Hannah Steelman of Wofford College makes her way along the cross country course during a meet last fall. The Orono High School graduate, a freshman for the Terriers, qualified for the NCAA Division I track and field championships in the 5,000-meter run and in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Credit: Wofford College athletics

Barely two months ago the steeplechase was more a curiosity to Hannah Steelman than a competitive outlet.

Now it’s so much more than that.

The former Orono High School distance runner last weekend became the first Wofford College student-athlete to qualify for the NCAA Division I track and field championships, not only in the 5,000-meter run but also in that unique 3,000-meter test perhaps best known for its water barrier along the route.

That latter achievement remarkably came in just Steelman’s third-ever steeplechase race.

“It’s pretty crazy to have run only two steeplechase races in my life going into the regionals and then qualifying for the NCAAs,” she said. “It’s also pretty crazy to think there’s a lot of improvements I can make in that event. I’m definitely nowhere near perfection so I think with a lot of practice I’m pretty excited for what’s to come at nationals.”

Steelman, a freshman at the school in Spartanburg, South Carolina, will compete in both events during the NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Outdoor Track and Field Championships set for June 6-9 at Historic Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon.

Steelman placed eighth in the steeplechase at the NCAA East prelim in Tampa, Florida, with a school-record time of 10 minutes, 0.70 seconds. The top 12 finishers advanced to the nationals.

A night later Steelman posted the 10th-fastest time among 45 runners in the 5,000 to earn an NCAA berth in that event. She competed in the first of two heats and finished fourth in 16:18.32, with the top five in each heat plus the next two fastest finishers advancing.

Yet it’s the strategy and physical nature of the steeplechase — each of that event’s seven laps includes four traditional, 30-inch-high hurdles as well as a similarly heighted barrier used to bound over a 12-foot-long water pit — that has captured Steelman’s attention at this point in her running career.

“To be frank, it’s the hardest event I’ve ever done and I don’t think that’s hard to understand,” said Steelman. “It is very unique with the barriers and what’s fun is the feeling of accomplishment you get when you’re done because steeplechase more than any other event is something where technique and form can really determine how many seconds you take off or add to your time.”

Steelman admitted to some trepidation as she approached her new event earlier this spring at the urging of Wofford head cross country and track and field coach Johnny Bomar, particularly given her lack of a hurdling background.

“It was actually something I really needed to work on,” she said. “The first couple of practices were frustrating and I honestly didn’t know if this would be my event or not, because I couldn’t shake the fear of getting up to the (water) barrier, I couldn’t get my steps right.

“But after my first race there was a lot to take from that in regards to how I need to get better.”

Steelman was named the Southern Conference Outdoor Track and Field Female Freshman of the Year two weeks ago after winning the steeplechase at the conference championship meet by nearly 16 seconds. She also placed third in the 1,500.

“After the conference race I really started to realize I was becoming more comfortable, and now it really has me excited about my future in the steeplechase,” she said. “In the steeple practice really does make perfect and the more I do it the more it’s all going to become second nature to me.”

Steelman is scheduled to debut at the NCAA Division I nationals at the University of Oregon in the steeplechase prelims on June 7, with the steeplechase final and 5,000 final set for Saturday, June 9 — her 19th birthday.

“That’s always been a place I’ve wanted to visit, even to just say I’ve see Tracktown USA,” said Steelman. “It’s going to be pretty cool to race on Hayward Field for the last time before they renovate it.

“I honestly never knew that the first time I visited Hayward Field I would be racing there. It’s still seems pretty unreal for me to say that.”

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...