Nov. 6, 2013

By Phoenix Harris

There are a multitude of reasons college athletes play sports. For some, it is a family tradition while others might play in hopes of becoming like their favorite superstar athlete. But for freshman Conner Stapleton, things are a lot simpler.

When asked why he runs track, Stapleton laughs, “I’ve just always liked racing people and winning.”

One look at his high school career and it’s easy to see he’s pretty good at it. Recently, the Greenwood, Ind., native graduated from Center Grove High School as an all-state 300m hurdler. He won the 2013 IHSAA State Final race, contributed to his team’s second place win in the 4x400m relay and helped Center Grove take third place overall.

His success is what associate head coach Alan Turner says brought him to Notre Dame.

“He was just a very good 300m hurdler,” says Turner. “We just started doing hurdle workouts a few weeks ago and he seems to be a natural for the 400m hurdles as well. He seems to run faster with barriers in the way than without the hurdles.”

300m and 400m races are on the longer end of the sprinting spectrum. Running at top speed for these distances is a challenge in itself. Add hurdles to the mix, and you’ve easily got one of the toughest races in the track and field program. Endurance, technique, extreme speed and overall athleticism-running the 300m or 400m hurdles takes it all.

Like Turner says, Stapleton has it.

“300m hurdles is such a tough race, but I like it,” he says. “I’m really good at sprinting in between the hurdlesââ’¬¦I always try to run really calm. That’s when I do the best. I don’t amp myself up too much or get really excited. I run really calm and focused; that way if I need to tweak something during the race, I can do it.”

Stapleton’s serene speed joins a program known for its strong 400m runners. According to Turner, “He does training with two of our guys who are All-Americans in that event and who are going to be on the relay with him as well.”

The All-Americans Turner speaks of are senior Patrick Feeney and junior Chris Giesting. Both are veterans to the team and Indiana natives just like Stapleton. The three knew each other before he came to Notre Dame, partly because Giesting was the student-athlete who hosted Stapleton when he was being recruited.

“We’re kind of a clique already,” Stapleton says. “They’ve been really encouraging. They’re amazing teammates and I’m blessed to have them. They’ve been really helpful.”

“All the guys from Indiana know each other and we have a good relationship already,” Giesting agrees. “We’re there for each other.”

Giesting was a junior in high school when Stapleton’s high school alum won the entire state title. He says he knew a lot of Stapleton’s teammates from watching them compete. Their close high school connections have brought friendly competition to their college practices.

“Conner’s adjusting pretty well,” he adds. “Pat and I are the veterans of the team, so we kind of lead practice and training. We’ve noticed that Conner’s really competitive, which is a great thing. He wants to stay right with Pat and I, compete and beat all the other freshmen.”

Stapleton won’t deny his competitive nature.

“They’re providing me with guidance, but I have a really big pride issue with being helped all the time,” he says. “I’ll ask them for advice, but I try to rely on myself to do it all.”

This year the Notre Dame track and field program is all about “doing it all.”

“This is the best group I’ve had in my nine years of collegiate coaching,” says Turner, who works primarily with sprinters and hurdlers. “I’m expecting another record-breaking season. The freshmen athletes have really picked up and stepped it up as well. We’re going to have a pretty good team this year again, both men and women. I’m pretty excited.”

Giesting, who wants the 4x400m relay to go “all the way” this year, echoes his enthusiasm.

“I want to qualify for the indoor national championships, which we haven’t done. We’ve been really close. We were a couple teams out last year, so I think some of the new freshmen can get us there,” he explains. “Conner might be on it, but no matter what, they’re going to play a big part in helping us achieve our goals.”

Although he’s on the same page as his coach and teammate, Stapleton’s goals for the season are a lot broader.

“I want to score points in the ACC conference meet – indoor and outdoor. I want to try to make the 4×400 relay team and I want to try and get to regionals. I like to set my goals high.”

There are a multitude of steps that lead to achieving these goals. There are many hours of practice, many races and many hurdles. But again, for Conner Stapleton, things are a lot simpler.

“In track, if you lose, it’s your fault and if you win it’s because you worked hard,” he says with a smile. “I’ve always liked that philosophy.”