It might seem strange that one of the most accomplished athletes in Air Force history would finish her career with an event she’s run only four times.
But that’s the legacy Mahala Norris is most proud to leave behind – showing that background, particularly as a runner, doesn’t necessarily dictate what might come next.
“It’s just kind of a visual for others,” said Norris on Friday night, the eve of her steeplechase final at the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championships. “You don’t really have to have that background in running to accomplish the same things.”
Running was never in Norris’ plan when she grew up in Roseburg, Ore., after being adopted from an orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, before her first birthday. She was a soccer player whose speed allowed her to effortlessly compete in middle distances in track. That’s where the 4-foot-11 dynamo was first spotted by Air Force coaches, who convinced her to come to the academy via the prep school as a runner.
Her first cross country event came at the collegiate level, as she had opted for soccer as her fall season sport in high school.
By her senior year became the first Air Force female to win a Mountain West title in cross country.
Who needs a running start when you can simply outrun everyone else?
The cross country title in early March began a blistering 10 days that included a fourth-place finish in the 5,000-meter run at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships and a fourth place finish in the NCAA Cross Country Championships. That resulted in first-team All-American status in both events that took place in different states, three days apart.
This spring, the recently commissioned second lieutenant in the space force who had twice set the record in the mile for Air Force changed course again.
On May 1, she competed in the steeplechase for the first time. She ran 10:03.85 – lopping 10.92 seconds off the previous Falcons record. She won the Mountain West title the second time she completed in the event. The third time came at regionals, where she qualified for a spot at nationals. The fourth came on Thursday, as she qualified for Saturday’s finals.
Picking up steeplechase wasn’t as out-of-the-blue as it seemed. Norris had practiced the 3,000-meter event that includes 30-inch hurdle-like unmovable barriers and water hazards that are about 10 feet long as a sophomore but with little success. She had returned to it as a junior and was set to make her debut just as COVID-19 shut down the season.
“That’s why it looks like last minute,” she said.
Prior to her senior season, Norris had written down her goals of making it to Eugene, Ore. – site of the NCAA championships – either for nationals or for Olympic trials.
Now, she’ll be there for both. After Saturday she’ll go back to Roseburg – also the hometown or Air Force football coach Troy Calhoun (he and Norris attended the same elementary, middle and high schools) and his sister, Callie Molly, an newly elected member of the Air Force Athletics Hall of Fame for her exploits as a distance runner – and then return to Haywood Field for a chance to make the U.S. Olympic team.
Regardless, of what happens with nationals or the trials, Norris’ plan is to begin her assignment as a space operations officer in August. She’ll see what that career field holds for her and then decide whether or not to apply for the World Class Athlete Program in 2022.
“I don’t know if surprised would be the word,” Norris said, reflecting on the successes of the four years, and in particular the past three months. “It just kind of happened.”
That’s always been her style.
Top 3,000 steeplechase times this year
1. Courtney Wayment, jr., BYU (9:31.37)
2. Aneta Konieczek, jr., Oregon (9:36.74)
3. Joyce Mileli, jr., Auburn (9:37.97)
4. Kirssy Gear, jr., Arkansas (9:38.62)
5. Katie Rainsberger*, sr., Washington (9:38.84)
6. Hannah Steelman, jr., NC State (9:43.08)
7. Gabrielle Jennings, sr., Furman (9:43.48)
8. Mahala Norris, sr., Air Force (9:44.10)
*-Colorado Springs native and Air Academy High School graduate