Can I just say it? Ashley Higginson is the Natalie Portman of the water pit. And I don’t mean just the doppleganger affect with her petite, smily, brunette gorgeousness, I’m talking about her dual ambition. Ashley’s expertise and passion go beyond the oval stage, she also has high academic and career goals. All the Bs: brainy, beautiful, bilingual, and a complete boss. But if we’re keeping score, Ashley holds a higher degree than Natalie. And between Princeton and Harvard… I’ll let you ivy leaguers battle that out.
As of this spring Ashley can officially practice law in New York and New Jersey after graduating from Rutgers and passing both state bars. She accomplished all of this while running as a professional Steeplechaser for Saucony and NJNY Track Club.
Ashley placed 4th at the 2012 Olympic Trials, narrowly missing her trip to the London Olympics. She followed that up with a killer stint in Europe and earned a spot on the 2013 World’s team. The past four years she’s been training and racing under coach Frank Gagliano and Tom Nohilly with a laser focus on the 2016 Olympic Trials and earning her place on Team USA.
New Jersey born , raised, and still residing?
Yup – I have somehow managed to never leave. It was never the plan, but it just seems to be where I am happiest. I grew up in Monmouth County, which is in the middle of the state but quite close to the beach side. Then, drove west to Princeton (a whole 30 minutes!) Afterward, I ended up in Hunterdon County, which is northwest, really close to Pennsylvania when I started with NJNY. I went to law school at Rutgers, but the law school is actually in Newark, which was a great experience and now I am looking to possibly move next year to Morristown, in Morris County. So that makes living and school in a total of 7 counties, ha! (Monmouth, Mercer, Essex, Morris, Middlesex, and Hunterdon)
Do you love Springsteen? Is that a requirement of all NJ citizens?
I love him and I think it may be a program they put in you at birth along with a love of Taylor ham sandwiches. Born to Run and Jersey Girl will be played at my wedding.
Okay, so that one is true! Case closed. What do people have wrong about New Jersey?
Mainly I think what everyone has wrong is that NJ is really everything EXCEPT Newark Airport and the road from there to New York City. Yet that is sort of all most people get to see. I will even take the Jersey Shore comments, even though all but one of those people are New Yorkers!
Your NJNY profile says you spoke Polish at home when you were growing up. I need to know more. Are both parents Polish? Are you still fluent?
My mother moved to the U.S. from Poland when she was a teenager with her father and two sisters. I grew up speaking Polish with her and my ciocia (auntie in Polish) who lived with us. My dad is also Polish by decent, but Irish and English too (thus Higginson). I still know how to speak Polish fairly well, as I try to speak when I can, though the chances to do so are more rare. I also took Russian in high school and can read that and it is a little similar, so between the two I get by! I am really proud of my culture and have been lucky enough to go back to Poland with my mom because of track, when I made the World Jr. team in 2008.
So you grew up in NJ, stand out Steepler in HS, ran for Princeton and graduated with unfinished business with the sport. Why Gags?
In High School in NJ, I was fortunate enough to have an amazing coach and team at Colts Neck. I actually only steepled two times in high school, so would say that my promise was more in the 1600/3200. (I won nationals in the 2 mile and with my team in the 4 by mile with a total of 4 national championships in my career and many state championships.) Moving to college, I started a 5k girl and made NCAAs as a freshman in the 5k before I could convince Peter we should focus on the steeple!
However, senior year, yup, I finished with an injury and thus some unfinished business. I chose Gags for many reasons, with a lot of advice from mentors I trusted. I will not go on to say it was like I had a bunch of options and people asking me to join their groups, but I think Gag and I both liked the underdog attitude and working for a goal near where our families and support were. It just clicked in one meeting. I didn’t even think to ask about support, or money, or what I could get, I just asked him to coach me and was happy he said yes! The rest slowly figured itself out.
It certainly had its moments, but I started the transition right away by joining a new group but remaining in Princeton for a bit, so I felt I could get my bearings while still being near a support network, so I was very lucky in that regard. The NJNY of 2011-12 that I joined was filled with athletes I admired and wanted to be like and when I joined I sort of envisioned running for one year at that level. So, I kind of went with the “live or die by the program” mentality and just trusted it! I was lucky to be at a college where my teammates were kicking my butt in speed or strength already, so it was easy to just join a similar situation where I was challenged to be better.
You had a huge first year out of the gate, finishing got 4th in the 2012 Olympic Trials Steeplechase. What did that mean at the time to you?
