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Friday, June 14, 2024
The Observer

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2024 Observer Sports Female Athlete of the Year: Jadin O’Brien

O’Brien claimed her second consecutive NCAA Indoor Championship in pentathlon

They don’t make many track and field competitors like Jadin O’Brien. Since arriving at Notre Dame in 2020, the senior has battled through injuries, oddball pandemic scenarios and a nonstop day-to-day schedule to set school records while claiming conference and national championships. This past year, O’Brien repeated as the NCAA Indoor Champion pentathlete and delivered a school-record heptathlon effort that qualified her for the 2024 US Olympic Team Trials.

Hitting her stride

A native of Pewaukee, Wisconsin, O’Brien discovered her competitive fire at a very young age. Her family includes six siblings along with two former Division I athletes at Bowling Green State as parents. O’Brien fondly remembers being awestruck by the words of her father, Kevin, who spent parts of the 1990s with the Buffalo Bills and the New England Patriots of the National Football League.

“Growing up, he would just tell me stories about what it was like and how he would feel competing in front of like all these fans and just what it was like being a professional athlete. And for me, that was the epitome of success. I was like, ‘My dad can do that? Oh, I'm going to do that,’” O’Brien recalled. “My version of that level of success is the Olympics. And so the Olympics has become my focal point for just everything — the hard workouts, the rough days —be it performance-wise, be school-wise. Everything directs me to that goal.”

Throughout the vast majority of her childhood though, O’Brien funneled her drive to succeed into sports like basketball and soccer. She never viewed track and field as her bread-and-butter until her freshman year of high school, when she moved on from soccer. Her mother, Leslie O’Brien, who ran track in college, recommended she give the sport a try at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School.

That same year, O’Brien claimed a state championship in the 300-meter hurdles.

“From there, I kind of just took off,” O’Brien said. “My mom was my hurdle coach, and having her in my corner was honestly critical to the success I had in high school and now in college. But after winning state my freshman year, my mindset shifted. I [was] like, ‘Okay, this is something I could do post-state, post-high school and even post-collegiately.’”

As she channeled more and more energy into track in the seasons that followed, schools like Tennessee, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas State and Purdue took notice. But Notre Dame, the university whose summer soccer camp turned O’Brien toward track in the first place, emerged as her favored destination for three reasons: faith, academics and athletics.

Although O’Brien opened her college career at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, she kept major aspirations for the future in view. During one of her first days on campus, she looked up at the large American flag and “Go Irish” sign situated high up the wall of the indoor facility and committed herself to leaving a legacy.

That legacy began with a wild indoor season in 2020-21. Because O’Brien had been quarantined going into her pentathlon bid at the ACC Championships, she tightened up and tore her quad less than an hour before her first event. Nevertheless, she ran on the injury and placed second in the conference, qualifying for the NCAA Championships.

But then her injury news worsened. Upon returning to South Bend, O’Brien became aware that she had suffered a third-degree tear of her quad. Any further injury to the muscle at NCAAs would have the potential to end her career.

“That was really scary, hearing [it] as a freshman with these huge goals — that a situation that you couldn't control may just end your dreams,” O’Brien said. “But being the competitor that I am, I was like, ‘Absolutely not. I'm definitely going to be competing on this leg at the national meet.’”

Rather than ending her career, the quad tear propelled O’Brien’s journey forward even more. On minimal training, she set personal bests in all five legs of the pentathlon at nationals, capturing fourth place and All-American status. Not as a graduate student or senior, but as a freshman. O’Brien suddenly realized that, if she had done all of that while injured her first season, she had plenty more in store.

Pentathlon perfection

Beginning with her courageous performances in 2021, the pentathlon has become O’Brien’s indoor calling card. Pentathletes compete in five different events spread out across the same day: the 60-meter hurdles, the high jump, the shot put, the long jump and the 800-meter run. During outdoor season, O’Brien specializes in heptathlon, which adds the javelin throw and the 200-meter dash while stretching the hurdles out to 100 meters.

O’Brien described the demanding nature of the pentathlon, a competition that brought her national titles in both 2023 and 2024.

“To be a pentathlete, not only do you have to be very athletic, but you have to be very mentally tough,” she said. “Most athletes do one event and call it a day, but we're doing five back-to-back, with the hardest event being the 800 as the very last event… If you ask any pentathlete the morning of the competition, most people are probably terrified because you know it's going to take everything out of you. You know it's going to hurt a lot, and you know you're going to be dead at the end. So it takes a lot just to even show up… It's a very challenging event, and it's not for the faint of heart, but it's also something that I'm very proud of to consider myself a pentathlete because not everyone can do it.”

To manage the stress of being a pentathlete, O’Brien prefers to channel her nerves into ferocious energy. That helped her cruise to both ACC and NCAA Championships as a junior.

But as O’Brien sought out back-to-back crowns in 2024, her situation demanded a different approach. As a hamstring strain and shin problems again limited her training going into both ACCs and NCAAs, she played the mental game of visualizing her success because she knew she couldn’t physically replicate it in practice. When the time came for O’Brien to defend her national title, she found herself in the right headspace to succeed.

“I had this weird calm come over me before the race, and it definitely helped talking to my head coach Matt Sparks about the race… So I went into the 800 — poker face on with the mindset of like, ‘Let's just do this,’” O’Brien said. “I wasn't thinking about [how] it's going to hurt a lot [or] if your training is going to help you through this. I really developed almost like an iron wall, a barrier between the negative thoughts that were trying to get into my head and what I actually let get into my head. And because I was able to set up that barrier, I was able to stay calm when it mattered and just perform.”

The road ahead

Since going back-to-back in the pentathlon, O’Brien has found more success outdoors this spring. She set a school record and qualified for the US Olympic Trials by scoring 6115 in the heptathlon at the Mt. SAC Relays in mid-April. That performance also earned her ACC Women’s Outdoor Field Athlete of the Week honors.

Most recently, O’Brien competed at the ACC Outdoor Championships, finishing on the All-ACC Women’s Second Team with a personal record and fifth-place finish in the 100-meter hurdles. She’s already clinched a spot in the NCAA Championships, scheduled for June 5-8 in Eugene, Oregon. Two weeks after that, she’ll go back to Eugene for the Olympic trials.

“The plan right now is to just focus on nationals, qualify for the Olympics and then becoming the best athlete I can be to turn pro in my sport,” O’Brien outlined.

O’Brien currently plans to return to Notre Dame for her final year of eligibility and pursue her Master’s degree in 2024-25.