’s golf—and a regular-season SoCon title in women’s tennis.
Additionally, eight athletes were named conference Players of the Year in their respective sports, and four coaches earned Coach of the Year honors.
“Everybody’s winning SoCon titles this year,” Gary said. “We’re having some NCAA representation by a lot of sports, so it’s a great time and nice to be a part of it.”