Editor’s Note: Norris finished in 13th place with a time of 9 minutes, 41.59 seconds in her steeplechase Olympic qualifier on June 24, 2021. It was her fourth race in 14 days.
Mahala Norris seemed an unlikely candidate to place in the NCAA 3,000-meter steeplechase championship on June 12, 2021, at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon. The 4-foot-11 runner and newly commissioned Space Force officer pulled ahead in the final seconds of the race, just her fifth time running it.
She finished with a time of 9 minutes, 31.79 seconds, barely edging out Auburn’s Joyce Kimeli and Washington’s Katie Rainsberger. Still trailing while pulling into the final stretch, she won by five-hundredths of a second.
“The goal was always just to hang with them,” Norris told the Colorado Springs Gazette. “And if I could, just kick past them. I knew if I was able to stay with them, it would be a kick race.”
Not only did Norris win, she shaved six full seconds off her previous best time. A week later, she advanced to the third day of the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials at Hayward Field. Her finish on June 20 earned her an automatic qualifying bid to the 3,000 steeplechase finals on June 24.
Norris posted the ninth-fastest qualifying time. The top three finishers in the final will qualify for the U.S. Olympic team that will head to Tokyo for the Games from July 23 through Aug. 8
Norris was adopted from an orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as a baby and attended Roseburg High School in Roseburg, Oregon. She began her athletic career playing soccer but also ran middle-distance track races. Air Force coaches noticed her ability and convinced her to attend the academy as a runner.
Her first cross country event came while studying at Air Force. By the end of her senior year at the academy, she became the first Air Force woman to win the Mountain West Conference title in cross country.
After being commissioned in the Space Force, she competed in the 5,000-meter run and the NCAA Cross Country Championships, placing fourth in each and becoming a first-team All-American.
Her first steeplechase competition came on May 1, 2021, and beat the previous Air Force Falcons record by nearly 11 seconds. She won the Mountain West Division championship in her second competition, qualified for the national championship on her third run and qualified for the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials on her fourth.
The steeplechase is a 3,000-meter race with 28 barriers and seven other water hazards for runners to overcome. The barriers for the women’s steeplechase are 30 inches, which is a considerable size for a runner who stands 59 inches. Water obstacles are the same height but are followed by a 10-foot-long water pit.
It might seem like the small but mighty runner is a sudden prodigy at the steeplechase, but that’s both true and misleading. Norris practiced for the event in the days before her junior year, but the coronavirus pandemic put those plans on hold.
When the competitions returned, Norris’ goal was to make it to Oregon to compete in the NCAA championship or the U.S. Olympic team qualifiers. She got to compete for both.
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