(Photo by Bob Thomas/FSU Sports Information)
After a debate in June ended in her favor, University of Florida student Genevieve LaCaze will be running for her home country of Australia in the 2012 Olympics. For her, the road from Australia to Florida to London has been long but well worth it.
LaCaze ran a qualifying time for the 3000-meter steeplechase two days after Australia's deadline to choose its Olympic team had passed, but that deadline has been extended. The runner received overwhelming support from fans in the wake of the debate.
"I was really anxious, but deep down I kind of thought I'm almost positive they should let me in. There were no other girls in this event," she said.
"A few weeks down the track, it's slowly sinking in. I don't think it has sunk in yet...I think it'll hit me when I actually get to London, but right now I'm just enjoying the moment."
Growing up in Australia, LaCaze lived in an environment where sports did not receive as much attention as they do in the U.S. She was one of the few runners at her high school and the colleges there do not have sports programs. She went on recruiting tours at both Texas A&M and UF, and decided that the Sunshine State would be her new home.
Though she feels that Florida's culture is somewhat similar to Australia's, LaCaze at first had trouble adjusting to her new life when she began school at UF. Her homesickness was difficult to deal with, but the country's love of sports made the transition a bit more positive.
"Running over here, it makes you feel like, when you're in college, it makes you feel like a professional because all the meets can get thousands of people coming to watch, and it's just crazy that they're coming to watch track events. You just wouldn't be able to find that in Australia," she said.
"My first race that wasn't a home meet I think was at Notre Dame, and I just couldn't believe that there were hundreds of girls in one race. I transitioned better than I thought I would."
LaCaze will graduate from UF in December, and she knows that her time at the university has been instrumental to her running career.
"The collegiate system in general can prepare any athlete for professional life after college," she said. "When you're in college you race so many races; you're racing every weekend at some point. Most of the time you're running several events."
"It just really prepares you to be strong. I think most of the time it makes you mentally tough and builds your fitness up."
The transition from the team-oriented environment of collegiate sports to the more independent nature of professional sports can be difficult for athletes. For LaCaze, that transition has been made a little easier since she signed a contract with New Balance. Before that, she didn't even know if she would have the funds to stay in America after graduation.
"That was always a worry. Approaching my senior year I was kind of frantic about what happens when I graduate," she said.
Now she plans on staying in Florida to continue training with her coach at UF and preparing for next year's World Championships. One moment that she believes helped her get to where she is now just happened in May. After becoming the first female in SEC history to win the 3000-meter steeplechase, the 1500-meter and the 5000-meter races in one competition, she was named the South Region Women's Track Athlete of the Year by the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.
"It was a surprise. I definitely didn't go into that, into the SEC, thinking that I would win all three," she said.
"That weekend I think, in general, really kick-started my confidence for the rest of the season."
Though she will be running for Australia in the Olympics, she has gotten a lot of support from fans here in America. They might have trouble watching her when the games start -- American TV cameras tend to be pointed at Team USA, after all.
"I'll be searching for the U.S. cameras to try to get to see all my friends over here," she laughed.
"It's cool in a way, but at the same time I feel like I do owe a lot to the U.S. and all it's done for me as an athlete."
She won't have to run against any of her fellow Gators, but there will be some familiar faces running for Team USA in London.
"All three girls that are racing for the U.S., I've raced before, so that's kind of exciting," she said. "They're a great group of girls."
One of those girls, Shalaya Kipp, beat LaCaze at Nationals this year, and though they are competitive with one another, LaCaze said she is a sweet girl, and has contacted all three looking forward to racing them again.
In December, LaCaze will be earning her degree in applied physiology and kinesiology from UF, but with her past track and field successes and London on the horizon, it looks like she will stick to the running world for a while.