Haute Volée Steeplechaser, Carmen Graves, strayed far from the traditional path to professional running. Starting as a Division III soccer player who stepped onto the track to score some points in the 400m, Carmen didn’t even compete in the steeplechase until after college. Her story as a professional athlete is a perfect example that specialization doesn't need to start at a young age, athletic achievements don't come on a standard timeline, and we can write our own paths to athletic success.
Carmen Pelar Graves: My Journey from Division III to Professional Running
It's interesting how one sport can lead you to discover a hidden talent for another. Through soccer, I discovered my talent for running, and the route I lived to today was longer, less traveled, and a bit more rugged than most. I didn’t come from a lineage of runners or a top-notch college program like many of my competitors.
While my competitors were racing cross-country, I was busy playing soccer. While they were earning Division I scholarships, I was accumulating student loans at the Division III level. While others were signing brand sponsorships, nobody wanted to invest in me. I had no direction or mentorship on how to become a professional runner or any idea that competing in college or after was a possibility.
But I kept moving forward, and along the way, I qualified for two Olympic Trials, made a U.S. Team in the steeplechase, and became sponsored by an amazing brand that represents my values. I learned that there’s no blueprint or perfect path to professional running, and sometimes you’ve got to create your own.
Growing up, I was an introverted girl who preferred playing barefoot in the creek and Mario Kart over holding a conversation. I was one of the few non-white students in my class and preferred to blend in rather than attract attention. I slowly found self-confidence through playing sports. Mia Hamm famously said, “Anything you can do, I can do better,” and as a young girl, I took those words to heart. When I wore my soccer jersey, I’d morph into another world where it didn’t matter what color my skin was, all that mattered was getting to the ball first and scoring. I was known for being the fastest player on the soccer field, which eventually led me to try track and field in middle school.
My soccer speed translated well to the track, but nobody told me how to race the 400 meters. My strategy was simple, run all out from the start. Usually, this worked, but at the league championships, a girl passed me with 50 meters to go and I had no response. My knees buckled and I stumbled my way to the finish line. Devastated, I hid from everyone and cried. That day I decided track wasn't fun anymore. Winning was fun, but the cost of winning wasn’t worth the risk of losing. I didn’t run track for a few years after my epic fail. Although my parents loved to cheer me on, they supported my decision to leave running behind and focus on soccer.
Focusing on soccer paid off and I decided to pursue playing in college which was a big deal since I would be the first from my family to do so. My parents didn’t have experience with the college recruitment process and it was up to me to find my way. Once I started looking into the process myself, I realized that I had started too late. All the Division I and II schools had already given out their scholarships. Though I was disappointed, I wasn’t ready to give up on my dream. I decided to visit a few Division III schools my senior year, one of which was Roanoke College. During my recruitment visit with the soccer team, I was approached by the assistant track coach, Shelli Sayers, who noticed I had prior experience in track and invited me to join the team. My personal bests were nothing special, but she thought I could score points at the ODAC Championships with some training.
In my first year, I was on the 4x100m relay team that went to NCAA Championships and I received my first All-American honor. After experiencing the National Championships, I became obsessed with finding my way back but I knew there was no way I would individually qualify in the sprints. I asked Coach if I could try the 800 meters at the next meet. I remember feeling surprisingly good and surging past my teammate with 300m to go, afraid to look back, sprinting towards the finish line as fast as possible. To my surprise, when I turned around, my competitors were still so far behind me! That was when I realized I was better suited for longer distances.
Although I participated in soccer and track all four years at Roanoke, I felt my focus shift to track after I qualified for the 2011 NCAA Championships in the 800 meters. The following year, my goal wasn’t just to qualify, I wanted to be a National Champion. I became obsessed with becoming a National Champion. I was ranked first heading into NCAAs with a new personal best of 2:07, but when it came time to solidify my win, I choked and placed 2nd.
I graduated from college with a chip on my shoulder. I felt like I needed to utilize my untapped potential. I registered for my first-ever 5k, which provided me with the competitive outlet and sense of accomplishment I was missing. My former college coach, Carl Blickle, also raced that day and he was impressed by my effort. He could tell I was struggling in my transition out of college, so he asked if I wanted him to continue writing my workouts. I agreed, and with his guidance, I started training for other local 5ks.
