Kathie O'Neill: From missing in action to Division I

Apr. 29, 2014 @ 06:11 PM

 Eddie McCandless figured Kathie O’Neill had quit.

The then-freshman had left for a family trip and hadn’t told her distance coach at Sevier County High School. When she returned, McCandless wondered who she was.

“I’m like, ‘Who is that girl? Was she here earlier?’ ” McCandless said. “She got good all of a sudden. Her freshman year she was actually the MVP of the distance team.”

Now a senior, O’Neill signed on Tuesday to continue her track and field career at Tennessee Tech where she’ll run the 800 meters and the steeplechase. She’s the first girl to go Division I in Jonathan Brewer’s eight years as Sevier County head track coach.

“It’s a good day,” Brewer said. “It’s a good sign for your program, I think. I’m excited for Kathie. She’s worked hard. She deserves an opportunity to compete at the next level.”

The coach said it's O’Neill’s work ethic over the years that's made her special. She's always pushed herself in a sport where that motivation has to come from within. The 800 specialist has dealt with injuries every year and it was her return to the track last year that made her feel like she “had something to prove.”  

“That motivated me to do really well,” she said. “Toward the end of the season I realized, ‘I can do this in college because I’m getting the times I want with an injury.’ ”

O’Neill said running in practice can sometimes be “miserable” but she’s grown to love the sport. She started out running for fun that freshman year when she went missing. McCandless said he saw O’Neill evolve over time, from a soccer player running track to a devoted track athlete.

Brewer said there's no doubt O'Neill can continue to get faster in college.

“I really believe her better days are ahead of her,” Brewer said. “Staying healthy will be the key, of course. But she’s got an opportunity. She’s going to take full advantage of it.”

O'Neill is the second Tennessee Tech signee from Sevier County this spring after golfer Ben Huskey. She said she wasn't initially looking at the Cookeville school but after the Eagles showed interest she went on a visit and loved it. She plans on studying nursing.

After that inauspicious start, O'Neill's career is continuing at the next level. That persistence that's carried her there may be best seen in the way she's learned the steeplechase.

"It was fun my freshman year when I didn't have to work hard at it," O'Neill said. "But once you start getting good at it and you have to try hard, it is miserable. It's five laps; I'm used to like two. I'm coming around going onto that fourth lap, I'm like, 'Really? I have two more left. I can not do this.' 

"But you just get through that. You get through that wall and that's what it takes."