Woerner’s World. Once A Runner – Kerri Gallagher (Part 1)

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 The below is the first installment of a two-part series chronicling Rockaway resident Kerri Gallagher’s journey to this year’s United States Track and Field Olympic Trials in the 1500-meter event. Part II will appear in next week’s issue of The Rockaway Times in advance of her first race at this pivotal meet.

You could point to a multitude of turning points that spurred Belle Harbor’s Kerri Gallagher to the starting line at next week’s United States Track and Field Olympic Trials. Was it the parochial school medals she regularly acquired at small-time meets held in Van Cortlandt Park or the dry heat of Washington Height’s Armory? Maybe it was her first Atlantic-10 individual 800-meter Title while running for Vince Lombardi’s alma mater in the Bronx. One could posit that it could have been her Penn Relays Mile victory in the spring of 2015 at historic Franklin Field in the Women’s Mile over Canadian Olympian and NCAA Champion Sheila Reed.  Just months before that triumph in the City of Brotherly Love, she was lapped (and placed last) at the Millrose Games in the Women’s 3,000 Meter Run. Was it that disappointing showing in front of hometown family and friends that motivated her to the most elite class of middle-distance runners she now finds herself competing against?

“Nope,”  the soft-spoken but confident Gallagher says. “It was right after graduation (from Fordham) at the Harbor Light, me and John Lovett met to recap my college career, and he wanted to gauge my interest on continuing to run post-college.” Lovett, who ran the lead-off leg on Manhattan College’s 1973 NCAA Indoor Champion Distance Medley Relay and served as Gallagher’s track mentor at Bishop Kearney in Brooklyn, was not trying to push her in any specific direction – he simply wanted her to know a possible opportunity existed in athletics beyond her university years. After convincing the Harbor Light’s unshaven barkeep to switch from the Yankee game over to a four-digit cable channel showing the U.S. Track and Field Championships on a corner-spot television, Lovett cut to the chase. Matt Centrowitz, a former Olympic harrier and friend of his through their shared high school alma mater (the now-extinct Power Memorial), was operating a professional training group out of the Washington, D.C.-area. Gallagher, who just accepted a position at Morgan Stanley in Manhattan, had two choices: follow what her father, John, aptly labeled “a direct trajectory” to business success, or wade in the metaphoric waters of the dreaded unknown that encapsulates a “career” as a professional distance runner.

Centrowitz may have had a relationship with Lovett spanning five decades, but he was no stranger to Gallagher either. In addition to molding professional runners under the umbrella of his D.C.-based Pacers Track Club, he serves as the full-time Cross Country/Track and Field coach at American University. When Gallagher was a senior at Kearney, he formally recruited her to join his college program that he was starting to build into regional relevance.  “There are types of kids I am better at working with right away”, admits the brash, old-school coach. “Running in Rockaway is different from running in Santa Barbara. You have to be tougher there, smarter there, and be able to adapt to different things.” Gallagher hit all three of those key qualities right on the head – which made their pairing all but a no brainer at the time.

But it didn’t work out to Centrowitz’s liking the first time around. Citing “not being ready to make a move like that” as her reason for attending nearby Fordham over American, Gallagher went on to have a proud career for the Rams. There is a difference, however, between the commitment required to win a few individual conference races in a small Jesuit university’s conference and the commitment necessitated by competing at a world-class level. To be clear, Gallagher did not qualify for the NCAA National Championship as an individual – she was relegated to the IC4A meet, which for all you hoops fans is an NIT of sorts held at the end of each season.

“Professional running was not even on my radar at that point. Not one bit.”

This story becomes even more compelling at this juncture, when Gallagher made what appeared to some as a cursory decision to pack her things and follow I-95 due south to what southerners call “The DMV”, short for where the DC-Maryland, and Virginia areas coalesce.

“Coach Centrowitz knew that I felt a bit unfilled with the way my college career ended and I felt this was an opportunity I would regret passing up on” is how Gallagher described her sentiment at the time.

This is where, like most great stories of success, her existence in the familiar and secure surroundings of her hometown ended, and the challenge of pursuing Track and Field greatness began.

Kerri will be running in the Women’s 1500 Meter First Round at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials on Thursday July 7, 2016 at 6:26 p.m. PT (9:26 p.m. ET). NBC Sports Network (7/7, 7/8) and NBC (7/10) will be covering the entire event live – check with your local cable provider. It will also be available to stream online at www.USATF.tv.

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