Gators at Tokyo Olympics: Cross-country move helps Cory McGee finally fulfill Summer Game dreams

Noah Ram
Special to The Sun
Cory McGee celebrates after the Women's 1500 Meters final during the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on June 21, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon.

Sometimes a change of scenery can unlock greatness for an athlete.

In 2018, Cory McGee lived and trained in Boston.

The middle-distance runner put up stellar numbers there, but felt like her performance plateaued.

“I needed a new training environment,” she said.

So, the former Florida standout headed to Boulder, Colorado, where older, more experienced teammates greeted her with open arms.

Fast forward three years, and McGee qualified for the women’s 1500-meter at this summer’s Olympics in Tokyo after failing to make it past the U.S. Olympic trials in 2012 and ’16.

“In 2012, I didn’t expect to make the team as I was 19, and they rarely make it in the 1500m, but in 2016, I saw myself as a contender, but I didn’t make it into the finals,” she said.

McGee said she failed to realize while in Boston how much she needed the leadership and motivation that veterans bring. Her New Balance team in Beantown was newer, so she had no one to admire.

At UF, she relied on older teammates like fellow Olympian Genevieve Gregson to drive her. McGee, a product of Pass Christian, Mississippi, completed an impressive Florida career in 2014.

She finished as NCAA runner-up in the 1500 outdoors and won the SEC 300 indoor and 1500 outdoor her senior season.

“Having teammates that I can follow in their footsteps and adapt to the lifestyle they live in order to reach that level of excellence is huge for me,” she said.

In Colorado, McGee trained with runners like Emma Coburn, who won bronze in the 3000 steeplechase at the 2016 Olympics, and Aisha Praught-Leer, who took silver at the 2019 Pan American Games.

She also learned to battle elements unheard of in Florida.

“We spend a lot of time training in a variety of places,” she said. “In the winter, we train in Arizona, and in the spring, we train in Crested Butte for six weeks at 9,000 feet.”

McGee’s time in Florida and Colorado prepared her for the record-breaking heat that hit Eugene, Oregon, during trials.

“I grew up with that and it is part of who I am, so I feel very confident in those moments,” she said. “It’s almost this deep innate self-belief that if it’s hot, I’m going to be OK.”

That confidence showed as McGee set a career-best and guaranteed her spot on the team by finishing just behind Elle Purrier St. Pierre, who broke Mary Slaney’s 33-year U.S. 1500 record.

McGee said everything came together at trials to create a perfect storm.

“Runners usually don’t put up their best numbers in those championship events since it’s very tactical,” she said. “Nothing was surprising since I was doing this in practice, but it’s cool that it happened all in one day.”

Her confidence level ranks sky high right now because she knows exactly what needs to get done to experience success.

“So much confidence comes from just making Team USA,” she said. “I just need to continue what I’ve done for the past few years. Everyone makes a big deal about the Olympics, but it is really just another race.”

McGee will face tough competition once she takes the track Sunday, not only from St. Pierre, but from Faith Kipyegon, who won gold in 2016.

She feels better knowing she faced many of these challengers in previous races.

Another familiar face McGee saw in Tokyo — Mike Holloway. The Gators track and field coach also leads the U.S. Men’s Track and Field team.

“At every major meet I am at, I expect to see coach Holloway,” she said. “Seeing him and other Gators just tells me it’s another day at the track. Once you are a part of that Gators family, it’s an unbreakable bond.”

The Olympics have been engrained in McGee’s life. In 2004, she visited the Athens games while her father worked as an FBI security liaison.

“It hits me from time to time how big this moment is,” she said. “As a kind going to international school and then living in every corner of the U.S., I’ve seen how diverse and special the games are.”

The heats for the 1500m begin Sunday at 8:35 p.m., with semifinals Wednesday at 6 a.m. and finals Aug. 6 at 8:50 a.m. from the Japan National Stadium.