I’m a bad b****, Rachel O’Brien says to herself as she pushes through the final leg of her 800-metre race; heartbeat pounding in her throat, legs striking the earth bellow, lungs burning with every gulp of air; she is the little train that could.
Rachel O’Brien, 22, never imagined that 12 years after starting in the Under-10s at Sale Little Athletics, she would be packing her bags to board a plane en route to Adams State University, Colorado in the US on a full athletics scholarship.
O’Brien, the Wellington Athletic Club’s first female athlete to qualify for the Australian Olympic trials back in 2020, departed on Wednesday (January 18), for Alamosa, Colorado, where she will spend the next two years studying for a Masters of Business Administration and competing for the Adams State Grizzlies’ track and field squad.
“I just finished my physiotherapy degree at Monash University in Melbourne,” O’Brien told the Gippsland Times before flying out.
“I will definitely use that degree; I have loved learning about physio, but this is an incredible experience and opportunity that has come up, so I would rather take that on; I’ve got my whole life to figure out my career as a physio.”
The middle-distance runner, clocking in a personal best of 2.10 minutes in the 800m, says the athletics scholarship will allow her to focus on her running career.
“Going through uni, Australian uni, you don’t have that same support,” she said.
“You know, I have still had to work and study and train all at once, and it’s a lot to manage, it’s a lot to balance, but over there, all that other stuff will be taken care of, and I will just get to focus on my running.
“I will also have some incredible racing opportunities to hopefully then bring my times down, and that will open some more doors; I am really excited.”
O’Brien’s introduction to running is not what you would expect; with such a coveted history, one would assume the 22-year-old Heyfield local was born into an athletics family, but you’d assume wrong.
“It’s actually pretty funny,” O’Brien laughed, pressing her palms to blushing cheeks.
“I used to play tennis as an eight-year-old, and I was not good at all.
“We used to go down every week. Then one weekend, we were playing at the tennis courts that used to be right next to the track, and Little Aths was on, and I said to mum, ‘mum, mum, that looks so much more fun than this; I hate this’.
“The next season, mum said we would try Little Aths for our summer sport and, yeah, loved it; I fell in love with it and haven’t looked back.”
A lover of high-jump in her junior years, at 15, O’Brien chose to focus on her running, saying goodbye to Sale Little Athletics and moving to Wellington Athletics Club, where she would later make the national senior athletics team.
“I was the first Wellington Athletics Club female to qualify and attend at any Olympic trails; that was a pretty big achievement of mine,” O’Brien said.
“Making senior nationals, that was, I was pretty happy with that and getting this scholarship is one of the highlights of my running career.”
Australian 800m record holder, Catriona Bisset, and Aboriginal Australian former sprinter, Cathy Freeman, heralded as one of Australia’s greatest ever sportspeople, are women who O’Brien idolises.
“As a junior, there wasn’t particularly anyone, but as I’ve gotten older, looking at Catriona Bisset and learning about her story and the way that she speaks so openly about mental health and her journey, I just think she is incredible,” O’Brien said.
“She is an amazing inspiration to me.
“Growing up, I remember reading in Year 7, we had to read Born to Run, and it was just so amazing, so yeah, Cathy Freeman is definitely another inspiration, particularly growing up.”
Rain, hail or shine, O’Brien is scrupulous at maintaining a strict training regime, training every day of the week bar one.
“The worst thing about running is when you are sore after a big session, and you know you have to get out the door, and it might be miserable outside,” O’Brien said.
“I have done a lot of procrastination in my time; it’s the thought of it more than actually doing it. It’s just like, put your running kit on, stand outside the door, and then you’ll go, but sometimes it’s so hard to just do that.”
The hardest battle is won, and O’Brien is running; with her coach on the track, along the streets of Heyfield or Melbourne, or through the vast bush blanketing Gippsland’s rolling hills, headphones on, deep into her ‘Sweaty Spagetti’ playlist.
“There are so many good things [about running],” O’Brien said.
“I think the best thing about running is; I get so many benefits for my mental health through running and all the amazing opportunities that come alongside that.
“There are just so many good things,” she laughed.
“It’s a very mindful activity; I like taking my headphones off sometimes when I’m on a long run in the bush or somewhere and just listening to the gravel, like the pounding of the gravel and just taking in the scenery.
“So yeah, the best things about running are the places it takes you and the scenes you can see when you’re running, and the other side, the mental side, is how amazing it is that I can get the best out of myself, I can push myself and reap those mental health benefits all in one.”
The hours before O’Brien’s departure to the US, where she begins the next phase of her running career, are quickly slipping away; nerves and sadness join feelings of excitement as she says farewell to her boyfriend, family and friends.
You best believe that when those pesky anxious feelings begin brewing in the pit of her stomach, growing as she places one foot in front of the other along the boarding tunnel, Rachel O’Brien will be telling herself, I’m a bad b****. She is the little train that could.