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Air Force’s Mahala Norris captures NCAA steeplechase title

Norris is the first Air Force runner to win a national title since 1964.

2021 NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Outdoor Track & Field Championship Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Entering this past weekend, Air Force graduate Mahala Norris had only run the steeplechase four times, and only ran it for the first time in her collegiate career on May 1. For those unfamiliar, the steeplechase is an obstacle race in track and field spanning over 3,000 meters that includes several barriers and water jumps.

It turns out, Norris didn’t need much history with the steeplechase to be great at it. Being incredibly fit, fast, talented and determined was just enough.

With a time of 9:31.79 – nearly six seconds faster than her previous best time – the 4-foot-11 Norris won the national steeplechase title at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon on Saturday. Norris’ time was also good for sixth-best all-time in the event.

A native of Roseburg, Oregon, Norris became the first Air Force runner to win a national championship in outdoor track and field since 1964, when Jim Murphy won the 5000-meter race. Overall, it’s the fourth national title for the track and field team, and the first since 2006 when now-assistant coach Dana (Pounds) Lyon won her second javelin throw championship.

“I thought I executed (my race) very well,” Norris said. “The plan was to hang with the top three and focus on Joyce (Kimeli) and Courtney (Wayment). If I was still with them in the last two laps… I just had to focus on the kick, which I always have. There were little surges from people and in the last two laps, so I was just focusing on anyone who made a move.

“I just tried to focus on the finish. I knew it was close coming in, and when I finished, I looked up at the leaderboard to see just how close it was. I could see Joyce out of the corner of my eye, so I guess I didn’t really know until the end.”

Norris was among the leaders out of the gate, holding third place by the first water jump. The recently-commissioned second lieutenant in the U.S. Space Force was slowed down just a bit by the final barrier, but bounced back in the final 40 meters, out-sprinting Washington’s Katie Rainsberger and just getting by Auburn’s Joyce Kimeli by a fifth of a second. It was the closest finish in NCAA history in the women’s steeplechase.

“Mahala’s spring has been so good that the only way she could really top it is by winning a national title,” Air Force distance coach Ryan Cole said. “To do so with one of the fastest times in collegiate history in her fifth steeple ever is ridiculous. She’s just so tough. And, while she may not be very big, she has a huge heart. I don’t know how anyone could watch that race and not be inspired.”

Also at the NCAA championships, Air Force’s Maria Mettler placed third in the 10,000-meter run.

Earlier this year, Norris was the first Air Force Falcon to win the Mountain West cross country title and then she placed fourth in the NCAA championships. As a junior, Norris twice broke the academy’s record for a mile time. She was also an All-American in cross country in 2019.

A member of Cadet Squadron 15, Norris is set to report to Vandenberg Space Force Base in California in August.