By Mike Watkins//Contritbutor | Friday, April 7, 2017
Don’t let Cierra Runge’s less-than-stellar results at this year’s NCAA Championships fool you.
They were definitely an aberration and not the norm.
The 2016 Olympic gold medalist in the 800 freestyle relay was suffering through some physical issues – namely a weakening, nearly debilitating stomach bug combined with a chest cold – prior to and during the meet.
It not only zapped her energy and made it difficult for her breathe, but it also made her times in her specialty distance events – the 500 and 1650 freestyle races – appear pedestrian. She was able to swim a few relay legs to help her Wisconsin teammates to a top-15 performance and earn All-America honors.
But it definitely wasn’t the way she wanted her first NCAA meet as a Badger to go.
Fortunately, it’s not her last.
“I hadn’t really been able to eat much for a couple of weeks before NCAAs, but I didn’t want to not compete; that’s not my style,” said Runge, who transferred to Wisconsin from the University of California-Berkeley following the 2015 NCAA season.
“I tried my best to fight if off and swim through it, but I was nowhere near my best physically to swim the distance events. I tried to save most of my energy for the relays because I didn’t want to let down my teammates. I knew I had more in the tank. I just had to get my hand on the wall.”
Several weeks removed from the meet, Runge said she is feeling back to normal, and she’s ready to challenge for a spot on this summer’s FINA World Championship team, which will be chosen during Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships in Indianapolis in June and July.
As a member of the 2014 Pan Pacific and 2015 World Championship teams, Runge said she got a taste for competition at the highest levels.
And despite winning a silver medal in the 400 freestyle at Pan Pacs, she said she wants to see more from herself on an individual level at big meets – not that she’s unhappy with her relay gold medals from Worlds and last year’s Olympics.
“I love being a part of relays, and I always will, but I want to push myself for more individual best times and placements on international teams,” said Runge, who finished as the runner-up in the both the 400 and 800 freestyle events at 2014 Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships.
“Being a part of U.S. teams at international competitions is such an honor and so much fun that I always want my best swims to reflect how much I appreciate the opportunities I get.”
Runge said her season in Madison, Wisc., has more than reinforced her decision to leave Berkeley after her freshman season in 2015.
Following that NCAA season, she moved to Baltimore to work with Bob Bowman and his group for the summer leading up to World Championships in Kazan, Russia.
After that, she took the year off from school and collegiate competition to relocate to Tempe, Ariz., and continue working with Bowman, Michael Phelps, Allison Schmitt, Chase Kalisz and others when Bowman took the head coaching position at Arizona State.
The decision paid off when Runge finished fifth in the 200 freestyle at Trials to earn a spot on the Olympic Team in Rio. She swam a leg during prelims and then watched with tremendous excitement and emotion as her U.S. teammates won gold during the evening finals.
“I was sitting with my teammates, and after we won, I just started sobbing,” said Runge, who also finished third in the 400 freestyle at Trials, just missing a spot on the Olympic team in an individual event.
“My parents were sitting further up in the stands from us, and I went to find them after the race to thank them for everything they had done to get me to that point in my swimming career. We all made a lot of sacrifices along the way – including them – and I was just so grateful and wanted to share it with them.”
During her time in Arizona, Runge said she learned some valuable lessons about swimming and competition from her fellow swimmers – and also learned a few things about herself.
“I’m very resilient, and I’m more courageous than I thought before I did that,” she said. “Working with someone like Bob is a no-brainer, but moving out there on my own was a leap of faith.
“I hadn’t lined up an apartment, so I went out and stayed at someone’s house via Airbnb, and then found an apartment with two girls who have become my best friends. I figured things out on my own, and that gave me as much confidence as swimming alongside Allison and Michael every day in practice did for my swimming.”
A dietary nutrition major at Wisconsin, Runge said her decision to leave Berkeley in 2015 was largely about being closer to home than anything else.
Wisconsin was one of the programs she considered strongly during recruiting before choosing Cal-Berkeley, so coming to Madison and feeling close to the core of swimmers and coaches there made for a seamless transition.
“The training style there (Wisconsin) is more in my wheelhouse, and being able to swim with and against guys during practice was really appealing,” Runge said. “I connect well with the coaching staff as well.
“It was a difficult decision because I had a lot of success and friends in Berkeley, but being in Wisconsin has been a perfect combination of home and away. It’s not that different from Pennsylvania (where she grew up).”
With the collegiate season behind her, Runge said she plans to stay in Wisconsin this summer to work with Coach Whitney Hite and his staff to continue preparing for Nationals.
She said it would be a dream come true to make another World Championship team and be right there again in 2020 to make another Olympic team – this time in an individual event (or events) as well as on the relay.
“I remember as a 4-year-old watching the 2000 Olympics on TV and saying that I was going to do that someday; ever since, it’s been my sole focus,” said Runge, a member of the 2013 FINA Junior World Championship team, winning four relay medals. “Now that I’ve done it once, I want to make it happen again.
“There’s nothing quite like being part of a U.S. team at international competition. It’s easily one of the best experiences of my life. Being part of Team USA is amazing, and I definitely want to be there in 2020. I plan to give it everything I have.”