She just loves competition. In the back of my mind, I knew she would make it. I always knew. —Ron Kipp
SALT LAKE CITY — Shalaya Kipp learned at an early age that if she could handle pain, she could accomplish things that others couldn't.
"She has always had a tremendous tolerance for pain," said her father, Ron Kipp, who watched his only daughter qualify for the Olympics in Oregon on Friday. "I remember in high school, she told me, 'All you have to do is hurt more than the other girls.' And then she went to college, where everybody is fast. She said, 'Papa, everybody knows how to make it hurt.' It was like she lost her secret weapon."
What the 22-year-old didn't lose was the same competitive drive that helped her earn everything from a free Thanksgiving turkey to a college scholarship. On Friday it helped the Skyline High graduate, who is a redshirt junior at the University of Colorado, earn a trip to the London Olympics in the 3,000-meter steeplechase with a time of 9:35.73. She was .11 seconds behind the runner who finished second, Bridget Franek, and about three seconds behind her CU teammate and defending national champion Emma Coburn (9:32.78).
It was a personal best on a day when her hopes and dreams hung in the balance.
She stood before reporters in post-race interviews, disbelief obvious in her responses to questions.
"Honestly, I wasn't that sure I was going to make (the team) or not," Kipp said. "I'm still enrolled in summer school that's supposed to get started in a week. I might have to reevaluate my schedule now."
Her father, however, always believed she'd represent her country in the Olympics. It was just a matter of how, a matter of when.
"When I think about her as my adult daughter, I knew she would make it," said Ron Kipp. "I flew up there (to Eugene, Oregon) for the finals. I knew she'd make it there, and not coming to the prelim was my way of saying that."
The reason he was so confident is that he's watched her battle to be the best in various sports all of her life. And make no mistake about it, this isn't a girl who's always been on top of the podium.
In fact, one of the reasons she's so impressed her parents, coaches and friends is that regardless of the circumstances she finds her self in, she fights to exceed expectations.
She never set out to be a runner.
"She was a competitive ski racer, a very accomplished ski racer," said Ron, who works for the U.S. Ski Team as a coach. "She was just always a very good athlete. She swam, she played basketball, she ski raced. Track was always kind of No. 2. It was the way she stayed in shape."
In junior high, she showed her parents how much talent she might have when she entered a "Turkey Trot" at Churchill Junior High.
"I remember telling her that her father was a very poor ski coach and if she wanted to donate that to our dinner, I'd appreciate it. For three straight years we ate a turkey that she won."
She was one of the best track and cross country runners in her time at Skyline, winning state as a sophomore. She struggled as a junior and then, as a senior, suffered a cruel disappointment.
A judge at the state cross country championships disqualified her because her shorts were rolled at the waistband and rules state uniforms "must be worn as the manufacturer intended" to be legal. Most devastating for Shalaya was that the third-place finish for her team was erased from the record books and the Eagles ended up in fifth.
At the time, she said it was difficult to deal with, especially because she knew of other runners who weren't disqualified for the same infraction. But instead of letting it defeat her, she decided it was just one race, one loss.
"For the first week it was a little hard," Shalaya told the Deseret News at the time. "I had to learn that it was one race. Mentally, I just had to get over it."
She qualified for the 2008 Footlocker Cross Country Championships, where she finished 28th.
"That didn't phase her," said her father of the disqualification. "She just said I'm going to have redemption. She got the last laugh, I think."
While Shalaya enjoyed success in her running career, it was always ski racing that she — and her father — thought would be her ticket to the Olympic Games.
In the end, it came down to which sport allowed her to earn a free Division I education.
She signed with CU, and it was a coach's suggestion that she try Steeplechase, which is not an event in high school track. Before Friday, Shalaya had never earned an Olympic qualifying time. Ron Kipp stood near the water on the course, with high-powered binoculars and watched his daughter do something not many thought she could.
"I think she likes it because it relates a lot to ski racing," he said. "You can't just zone out and make it hurt; you have to keep your head about you. You have to get over those barriers, and that is 35 opportunities to fall down."
He said he watched her on Friday with the anxious excitement that only another parent in his situation might understand.
"My heart was beating so fast," he said. "I never sat down the whole race. I looked at every step of the race. She was in seventh place for a long time."
He wondered if she was holding back, or was she out of her league. The splits were faster than he expected and then he knew.
She was being smart.
"I knew she would hang on," he said. "She will not give up, and these other girls will start falling off. And that's what happened."
While her mother, who lives near Eugene, Oregon, returned with her family to prepare a celebratory dinner, her father met her outside doping control. He was overcome with emotion when his daughter walked outside, still draped in the American Flag she'd carried on her victory lap.
"I didn't say anything special," he said. "Just congratulations; I'm proud of you; I love you."5 comments on this story
And she basked in a moment that not many people have. Her father believes it is her time to shine. She's been the runner up, the challenger, the underdog most of her life.
"She's always been kind of a second fiddle," said her dad. "She's been a bridesmaid for a long time."
When he thinks of her as a girl, he's overcome with emotion. When he watches the young woman who has learned to use pain to her advantage and to embrace the ups and down of competitive sports, he's overcome with pride.
"She just loves competition," he said. "In the back of my mind, I knew she would make it. I always knew."