Kiwi Lilli Burdon claimed a wonderful NCAA 5000m bronze medal last month. Steve Landells caught up with the US-based athlete to find out more about her recent success.
From 1970s American distance running icon Steve Prefontaine to two-time Olympic decathlon champion Ashton Eaton, the University of Oregon has long been associated with athletics excellence. So with this in mind, and the weight of considerable track and field history behind her, it is perhaps little surprise Lilli Burdon continues to impress as an Oregon Duck.
Enjoying a flurry of PBs in her third year at the school, the 20-year-old capped a splendid season on the ultra-competitive US collegiate circuit with an outstanding 5000m bronze medal at the NCAA Championships.
Should her progression continue than further success beckons for Lilli, who also has half-an-eye on international horizons next year by qualifying for the IAAF World Championships in Doha.
Born in Auckland to Kiwi parents, Lilli left her country of birth aged three to settle in Singapore for seven years before moving to live on Australia’s Gold Coast, where she completed her schooling.
Lilli made her mark in the Black Singlet reaching 1500m finals at the 2015 World U18 and 2016 World U20 Championships, placing ninth and 12th respectively before leaving to take up an athletics scholarship at the University of Oregon in Eugene – regarded as the spiritual home of US track and field.
Under the coaching of Maurica Powell she enjoyed a rock solid first season improving her 1500m PB for more than seven seconds with a New Zealand U20 record time of 4:11.19 and revealed her versatility by placing ninth in the 5000m NCAA Championships.
However, the 2017-18 season at the University of Oregon proved a bigger hit – the foundation of which was formed during the slog of the cross country season.
“Competing in my first full cross country season (as a college athlete) really helped me through the indoor and outdoor season,” explains Lilli. “Every single race I learned something new. I like the team element to cross country while it is fun to get on the trails and do some longer distance training.”
Aiming for a top ten placing at the NCAA Cross Country Championships she had to settle for 21st in Louisville, Kentucky before performing with pride during an encouraging indoor campaign.
Posting a blizzard of PBs, including a noteworthy 3000m best of 8:59.18 in Seattle, she went on to the NCAA Championships in College Station, Texas to finished ninth in the 15-lap (indoor race). Yet the personal highlight for Lilli came in the Distance Medley Relay, where Lilli anchored home the University of Oregon to a memorable victory by just 0.03 from Stanford University.
With the quartet competing over 1200m, 800m, 400m and 1600m, the race offers the chance for specialists over a variety of distances to come together and with Lilli running the last leg at the NCAA Indoor Championships she fully appreciates the compelling nature of the event.
“It is a unique race (she says of the Distance Medley Relay),” she says. “It was great to watch the race unfold and see my team-mates run well, it made me so excited. Then to step out on the track and do my job was equally as fun.
“The Distance Medley Relay is one of the most entertaining races because it incorporates both sprinters and endurance athletes. To see the 400m runners sprinting in and then the 1600m runners setting off looks slow by comparison while the relay hand-offs add another factor to the race.”
The only disappointing element to her indoor season was the fact she missed out “by a few seconds” on qualification for the Commonwealth Games, which took place in her “home city” of Gold Coast.
Describing the task as probably “a little out of her reach” at that stage of her development she consoled herself with following the results from afar and watching the thrilling action unfold inside Carrara Stadium from the other side of the world.
Instead, Lilli remained fully focused on her training in preparation for the outdoor collegiate season and a month out from the flagship NCAA Championships she opted to commit to the 5000m – it proved a wise decision.
After smashing her PB my more than eight seconds to record 15:34.44 in Sacramento – two weeks before NCAA Championships - she knew she was equipped for a good display on home ground at Hayward Field.
“I had finished ninth in my two previous NCAA (track and field) Championships appearances, I definitely wanted top eight to become an All-American and I was hoping for a top five.”
Inspired by her University of Oregon training partner Jessica Hull of Australia winning the 1500m only a few hours earlier, Lilli went on to produce one of the best performances of her career.
After a relatively slow first two-thirds of the race, the pace was suddenly lifted for the final mile. Yet with each break Lilli managed to respond and with 250m remaining she found her herself in the lead with pre-race favourite Karissa Schweizer.
She held second down much of the home straight only be have to settle for bronze after Allie Buchalski produced a late surge for the tape.
“I felt relieved and excited,” explains Lilli of her immediate post-race emotions. “My coach Maurica has believed in me the whole time but I knew my confidence in races was something I had to work on. This performance is really going to help me moving forward. I have total 100 per cent totally trust in my training, and I now know what I’m capable of.”
Praising the “super-enthusiastic” nature of her coach she is optimistic of more success in the future but in which event? After starring as an age-group athlete in the 1500m in more recent times the 5000m has been a focus, so where does Lilli believe her future lies?
“I would like to keep running both because I think they complement each other,” explains Lilli who regularly posts examples of her latest culinary dish on Instagram. “The race mentality is a little different but the speed in the 1500m helps the 5000m as most championships come down to a sprint. While the endurance of the 5000m definitely benefits the 1500m.”
After taking an end-of-season break, Lilli returns back to the University of Oregon in August, where she hopes to deliver a strong cross country season followed by more PBs and success on the track.
Yet the tall, rangy athlete also has an international target in mind for later next year.
“It would be amazing to extend my outdoor season and compete at the World Championships in Doha,” she says. “The last time I wore the Black Singlet was at the World Juniors (U20s) in 2016, so it has been a while.”
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics are also on Lilli’s radar as is the 2021 World Championships, which take place in the remodelled Hayward Field in Eugene.
“Since the NCAAs the grandstands have gone (as they prepare to build a new facility on the site in preparation for the 2021 World Championship). I’ve said to a few of my team-mates we’ll have to come back to race here again in 2021,” she explains.
Yet whatever the future holds for Lilli, the articulate Kiwi athlete is on a high after her NCAA medal and optimistic for the future.
“It (winning bronze) has motivated me to believe in myself more and strive to accomplish my goals,” she says. “I’m really excited about what is ahead – it makes we want to keep running, forever.”