The journey to becoming an Olympic athlete is one that Bridget Franek never gave much thought to as a child.
Franek grew up like many other kids, taking part in several sports and playing multiple musical instruments.
She competed in softball, soccer, basketball, swimming, cross country, and track and field as a youth and then succeeded in running at Crestwood High School.
When she wasn’t competing athletically, she could be found playing the saxophone and oboe in Crestwood’s bands and in the hand-bell choir at St. Ambrose church in Garrettsville.
Tom and Rosalie Franek encouraged their daughter to take part in these activities, but as time passed, her passion for running continued to develop.
Her passion combined with talent and years of hard work are the reasons Franek, 24, will compete in the 3,000- meter steeplechase as a member of the United States track and field team at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
“Being an Olympian is really something special because it was a goal that has consumed my life for the past two years,” Franek said. “It was extremely stressful leading up but actually achieving it made it that much more satisfying. It reminds me that anything is possible. It is still really surreal and I am just trying to enjoy every minute.”
Franek’s first Olympic run will be in a preliminary race Saturday, which has three heats that start at 6:35 a.m., 6:49 a.m. and 7:03 a.m. (Akron time). The final is at 4:05 p.m. Aug. 6.
“I am really excited about traveling and living in London, about meeting all the other athletes from so many different sports,” said Franek, who had previously trained in London. “Everyone has a different, incredibly interesting story but the fun part is that we can all make connections, connections of passion and sacrifice and desire to be here. I guess this is what they call ‘Olympic Spirit.’ ”
Franek completed successful running careers at Crestwood and Penn State, winning state titles in five events and an NCAA national championship in the 3,000 steeplechase.
“I love pushing my body and testing my limits,” Franek said. “The sport has taught me so much about human nature and character. I also love traveling.”
Great overall experience
Franek said that while her main focus is on her event, she obviously has a lot of emotions going through her mind as she prepares to race on the world’s biggest stage.
“Wearing the red, white, and blue is probably the coolest part of the whole experience,” Franek said. “It is so amazing to be standing there, in front of so many people, knowing that you have a whole country behind you, supporting you.”
Her parents share their daughter’s enthusiasm and will be in London to watch her compete after traveling from their home in Hiram.
“It is one of those things that she aspired to be,” Tom said of being an Olympian. “That was her goal. When she was able to accomplish that, it was amazing. I could just see the relief when she made it. Sometimes when you have expectations like that, it can be hard to live up to.”
Rosalie said she had noticed a change in her daughter.
“We know the fitness is there. It just all has to come together at the right time,” Rosalie said. “After she qualified, the monkey came off her back. Some of the pressure was gone.
“She is having fun. Bridget is very intense and competitive. She likes to do things right and get the full experience of everything. She is learning more to relax and just go with it. When we Skype with her, we can see it in her face. She is more relaxed.”
Franek, a 2006 Crestwood graduate who earned 12 varsity letters, finished second in the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase final in June in a time of 9:35.62 at the U.S. Olympic Trials at the University of Oregon campus in Eugene. She trains there as a member of the Nike Oregon Track Club Elite.
Emma Coburn won the event in a time of 9:32.78 and Shalaya Kipp took third at 9:35.73 to qualify for the Olympics. Both hail from the University of Colorado.
Shows promise early
Franek, a 2010 Penn State graduate, won the 3,000 steeplechase NCAA Division I title as a senior. In high school, she won the Division I 1,600 championship as a junior in 2005 and then won four Division II state titles as a senior in 2006 — 800, 1,600, 3,200 and 3,200 relay.
“In middle school, my wife and I realized wow, she could definitely go to state sometime in high school,” said Tom, who met Rosalie in college when they both ran for Bowling Green.
“In seventh and eighth grade, she already started to exhibit that she could be the top runner on the high school team. Bridget is very athletic. The steeplechase is an event with the hurdles and barriers that can interrupt your stride. With the different sports Bridget has done throughout the years, I think she is a better athlete than she is a runner. I think the steeplechase lends itself more to a competitor that is a better athlete than they are a runner.”
Franek ran a personal best time of 9 minutes, 29.53 seconds, in the steeplechase recently to finish fourth at the Aviva London Grand Prix at Crystal Palace, which is part of the Diamond League series. She also ran a 1,500 in 4:13 at the British Milers Club in Solihull.
“We feel she is capable of running faster because of her training,” Rosalie said.
Franek said she enters the Olympics with no time goals.
“It’s all about racing people and getting into the finals because there, anything can happen,” she said.
Her parents and her brother Josh, 21, are among about a dozen who are traveling to London to cheer her on.
“I am excited just to be there,” Tom said. “If she can make the finals, I am going to be super happy. I don’t get too nervous about the race. Just being there is such a gift.”