Val Constien's Comeback From A Torn ACL To Return To The U.S. Olympic Steeplechase Conversation

"If you're racing just to make the team, you're not going to be happy because someone else could get that spot. That's when I changed my mindset. I don't know if you've seen the show Fallout but in the first episode the ghoul says, 'I do this shit for the love of the game.' That's kind of how I feel."

Val Constien is a professional runner for Nike and was a member of the 2021 Olympic team in the steeplechase. We had her on the show in the spring of 2021 and it was a memorable episode because she announced herself to the U.S. as a contender to make the team and then backed it up at the Trials.

Following the Games, she remained unsponsored for more than a year. We talk about how Tokyo didn’t ultimately change a whole lot for her but her passion for the sport remained. She won the 2023 U.S. Indoor 3000m title and then signed a contract with Nike. However, in her first race in the pro kit, she tore her ACL at the Doha Diamond League and that 2023 season was a wrap. She underwent bilateral ACL reconstruction and thought maybe she wouldn’t race again until 2025.

Things quickly changed and she accelerated through her recovery and is back to racing. In her first steeplechase race in a year, she went on to win the Sound Running Track Fest in 9:27.22. That’s her fastest steeple opener. She’s now back in the conversation to make the Olympic team in the steeplechase since it’s a bit wide open without Emma Coburn. I think you might find someone to root for in Val after this conversation.

Host: Chris Chavez | ⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠@chris_j_chavez on Instagram⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠

Guest: Val Constien | @valerieconstien on Instagram

The following interview excerpt has been edited lightly for clarity. You can listen to the full interview with Val Constien on the CITIUS MAG Podcast – available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your shows.

CITIUS MAG: The past year has been kind of a rollercoaster of emotions. There was that high coming off of the indoor season, the momentum of signing a new deal, and then, of course, the injury that knocked you out for the remainder of the year. It's great to see you back in action. How are you feeling turning the page to an Olympic year being healthy again?

Val Constien: I'm feeling really good. Like you said, last year when I talked to Dana (Giordano) on the More Than Running Podcast, I had just signed my deal with Nike and I was super excited. I'm pretty sure I left for Doha a few days later, like three or four days after we did that podcast together, and I was really excited for (the Doha Diamond League)...

I was coming off of a super high from indoor, winning the 3K championship and doing it unsponsored, and then finally getting a contract after all these years of having to prove myself over and over again. Over the second water jump in Doha, I felt a pop and it was all over. Obviously the months after that were just a total grind to try to get back to any type of form. But then this past weekend, I spiked up for the first time since then to do the steeplechase and luckily Sound Running put on a fantastic event. We were able to run pretty fast and I was able to kick for the win and ran a 9:27. So it's truly amazing what a year can do.

CITIUS MAG: Coming back from surgery, did anything change physically in your form as you returned to steeplechase workouts? Take us through that side of things.

Val Constien: We were really slow about it. There were times during the progression where I would do these steeplechase workouts and my knees would be really sore afterwards – both of them – and I'd have to tell the coaches. We cut a couple workouts short, we had to make adjustments, we had to ensure that there were seven to ten days in between steeplechase workouts to give my knees enough time to recover. We were just really careful. Super, super careful. Eventually, over time, I gained that confidence back. Now I can hurdle like I used to and I can water jump like I used to – which is great, but it just takes time. There's no secret sauce. You just have to give yourself lots of time and space to get used to it again.

CITIUS MAG: It's different practicing for the steeplechase solo. There's a whole other element when you have to do it in a race and you're surrounded by all these people. You may not get as much room as you want. You have to make room for yourself to go over the hurdles and the water barriers. How do you silence or quiet doubts and cautiousness?

Val Constien: I wasn't really that good in college. I was a mid-pack steeplechaser for most of my career. So steeplechasing and track was just something that I did from my freshman year all the way to my fifth year. I was just in the middle of the pack, competing for time, never really competing for a win. Just back there, dealing with bad hurdlers, bad water jumpers and having to have a calm mind.

