Grand Canyon University’s cross country team hit a bump in the road when former coach Michael Hoffmann switched paths to pursue a legal career.
Fortunately for GCU, the Lopes looked in their own backyard and found one of the most accomplished American runners of the last decade. Sara Slattery — the former NCAA champion at Colorado, and a world-class U.S. distance athlete — was living in her native Phoenix after returning from Colorado 2 ½ years earlier and took over as coach on Aug. 18.
Tom Flood, the head track and field coach at GGU started the cross country program in 2010 and it quickly became a Division I power after leaving D-II.
Flood was an accomplished assistant at Colorado State, just as Slattery was bringing home national championships for the University of Colorado, including an indoor 5,000-meter crown and an outdoor 10,000-meter title in 2005. She also was a 10-time All-American for the Buffaloes. The two knew each other from those days of competition.
“Tom reached out and asked if I’d be interested. I was a little hesitant at first because my daughter (Cali) at the time was only 3 ½ months old and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to jump in that quickly,” said Slattery. “But they just went Division I and it’s such a great opportunity. It was right in my backyard, and I couldn’t pass it up. They’ve been very helpful and very flexible with me and the kids’ schedule (the Slatterys have a young son, Stevie, as well). I’m so excited, and I feel so grateful to have this opportunity.”
GCU would mirror the sentiment. After her NCAA days, Slattery competed for the U.S. at a number of events, including the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio. There she captured the gold medal in the 10,000 meters. She later served as an alternate on the 2008 Beijing Olympic team but missed the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2012 with a hamstring injury. Her PR’s are remarkable for both their breadth and speed, ranging from a 4:19 1,500 meters mark to a 31:57 at 10,000 meters.
“I had a very short list of coaching candidates, and Sara was right at the top. I feel she has the perfect background to make an immediate impact,” said Flood of Slattery’s arrival.
He was correct. Redshirt sophomore Samuel Proctor of South Royalton, Vt., and senior Kelsi Klotter of Eugene, Ore., were both named WAC Athletes of the Week for their performances at the season-opening George Kyte Invitational at Northern Arizona. It was the first such honor for each athlete.
Both the men’s and women’s teams took fourth place, finishing with the best team times in the history of GCU’s attendance at the event.
“The impact Coach Sara has on the team in one word is ‘purpose.’ She has given the team new purpose this season with all the new training techniques and focused exercises,” said senior Matthew Jackson, the men’s captain.
The women’s captain, redshirt junior Emily Wilkinson agrees. “Her training philosophy is a little more strenuous then what we had previously,” Wilkinson said. “But just looking at our first competition speaks volumes for the results we are already seeing with the short amount of time of having her as our coach.”
“You never know what you’re going to walk into in terms of the team. I didn’t know the team at all coming into it,” said Slattery. “I was lucky that Michael Hoffmann put together a great team, and they were very driven. Training just shifted slightly. I hope to build off of the team he assembled and try to help bring them to the next level.”
Slattery cites the various terrains around Phoenix, from miles of road to moderate and soft-pack trails, as a trump card in GCU’s training.
She in turn is energized by her team. Slattery is currently focusing on the Olympic marathon trials in February as her next major racing event. It is no small target; it will be her first competitive marathon. After the trials, she will turn her attention back to the track and work on winnowing down her past PR’s in the 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000. Slattery sites marathon work as a base from which to excel as she approaches the track season.
GCU and Slattery are settling into the perfect symbiotic relationship, building off one another into a formidable threat in the WAC and beyond.
“I can’t ask the team to do anything I wouldn’t do myself,” she said, “and it’s very motivating to see them work so hard.”