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Hours after the biggest night of her professional running career, Josette Norris had trouble falling asleep. She had just run a personal best and U.S. Olympic Trials qualifying time of 14 minutes and 51.42 seconds in the women’s 5,000 meters at the Sound Running Track Meet in Irvine, California, on May 15, and she felt, in her own words, “a little delirious.” To pass the time, Norris decided to post about her accomplishment on Snapchat. When Norris woke up later that day, she saw a flood of messages congratulating her, and also more than a few offering a correction on her caption.
“I had so many messages like, ‘Um, Josette, you didn’t run 15:51, you ran 14:51.’ I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I did,'” Norris recalls. “I think I was a little delirious. I just feel like I’m in a whole new zone. It’s just a lot of shifts in my mindset have happened this season, and that’s been one of them.”
Norris turned pro in September of 2019 shortly after graduating from Georgetown University, when she signed a contract with the Reebok Boston Track Club that trains in Charlottesville, Virginia, under the guidance of former Syracuse cross country and track and field coach Chris Fox. She may still sometimes feel like a rookie pro after the pandemic wiped out competitive meets during her first year, but with her performances this season, including a second place finish at the Sound Running meet, in which Norris only lost to women’s mile world record holder Sifan Hassan, the 25-year-old has announced herself as a contender to make the U.S. Olympic track team. Her time in the outdoor 5K is the ninth fastest ever by an American woman. Norris also won the 1,500-meters at the Drake Relays in April with a time of 4:06.17.
She will race in the women’s 5,000 meters at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Eugene, Oregon, which begin this Friday, June 18 and runs through June 27. Norris has the fourth fastest time in the field entering the Trials and has goals to finish in the top three to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
“Last fall, the goal was get to the Olympic Trials, make that Olympic Trials final and see how close I could get to top three, and use that as my fuel for the next few years and hope that I can make the Olympic team in 2024,” Norris says. “And now that’s completely shifted. Like my goal is to be top three of the Olympic Trials and make that Olympic team, and I feel like that shift came this year as it became more of a reality. But that’s definitely my goal going into this meet, make it through the prelim as smoothly as possible and be in that top three position and make that Olympic team.”
After a standout high school career in New Jersey, Norris attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for two years before transferring to Georgetown. Norris struggled with injuries for much of her college career, but had her best season as a fifth-year graduate student at Georgetown, claiming fourth place in the 5,000-meter run at the 2019 NCAA outdoor track and field championships. That performance gave her confidence as she weighed her options navigating the often confusing world of professional running.
She ran only two races as a pro in January and February of 2020 before the pandemic forced organizers to cancel meets. It would be months before she stepped on the track in a competitive setting again. The time away ended up helping Norris.
“It was definitely a big adjustment, jumping into the pro scene, just new teammates, new coach, new environment, new expectations,” she says. “And it was crazy to have my first professional year during the pandemic, when everything shut down. It almost feels like this year is my first professional year because it’s actually like a real season, and everything last year was so unorganized, it felt like … So it was definitely a hard adjustment, but also that extra time to just train and get adjusted to being a professional has been huge for me. And now I’m seeing a big breakout this year, and the timing couldn’t be better.”
The pause from competitions also gave Norris perspective. Being a professional runner often requires a repetitive routine of self-imposed expectations and external demands. The pandemic offered an opportunity to take a step back.
“It definitely made you think about who you are outside of being just an athlete,” Norris says. “I feel like it made me think of more of me as a person and realize that there are a lot bigger things going on in the world than sometimes when you’re just stuck in your little bubble. So I feel like it was very eye opening to me … I’ve been trying to work on not stressing about the little things in my life and knowing that there’s a lot bigger things going on in the world and that kind of made me feel, in a way, took that pressure off of myself personally.”
Sometimes, on solo long runs out on Charlottesville’s dirt roads, Norris would put on her headphones and visualize what she wanted to accomplish as a runner. She thought about how her next race would go, from the first lap down to crossing the finish line. At home, she would rewatch some of her old races on YouTube and also those of her competitors. While visualizing, she thought about her goals in the sport.
“And I realized kind of how badly I want to do this and like what my potential could be,” Norris says. “I feel like I’ve always believed in my potential and what I could do in this sport, and the extra time has really allowed me to hone in on my strengths and also work on my weaknesses to become a better athlete and person.”
Last October, Norris got engaged to Robby Andrews, a 2016 Olympian and fellow pro runner who proposed on the boardwalk along the Georgetown Waterfront. Norris says that wedding planning won’t begin until 2022. For now, running takes priority. And if she does qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, Norris will get the chance to travel out of the country for the first time. She just got her first passport last year.
“It would be pretty crazy if my first time leaving would be Tokyo,” she says.