After long, arduous training sessions on the track whipping her body into shape, Lindsey Anderson would retire to her home and work on her mind.
During the weeks leading up to the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, where she would compete in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, she wrote two things on a sheet of paper every day: "I will run 9:30. I will make the Olympic Team."
And then she did exactly that. Knowing that a top-three finish would secure a ticket to the Beijing Olympics, Anderson finished second with a time of 9 minutes, 30.75 seconds. a full nine seconds faster than her previous personal record.
"I could've run faster," she told her coach afterward.
She'll have to if she hopes to meet her next goals. Already she has begun another written mantra as she counts down to Beijing. Every day, on the same sheet of paper, she writes: "I will make the Olympic finals. I will run 9:25."
"We talk about visualizing things, so that when she gets to the Olympic trials and these big meets, it's not so stressful, and she knows she can do it," says Anderson's coach, Paul Pilkington.
That wasn't always the case. Only two years ago, Anderson was so frustrated and filled with self-doubt after a seasonlong slump that she briefly considered quitting the sport. She had failed even to qualify for the NCAA championships that year.
Now she's headed to the Olympic Games, and even if that fact weren't on her mind 24/7 there are reminders everywhere, whether it's congratulatory text and e-mail messages and letters or via more direct deliveries.
"Good luck in Beijing!!!" a man yelled at her as his car sped past her during a training session on the roads last week.
The other day she and Pilkington were out for a training run on a back road in Ogden when a man driving a Qwest truck slowed down and shouted out the window, "Hey, you're the one on the Olympic team, aren't you?!"
As near as research can determine, Anderson is one of only a handful of native Utahns who have earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic track and field team during the last 100-plus years among them, Richard George (javelin), Mark Enyeart (800 meters), Wade Bell (800 meters), Julie Jenkins (800 meters), Blaine Lindgren (110 hurdles), Ed Eyestone (marathon), Clarence Robison (5,000-meter run), L. Jay Silvester (discus), Tiffany Lott Hogan (heptathlon), James Parker (hammer), Amy Palmer (hammer), Alma Richards (high jump), Lee Barnes (pole vault) and Eddie Tolan (100 and 200 meters). Only five of them medaled Lindgren, Silvester, Richards, Barnes and Tolan.
Anderson might be the least likely of them all. She is hardly a prepossessing specimen. At 5-foot-3, 110 pounds, she is usually the smallest woman in the race. This is clearly a disadvantage in an event that requires her to clear 30-inch barriers and hurdles 28 times and a 12-foot water jump seven times over the course of 7 1/2 laps.
"But she's a good athlete, and her technique is excellent," says Pilkington. "She's good over the water jumps and hurdles."
He says this as he puts Anderson through a training session in Ogden's City Park. She is doing a set of repeat 800- and 400-meter runs over a trail that winds around a small pond, past ducks and geese and joggers. Anderson and Pilkington come here to break the monotony of running on a track and because it's cool and shady under the trees.
"How do you feel?" he asks her a couple of times to determine the effects of the workout.
Pilkington and Anderson are a good team. She has complete faith in her coach and his training program, which is understandable given her sudden steep improvement under his tutelage. Pilkington's mild, serene temperament has a calming effect on anyone he meets but especially runners, who tend to be prone to self doubt and anxiety. He was a junior high English teacher for years until he blossomed into a world-class road racer and marathoner, which he turned into a fulltime profession. He once was hired as a pace-setter for the L.A. Marathon in which his competitors waited for him to slow down and then drop out, as is the custom; instead, he made worldwide headlines by winning the race. Now 49, he has been hired by Weber State, his alma mater, to coach its distance runners, and he has continued to coach Anderson into the professional ranks.
"I know I couldn't have progressed and gone to this level without Paul," says Anderson. "There's no doubt in my mind."
Anderson, who is married to her high school sweetheart, Mark Anderson, was the oldest of Scott and Sherilee Olson's five children. Her identical twin, Angela, was a good high school runner, but passed up invitations to run at the collegiate level. She served a church mission in Malaysia, then returned in January and enrolled at Weber State. She continues to run recreationally and will compete in the Deseret News 10K as a member of the Momontimes.com running team.
Nothing in Lindsey Anderson's formative years suggested a future Olympian. She won four state titles in the 3A classification for Morgan High, but none as a senior, and after her sophomore year her times declined. Only Weber State and Southern Utah offered track scholarships.
Personal history repeated itself at Weber State. She qualified for nationals as a sophomore, but a year later her times were 10 seconds slower and she didn't earn a berth at nationals. Pilkington had entered the scene that year and beefed up her training mileage and the intensity of her track work.
"It was an adjustment," he says. "She was tired."
But a year later, in 2007, Anderson blossomed in dramatic fashion. She set an NCAA record of 9:39.95, took second in the NCAA championships and third in the USA nationals, the latter earning her a spot on the U.S. World Championships team that competed in Osaka, Japan.
Just like that virtually overnight she had burst onto the national distance-running scene, and she was signed to an 18-month contract by Nike. The 23-year-old's ascendance continued this year with her showing at the Olympic Trials.
"A lot of people thought that when she ran 9:39 last year that she couldn't improve much more this year," says Pilkington. "She knocked nine seconds off of that, and she can go faster than that right now. She's still years away from being at her peak."
After watching her fail to make the finals at the World Championships in Osaka last fall, Pilkington decided to address one of her weaknesses: speed. Opponents were able to make sudden bursts of speed that allowed them to create a gap, the way Anna Willard did in the Olympic Trials with 500 meters to go. "The gap never grew after the initial burst," says Pilkington.
As a result, after every distance workout, he puts Anderson through a series of 100-meter sprints on the track and requires her to run up the Weber football stadium stairs with an exaggerated knee lift.
"We're working on her ability to change gears," says Pilkington.
What she lacks in speed, Anderson makes up for in stamina and a competitiveness that will see her through the pain and discomfort that distance runners must be willing to endure to beat her rivals.9 comments on this story
"She's not intimidated by anyone or anything like a big meet," says Pilkington. "Sometimes when kids come from small towns, it takes them a while to adjust, to realize they can compete at this level. She's raced well in the big meets NCAAs, the USA nationals, the Olympic trials."
For her part, Anderson has outgrown the nervousness and doubts she once experienced. In high school, she grew to dread races so much that she was almost in tears by the time the race began.
"It was fear of failure," she says. "But in college I got over it because I no longer had the burden of expectation. And when Coach Paul came along, I grew even more confident. He tells us, 'If you're prepared, you will run well."'Curiously, after competing in the Olympic trials and national and world championship meets, she says she has never experienced as much nervousness as she did in high school. As for the Olympics, where she will be placed on the biggest stage in the world, she smiles. "I'll be fine," she says.