At the 2004 Olympic Trials, Ann Gaffigan had the race that thousands of athletes only dream of running. Under the lights of the Sacramento State University track, Gaffigan was just beginning her career as an elite athlete, still running in her University of Nebraska singlet. That night Gaffigan was inducted into an elite cadre of athletes who know the pride and the thrill of winning the Olympic Trials. To make the moment even sweeter, Gaffigan’s time was faster than any American woman had ever run, and etched her name in history as the American Record holder.
For most athletes, the finish line of the Trials is only the beginning of a whirlwind of excitement through team processing, training camp and the ultimate thrill of competing on the Olympic stage. But, that is where Gaffigan’s story takes a twist. The asterisks to her Olympic Trials story is that she didn’t qualify for the Olympic Games. Gaffigan’s moment came four years premature, because the women’s steeplechase had yet to be added to the Olympics.
Gaffigan had every right to be bitter, angry or sad, but she was too focused on making it to the Olympics to pause and realize what she almost had.
“It didn’t make me think hard for four years,” Gaffigan said. “In 2004, I was like ‘yeah I didn’t make the Olympics’ but I was alright. I knew it wasn’t in the Olympics anyways, so I didn’t have my hopes up. There was always 2008.”
The next four years were filled with the ups and downs typical of any budding post-collegiate career. She continued to train for the steeple, a race that she was introduced to her freshman year of college in 2001, when her coach figured her multi-sport past and her natural athletic ability would suit her well to the event in its first year as a NCAA discipline.
Fast forward to the next quadrennium, and Gaffigan finally had her chance to not only win the trials, but also to achieve her dream of running in the Olympics. While she admits that it would have been the Cinderella ending to her story, to win her second Trials and get to compete in the first-ever women’s Olympic steeplechase, that is not how Gaffigan’s story unfolded. She finished tenth.
As the reality set in that Gaffigan would not be running in the Olympics, she began to reflect on how her story would be different if she had had the same opportunities that her male counterparts in the steeple had been afforded in 2004.
“It was the first time that I experienced a barrier because of my gender,” Gaffigan said. “It made m
e opened my eyes to the fact that there still are inequalities and a lot of things to fight for in women’s sports.”
Gaffigan retired from professional running after the 2008 Trials, and began to develop the next chapter of her life. With a burning personal interest in women’s opportunities in sports, Gaffigan drew on her computer science degree and her experience as a web developer to begin to create WomenTalkSports.com
with co-founders Jane Schonberger and Megan Hueter. Launched in the winter of 2009, Women Talk Sports
serves to directly address the lack of media attention given to women’s sports by creating a network of blogs devoted to various sports and areas of interest in women’s athletics.
With the free time that Gaffigan has while not working on Women Talk Sports, running her web development business, raising her now 2-year-old daughter, Jaelyn, or continuing to workout, she has developed a passion for volunteering and advocacy.
“When you help someone else out, it is more your heart [than competing as an athlete]. It isn’t about any kind of glory or fame or pride. It is really just about that feeling of being able to make a difference in someone’s life,” Gaffigan said. “I also believe it is the cure for what ails you - more than laughter or ibuprofen. There is nothing like it.”
Gaffigan has volunteered as a speaker and summer camp coach at Girls Inc., chapters from California to Indiana; is actively involved in the Kansas City organization “WIN for KC” that works to empower girls and women through sports; she volunteers in the USATF organization as a member of the Athlete’s Advisory Committee and is on the board of the Track and Field Athletes Association.
While Gaffigan was still an elite runner dealing with the trials and tribulations of training and racing, she once blogged, “running is like a bad relationship you can’t leave behind because you are an idiot in love.” And while so much has changed for Gaffigan in the nearly five years since she wrote that phrase, her perspective on life has not.
“I don’t see a life for me without track,” Gaffigan said. “It has been fun being a fan for a while, and I think my place in the sport now is off the track doing things to help the sport and the people in it.”
When asked if a comeback is on the horizon, Gaffigan responded, “Not right now, but I reserve the right to change my mind.”