Brie Oakley On The Pressure Of Being No. 1

It may seem quick for someone so new to track and field to be entering a second phase in her career, but that's exactly where Brie Oakley finds herself right now. 

Less than two years ago, the Aurora Grandview (CO) High School senior was running for the first time after 12 years of playing soccer. She emerged as a force immediately and quickly moved up the national radar, leaving almost every competitor in her wake.

Success hit almost as quickly as it began. A national title at Nike Cross Country Nationals in December. Being named Gatorade National Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year in January. Breaking the national record in the 5K at New Balance Nationals Indoor in New York. Becoming the first girl in history to run under 16 minutes indoors. 

"Brie Oakley's story is actually quite unique," Grandview cross country coach Allyson Robbins told Gatorade in a video for Oakley's national recognition in January. "I have never seen a cross country athlete rise so fast in the sport."

But in some ways, that put undo pressure on Oakley, who in November signed with the University of California, Berkeley. All of these accomplishments have come so fast, it's almost been impossible for the three-time state champion to absorb it all. 

She didn't lose a single regular-season race in 2016 -- although she finished third at the Brooks PR Invitational in the 2-mile last June in 10:08.89.

What would that mean for her moving forward?

"She's handled it really well, and honestly she's still learning," Oakley's track and field coach, John Reyes, said. "We have to remember, she's only in her second season of running." 

The spring has been an eye-opening experience so far. Oakley's first competitive mile in Arizona was so close, she was the runner-up in a 1600m split and out-leaned her competitor for a win by one-hundredth of a second -- she was also sixth in a tune-up 800m.

Then last weekend, she was the runner-up in a national-caliber 3200m in California. 

"It just makes me realize that I have competition, and I still have a lot to work on as a runner," Oakley said. "I just have to be smarter about how I need to race and be tougher. I can take a lot away from the races." 

In her season debut at the Chandler Rotary Invitational on March 25, Oakley wasn't quite sure whether to take out the 1600m but did anyway, letting the eventual race winner, Allie Schadler, play off her back. 

Schadler, a senior from Rio Rico (AZ) High School with 58-low speed and a 2:10 PR in the 800, ultimately sprung away from her in the final 100m to go through in the 1600m marker in 4:45.39. Oakley followed 0.04 of a second later -- but finished ahead of Schadler in the full mile by one-hundredth of a second, 4:46.97.

"It was a humbling experience," Oakley said. 

Then this past weekend at Arcadia, Oakley changed her tactics, allowing Malibu (CA) High School sophomore Claudia Lane to take out the 3200m. 

Oakley hoped the underclassman, who won Foot Locker Nationals in the fall, might go out too fast and relent in the end. Lane never did, winning in 9:57.52. Oakley crossed just 0.07 of a second later. 

"I know I definitely could have been a lot smarter with how I race," she said. 

Ultimately, these losses may be teaching Oakley more about herself than any big win could. 

"I think her expectations and our team's are to be really good," Reyes said. "It just fits in line with everything we do. I don't think you can be great unless you expect to be great, and I know she wants to run well. There are a lot of other runners out there she isn't taking for granted."

But Oakley, who should win every race she enters in Colorado and break the state record in the 3200m,  is also slowly moving from one perspective to another. 

As she builds back up training for the Colorado season, she'll reset her motivations yet again. She'll take one race at a time. 

She doesn't view herself as the unquestioned favorite in every race she enters now, either.  

"I do feel more pressure now than I did last year," Oakley said. "I know people are always watching me, and they know who I am. I try not to let that get to me. To me, it's just another race, and I'm going to control what I can." 

It's a shift in mentality from one of the best, but ultimately it's an adjustment with a purpose. 

Not only does Oakley have her sights on a state record in the 3200m -- which is 10:17 -- but she also wants to go under 4:50 statewide in the 1600m and even aspires to run another 5K again in June.

"She's a student of the game," Reyes said. "She's focused."