Female Breakout Athlete of the Year Runner-Up: Paige Kouba

By Phillip Yu

Following an event win at the outdoor Ivy League championships, most track and field athletes might celebrate by kicking back and relaxing. Then again, most of these athletes are not Paige Kouba, co-captain of the Harvard women’s track and field team.

Kouba took home the 3,000-meter steeplechase gold medal at the outdoor Ivy League championships with a time of 10:05.30. But rather than winding down following the win, Kouba buckled up and prepared for her next race—the 1,500-meter final, less than an hour later.

Kouba came home with a bronze medal.

The double podium-finish is representative of this year’s new and improved version of Kouba, who led her team to dominant wins in both the indoor and outdoor Ivy League championships.

Along the way, Kouba set personal bests in multiple events—most notably the 3,000-meter steeplechase and 1,500-meter run, both distances for which she held the top collegiate time in the nation at different points.

“I’m thrilled with [my performance] this season,” Kouba said. “I’ve wanted to be great at running in a serious way for a year and a half now. That process has been long and arduous, but it’s absolutely paid off a thousand fold.”

Paid off, it has. Kouba’s most impressive performance of the season may not even have been her duo of medals at the outdoor Ivy Championships.

Instead, that honor of best performance might belong to a 9:50.21 Kouba ran in the steeplechase back in April at the Stanford Invite. That mark set a new personal best by more than 25 seconds and rewrote the Harvard record books; it was also the nation-leading time in the event back then (now the performance ranks seventh).

Or maybe the honor of best performance belongs to a 4:16.46 in the 1,500-meter run just a week earlier in March—again a Harvard record and the nation’s top time at that point.

So what’s been the secret to Kouba’s success this year? She credits a mixture of experience and renewed fire this season, her last in a Harvard jersey.

“I’m way fitter than I’ve ever been before,” Kouba said. “That’s not only from time and collective improvement over the years but also from buckling down this year and resolving to treat my body right. Improvement is still coming.”

Besides her stellar on-track performance, Kouba’s off-the-track contributions as a co-captain and veteran leader have been important in their own right.

“It’s been a pretty remarkable run [this year], and it certainly starts with leadership,” coach Jason Saretsky said. “[Paige] has done an outstanding job being a leader by example but also speaking up when needed.”

Along with senior Autumne Franklin, Kouba has spearheaded the most successful Harvard women’s track and field team in history—a program that, at one point, was ranked tenth in the nation, the highest ever for an Ivy League team.

“It’s been so awesome to be along Paige,” Franklin said. “We have such similar perspectives, outlooks, work ethics, dedication, commitment. It all made it really easy for us to agree on things and lead our groups to similar paths.”

Both Franklin and Kouba will both be heading to the 2016 Olympic Trials this July, along with junior Jade Miller, sophomore Courtney Smith, and freshman Gabby Thomas. There, Kouba will be running her favorite event, the 3,000-meter steeplechase.

For Kouba, the Trials—held each year in her hometown of Eugene, Oregon—has a special significance.

“You couldn’t ask for a better cheering section than the one I already know I’m going to have,” Kouba said. “I’m coming full-circle. I’m coming home, but as a better version of myself.”

What better way to cap off a breakthrough season than by returning to the place where it all started?

“My life is a movie right now,” Kouba said. “Everything’s almost too perfect—I can all but hear the soundtrack underneath.”

–Staff writer Phillip Yu can be reached at phillipyu@college.harvard.edu.

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