The training was exciting and completely different from the 400m and 800m workouts I did in college. Coach Blickle, a running and exercise science nerd, taught me everything he knew about distance running. He used foreign words like threshold, tempo, and fartlek. By spring, I lowered my 5k time from 18:30 to 16:08. At the time, I was unaware that professional running existed and the best advice I found was to work at a local running shoe store and dedicate all my time to running. So I quit my full-time job with benefits, moved back in with my parents, and committed to my training.
Coach persuaded me to race the steeplechase, and I inadvertently found my niche. The steeplechase requires similar athleticism as soccer and came to me easily after developing aerobic strength. I ran a 10:11, not fully understanding what the time meant. Coach told me I had a chance to qualify for the USATF Outdoor Championships, so we decided to race the steeplechase again to see what would happen. Not only did I eventually qualify, but I also placed 10th in the nation with a personal best time of 9:47. I realized I had what it takes to run professionally. What I didn’t know at the time was that I wouldn’t run a personal best in the steeplechase for another 7 years.
Coming from a Division III program, I didn’t have a big name and I didn’t look like the stereotypical distance runner, so no sponsors wanted to invest in me. I spent all my time and energy searching for training groups, moving from state to state, changing coaches, and experiencing injury after injury trying to chase the ideal training environment.
Without a sponsorship, and with interest compounding on my student loans, I transitioned back to working full-time while continuing to train. When I would find time and money to travel to races, I’d feel like an outsider. I was surrounded by women who’d been running their entire lives and were getting paid to do it. Lining up as the only non-white athlete in the steeplechase didn’t help either. My shy younger self who lacked self-confidence would re-emerge and shadow my races. The endless chase for greener grass ultimately left me hopeless and my running dreams started to fade. In 2018, I stepped away from running.
During that time, my relationship with running was at an all-time low. The only place where it felt safe to run was off the track and on the trails, where I could shut off my brain and explore nature on my feet. In 2019, I decided to participate in a couple of road races, but every time I tried to push myself, I would experience panic attacks mid-race and had to drop out. Just when I thought things couldn't get worse, the pandemic struck and I was furloughed from my job. Ironically that was when my relationship with running started to improve. With more time on my hands, I was able to restore my nervous system, and running felt less forced. I found comfort with my husband as my coach and benefitted from his conservative approach to prioritizing my health over performance. When World Athletics postponed the 2020 Olympic Games, it gave me just enough time to hope for a comeback. I continued to train but with a new mindset.
I rejected the idea that I needed to join a professional running team to be successful. I focused on forming my ideal training environment instead of trying to squeeze into one that didn’t fit.
I still felt like I was missing the companionship and support a team fosters. As the mask restrictions were lifted, I joined forces with other runners in the area. My first recruit was Lanni Marchant, a Canadian Olympian in the marathon with an IDGAF attitude. It was such a relief to realize I didn’t need to do everything on my own anymore.
When the civil rights movement re-emerged after the murder of George Floyd, I started diving into my childhood trauma. It took lots of crying and reflection, but I stopped blaming myself for this nation’s prejudice and pledged to love myself for who I was born to be. I shifted my mindset from a victim to a fighter, finally embracing my differences and rediscovering them as strengths.
I stopped attempting to conform to other people's ideals and started establishing my own. I felt a sense of liberation.
This self-growth led to my resurgence in the steeplechase and it would be the first year that I would finally run a personal best since 2014. Every year since then, I’ve gotten faster. My new mindset led me to qualify for my second Olympic Trials in 2021 and I am currently training for my third. Over time, I’ve realized the perfect journey to running doesn’t exist. While some paths are smooth and narrow, others are rocky and windy, but it doesn’t mean we can’t all arrive at the same destination.
Some lessons I learned along the way:
It’s okay to fail. Your family, coaches, and friends will still love you, even if you don’t win middle school district champs (lol).
Try new things! You might discover a new talent. If I hadn’t tried the 800 meters, I would’ve never discovered my knack for longer distances… which led me to find my niche in the steeplechase!
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Once I started to see success in running I thought I needed to change everything, but I needed to honor what got me there.
The people you surround yourself with can make or break you. I was lucky to meet my husband Sean when I was in a rough place emotionally, and I am thankful he stuck around to support my journey along the way.
Invest in yourself. If you have a dream, do everything to hold on to it despite doubt and rejections from others.
Keep going. You never know when you will have a breakthrough.
By learning to embrace my differences, discover my strengths, and love myself for who I am, I’ve found that good performances and opportunities always follow. I learned the hard way and it took a bit longer, but ultimately left me a better runner and more balanced person.