It was pretty much a big surprise, but it meant so much to just try something and believe in my goal and story and to see it sort of grow from there. I think the fact that fourth hurt took a little longer for me than others, because so many people I think were just surprised and happy for my improvements. Honestly, the race changed the entire course of my life, so at the time, I had no idea what it would mean for me. It opened me up to the realization that I needed to really believe in what I was capable of in order for it to come to fruition.
Essentially right after the Trials, you packed up and left for law school in Colorado. What was going through your mind? Was professional running off the table?
One million and 52 things were going through my mind, haha. I actually went to Europe firs, where I proceeded to also run well and grab a new PR in the steeple at the time. I wrote my parents a 10 page letter with pros and cons about moving and staying in life, running, law, and everything else. (Typically type-a crazy girl :)). I went in circles worrying with my teammates who were with me in Europe (Bless you Julie, Nicole, and Renee). Then, I drove to Michigan with my now boyfriend, Liam, where I ran a race and worried and thought about what the heck I was doing.
At that race, I watched the opening ceremonies in London and had my “coming to the water” moment in which I proceeded to email Rutgers Law a personal essay begging them to reconsider my original acceptance so I could perhaps have it all; law school, NJNY, running, my beloved New Jersey. More importantly, I was lucky enough for the dean there to say, yes. So, with that answer, I thought, well, I will figure it out, let’s get back to the garden state ASAP.
So you flipped a u-turn midway to Colorado to return to NJNY, to keep pursuing your running dreams. What was going through your mind?
I spent about a week in Indiana hanging with one of my best friends from college and her family, Alex Banfich. I also spend about a week in Michigan book ending Indiana with Liam and his family. Mainly what was going through my mind is “these people think I am stage 7 crazy”. However, once I made the decision, I literally drove home as fast as possible. I think I stopped to pee one time, ha. I called Gag and said, “I am coming home.” I didn’t bother him with the other details going on during that time so I would imagine he was pretty surprised. He absolutely was amazing about supporting me and giving me space during that time and I will always appreciate him most for that. Then, my father and I found a small studio apartment and I started school literally a day or two later, scrambling to find my books. So I guess, survival mode was going through my mind and it took a bit of time for everything else to catch up!
2013 is precisely what I needed. It is ironic, how somehow it was one of my slower years and it ended with a pretty bad injury but in the end I finished my L1 year and made the team. It showed me that it’s not always about the PR or the perfect race, it is about believing in the system and in yourself and being ready on a day. (Ready and, of course, a little lucky). From that point on, I trusted what we were doing here.
You were able to follow both your dreams at once, professional running and completing law school. I know there is no simple answer how… but how? How did you make that happen?
The simplest answer to that how has got to go back to having support. Gag, Tommy, all my coaches and teammates supported school and really listened to when maybe we need to take it easy or ramp up the running. Similarly, I was just so thankful to my law school for believing in me in and out of school. When you are surrounded by that kind of support and hope for you, whether it is the expectation of the gratitude it helps you try to make it happen. As selfish as running can seem, it is never an individual endeavor.
Do you have a race mantra? Does it change?
I think it changes often, but usually my race mantra entails remembering that the race is what we have prepared for and wanted to do all along. This can prove detrimental for me when I race pops out of nowhere and perhaps was not in the “plan we had all along”. But overall I think it helps me keep perspective and my eyes and heart on what matters to me. It also helps me to remember my coaches have prepared me for what I am about to endeavor.
If 2016 Ashley could talk to 2012 Ashley, the one who flipped her car around to return to train with Gags, what would you tell her?
“Trust yourself more. You are enough.”
I think that would be the biggest thing I would say, trust yourself, look inside. Maybe FOR GOODNESS SAKE STOP MAKING EXCEL PRO AND CON SPREADSHEETS AND USE YOUR GUT. Otherwise, 2016 Ashley is really look back and remembering the 2012 Ashley who was new to this and just wanted to see what she could do. I feel as if I have really come full circle with this whole experience.
When you envision the 2016 Olympic Trials, what does success look like? Aside from the obvious top 3?
Top three is the clear goal for every runner that day and at the end of the day its hard to say what else other than that success means being prepared for whatever race that is – fast slow technical tactical hot rainy. It won’t look the same if it is run 10 times, success is finding a way in all those scenarios.
Watch Ashley chase her Olympic dream down at 7:48pm on July 7th in the 3000m Steeplechase. Streaming live at USATF.TV. And follow the Freeplay Magazine Olympic Track and Field Trials leadup with #tracktuesrio.
Interview conducted by Sarah McKay Robinson for Freeplay magazine.
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