Up until very recently, there's always been steeplechasers at CU (Colorado University) to train with, so there were people to run behind. There were people to run in front of to get used to it. So I think all those years of experience have really paid off. And other races helped too. With the 1500m at Bryan Clay, I was pretty much in the middle of the pack for most of the race up until the end. Even in regular racing, there's bumping, there's jostling around. I think that with the steeplechase, you gain enough confidence over those hurdles and barriers that it doesn't really matter what anyone else does. I don't think too hard about it. I try to think as little as possible and just let my body do what it knows how to do.

CITIUS MAG: What has going through your injury done to shift your perspective?

Val Constien: It's totally been a perspective shift. In the past, I would have thought, “I can push through this. This is fine. If my foot's a little sore, who cares?” But now it's like, no – my top priority is just to be healthy. I don't mind having to make adjustments here or there. I'd rather be 95% fit on the start line than 100% fit but bandaged up on the couch. So I've definitely changed my outlook a lot on training and just pursuing health above anything else. The performances will come if you're healthy.

Val on her mindset towards racing:

Val Constien: The moment doubt creeps into your mind in a race, that's when someone's going to beat you… You just have to compartmentalize it and be like, “this sucks, but it sucks for everyone else too. I'm fit and I want to win.” That's the thing that you focus on – the desire to win and not the fear of anything else happening. It's definitely a little scary sometimes when you're thinking, “oh my gosh, I blew out my ACL doing this,” but you just can't think about it.

CITIUS MAG: How do you define success? By the end of the summer, what would make you happy about this outdoor season?

Val Constien: I'm already happy. Last weekend, I did it. I did the thing that defined the season. I came back from surgery, I ran a steeplechase, and I feel good. So I've already done it. Everything else from that point is just a cherry on top. I'm just happy to be here. I'm happy to compete.

CITIUS MAG: Hearing you speak now, you have this sort of approach where you want to make the Olympic team for Paris, but at the end of the day if you don't make it, it's not the end of the world.

Val Constien: At the end of the day, World Championships, Olympics, they're just another race. If you're racing just to make the team, you're not going to be happy because someone else could get that spot. So that's kind of when I changed my mindset. I don't know if you've seen the show Fallout, but in the first episode the ghoul says, “I do this shit for the love of the game” – And that's kind of how I feel. I definitely resonated with that line from the ghoul in that show because I just do this for the love of the game. And that's what 2022 and 2021 taught me. I was able to take that into 2023, and I think that's one of the reasons why I was able to recover from surgery so well and hopefully have a good outlook going into the Olympic Trials.

Time stamps:

  • 5:58 - Reflecting on the past year coming back from ACL surgery.
  • 8:10 - What was going through her head when she tore her ACL during the 3000m steeplechase in Doha last summer.
  • 10:04 - How she surprised herself with how quickly she bounced back following her surgery.
  • 11:11 - The details on her surgery and recovery process.
  • 18:54 - How her outlook on training has changed since her injury.
  • 19:58 - How she and her coaches approached returning to steeplechase training.
  • 22:56 - Her trajectory in college + how she remains confident in herself.
  • 24:49 - Her mindset while racing.
  • 26:36 - What she thinks it’ll take to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team in the steeplechase.
  • 29:52 - What her race schedule looks like for the rest of the season.
  • 33:23 - What her life has been like since making her first Olympic team.
  • 35:27 - How she’s defining success for herself this season.
  • 36:25 - How she balances working full-time with training.
  • 37:23 - Her thoughts on how the 3000m steeplechase final will unfold at this year’s U.S. Trials.
  • 38:29 - Reflecting on the 3000m steeplechase final at the 2021 U.S. Trials.
  • 41:20 - What she predicts will happen in the Pre Classic steeplechase.

For more from Val Constien, listen to the full interview on the CITIUS MAG Podcast.

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Chris Chavez

Chris Chavez launched CITIUS MAG in 2016 as a passion project while working full-time for Sports Illustrated. He covered the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and grew his humble blog into a multi-pronged media company. He completed all six World Marathon Majors and is an aspiring sub-five-minute miler.

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