When the women steeplechasers line up at the starting line Thursday, a new jersey will be among them. Not a new jersey in terms of a number, or freshman athlete, or even that state in the northeast.
Emily Ritter will compete in the steeplechase as the first Rider woman to qualify for the NCAA outdoor track and field national championship in school history.“It is exciting that I am the first [female competitor from Rider], but it just feels unreal in a way because making it to this meet has been my long-term goal since I sat down with the coaches at the beginning of the season to talk about our goals,” Ritter said. “So just making it to the meet is kind of crazy to think about.”
To understand the moment, we must start at the beginning, before even this season. Following some injury trouble, Ritter entered her junior year asked to compete in a new event.
Ritter had talent as a distance runner and with her longer frame and some background with hurdles in high school, Rider head coach Bob Hamer suggested she try the steeplechase. The event spans 3,000 meters with various obstacles as a way to slow runners, include a water jump passage.
Ritter took to the event well, particularly as a newcomer, and slogged her way through the competition her junior year. Posting better and better times throughout the year, she qualified for the NCAA East regional competition.
But eventually the need to improve again and again caught up with Ritter, as did the “laundry” of other, bigger name schools at the East regional. She faltered. Out of 48 participants, Ritter finished 45th.
“Every race when I started steepling was having to hit a time,” Ritter said. “There was always a time to make it to the next meet, to make it to the next meet. It was kind of pressured.”
On her cooldown following the race, Ritter accepted what had happened, but she wouldn’t allow it to consume her. She vowed to return to the regional next season. Not only that, she would make it even farther.
Returning to the beginning of this season, she sat down with her coaches to strategize. What would it take to accomplish her goals?
“How good do you want to be?” Hamer remembers asking. “Do you want to just be good for Rider? And I’m not trying to belittle Rider, but a good runner for us. Or a great runner, someone that everybody’s going, ‘Wow, you’re really successful on a national level.’ ”
Ritter committed and Hamer and his staff helped push her to the precipice she’s on now. When she reached the East Regional this year, Ritter finished second in her heat with a PR of 9:54.34, qualifying for nationals. The difference this time was her past experience.
“It was mostly a mental thing and I had to overcome it,” Ritter said.
She admits that making history as the first Rider woman to compete in the outdoor track and field championship hasn’t quite hit her. Talking to her mother this week, she said she couldn’t wait to travel to Jacksonville, Florida, the site of the East Regionals, soon realizing the mistake and correcting herself.
She does acknowledge that what she’s done thus far has been special.
“Just making it to this meet is rewarding,” Ritter said. “It’s not like I accomplished my goals, but making it here is exciting.”
Hamer says all she has to do is run the same race she has the past two times and she’ll have a chance to compete with the rest. But with no new time to hit or next race to qualify for, Ritter has nothing left to prove.
She’s already shown she belongs right with the rest of them.