Coming out of Villanova University in 1996 as a five-time NCAA Champion, Jen Rhines had a dream. She wanted to make an Olympic team.
Her dream came true in 2000, when she became an Olympian at 10,000 meters. It came true again in 2004, when she earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team in the marathon, and then again in 2008, when she was a member of Team USA in Beijing at 5000 meters.
As a bonus, Rhines has also made six IAAF World Championships teams on the track, was a member of the U.S. women’s squad that won a bronze medal at the 2000 World Cross Country Championships, was the 2011 USA Half Marathon Champion, and is a three-time USA 15K Champion.
“She’s a constant in U.S. distance running but doesn’t get the accolades she should get,” said Carrie Tollefson, a Villanova teammate and 2004 Olympian. “Her career is amazing, with her range. She’s someone we should all talk about forever.”
Twenty-three years after winning her first New York State high school title, at 1500 meters, Jen Rhines is about to begin a new chapter: On July 4, she will make her debut as a masters athlete when she competes for the first time at the AJC Peachtree Road Race. She will celebrate her 40th birthday on July 1.
Not that Rhines views it as turning a page.
“It doesn’t really feel much different to me,” said Rhines earlier this week, enjoying an Americano at a sidewalk café on a sunny afternoon in Boston, where she recently moved when her coach and husband, Terrence Mahon, became coach of the Boston Athletic Association’s High Performance Team, of which Rhines is now a member. “The past couple of years, the body’s started slowing down a little. To me, last year was more of a transition. So turning 40 doesn’t really change anything.”
The 2014 season has so far been going well for Rhines, who finished third, in 1:14:39, in the half marathon during Publix Super Markets Gasparilla Distance Classic race weekend in February, and eighth (33:45) in the B.A.A. 10K last Sunday.
The three-time Olympian said that she’s been having fun running road races this year. “Things flow the way they’re meant to,” she said. “I enjoy competing, and trying to get the most out of what I can on the day. So once the expectations of being top three are gone and you’re just trying to maximize performance, I actually find that fun. I’m looking forward to going down to Peachtree and seeing where I match up.”
With Peachtree hosting both the men’s and women’s USA 10 km Championships this year, Rhines will face a field that includes veterans Desiree Linden, Sara Hall, Serena Burla, and Julie Culley, but also rising stars such as the 26-year-old Amy Van Alstine, the surprise winner of the U.S. Cross Country Championships this winter.
“Right now I’m still focusing on where I can be in the whole field,” Rhines said. “I feel like I’ll get the most out of myself that way, just trying to keep up with as many of the young kids as I can.”
The masters record at Peachtree is 32:31, set by Colleen de Reuck—who, at the age of 50, is also expected to be in the Atlanta field—in 2004. But chasing records has never been what Rhines is about. Tollefson calls her “a steady Eddie, very smart about her training and very smart about her racing.”
While her career has indeed been steady, it has been neither linear nor traditional. After Rhines made her first Olympic team at 10,000 meters and her next at the marathon, it was widely assumed that 26.2 miles would be the focus for the rest of her career. But she was challenged by both fueling and body-composition issues. Quad-dominant, she suffered after every race, hilly or flat.
“I really started breaking down over that distance,” she said, “I’m always impressed when someone runs a marathon and they don’t seem to be sore.”
Instead, she turned back to the track, at 5000 meters rather than 10,000. Ask what has surprised her most in her career and she’ll tell you that—because she had always thought the marathon would be her best event—it’s her success at 3000 and 5000 meters. Her strongest personal best, she points out, is at 3000 (8:35.03 in 2007).
“My ability to concentrate for the eight-to-15-minute range is just where I’m mentally strongest,” she said. “At the end of the day, I think your mentality kind of drives the bus.”
There have been a few times during her career, said Rhines, when she wondered if she should have been less steady. If she’d taken more risks, would she have won more races on the track? Run some faster times?
But looking back now, she said, she has no doubts about those instantaneous choices she made in the heat of a race. Making a team was always the goal that held sway.
“It’s my personality,” she said. “You can’t have it both ways. I’m totally comfortable with everything I did.”