GVSU track and field's Rachael Walters hits automatic qualifying mark in 800-meter run
Walters posted the time (2:08.41) at the Notre Dame Meyo Invitational Feb. 4
Two one-hundredths of a second were the difference between Rachael Walters and the 2016 NCAA Division II Track and Field Outdoor National Championships.
The Grand Valley State redshirt freshman was stuck on the outside looking in, the first 800-meter runner left out of the 2016 championship meet.
Now a redshirt sophomore, Walters is determined to not leave a spot at the national meet up to chance. At the Notre Dame Meyo Invitational Saturday, Feb. 4, she posted a time of 2:08.41 in the 800, hitting the automatic qualifying mark for the national meet. She is now guaranteed to represent the GVSU women’s team as they pursue a national championship.
“This year I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to be the first one out again,” she said. “Getting the auto, you don’t have to worry about your spot on the list. You’re automatically in. It’s a good feeling.”
Her teammates and coaches were also excited as Walters became the first GVSU runner to hit an automatic mark in the 800 in several years.
“I wish I had been there to see it,” said fellow middle-distance runner Marta McLaughlin. “We knew she could do it, but just seeing it on paper is something else. It’s really awesome.”
Walters is not a one-hit-wonder. She is on pace to be invited to the 2017 indoor national meet in more events than just the 800. According to the Track and Field Results Reporting System (TFRRS), if the season ended today, she would be the final qualifier in the women’s mile at the national meet.
“I don’t what we’ll do, whether we’ll go for the 800 or go for the mile in the last few races, but I think she can contend for a national title in the mile down the road,” said GVSU head coach Jerry Baltes.
In addition, the 4x400-meter relay team has posted the third fastest time in Division II this year, according to TFRRS. The core team of Walters, Angela Ritter and Jessica O’Connell have already proven they can run with the best. The addition of Chant’e Roberts rounds out a deadly foursome.
“It’s fun being part of a really good relay,” Walters said. “All four girls want to run really well and we all have our eyes set on the school record and making it to nationals.”
Walters’ high level of talent and consistent performances across different events are well-respected amongst her teammates. McLaughlin points to versatility as Walters’ standout skill.
“Her ability to run anything from the 400 up to the mile makes her essential to this team,” she said. “I bet if (Baltes) put her in a 3,000 she would go off and run amazing in that. Her versatility is unmatched on this team.”
In her personal record 800-meter performance at the Meyo Invitational, Walters ran both the first and second 400s in 64 seconds, something McLaughlin says should not be taken lightly.
“Running like that is really hard to do,” she said. “That just shows her strength as an athlete. Her confidence is what gets her through that.”
Since joining the GVSU team in 2014, Walters has been working on exactly that: finishing strong.
“I’m a person who goes out fast and dies at the end,” she said. “Something I’ve been working on in the past few months of training is having strong finishes. I finally got around to that.”
The rising star credits Baltes’ training for her rise in success.
“She’s got a really good balance between her aerobic strength, her overall raw speed and her powerful strides,” Baltes said. “We’ve really tried to take a balanced approach, not just focus on the speed and not just focus on the strength, but hit all the elements because they are all very important in the 800.”
Walters and several other middle-distance track runners trained with the cross country team during the fall. They didn’t compete, but went through the same workouts as the competing team members.
“It’s really good in the fall to get that aerobic base, just so you’re strong enough to do these kind of workouts,” Walters said. “I think that’s one thing that worked so well for me this year. I had a really great fall of training, just getting stronger aerobically and getting faster aerobically, so I can handle workouts and do them faster and longer.”
Using the long-lasting endurance she learned in cross country, Walters has been able to implement her strategy in the 800 to perfection.
“If you even think for a second that you can do something like pass somebody, you do it,” she said. “I came in with that mindset this year, to take more risks during races and to not think, just do, and act more on instinct.”
It’s the relaxed, yet fearless, approach to risk-taking during races that has allowed Walters to rise into national prominence and ever-closer to the GVSU 800-meter record, a mark that looked almost untouchable.
Steph Kuhlman set the GVSU and Division II national meet record in 2003 when she finished in 2:05.75 during the preliminary round. After the Meyo Invitational, Walters believes Kuhlman’s mark is well within reach.
“I didn’t think much about it until this weekend,” she said. “I had never broken 2:10 before this last race and breaking 2:10 is a huge milestone in the 800. Maybe it’ll happen this year. By the time I graduate I definitely want to have it.”