After running the race of her life last May in Austin, Texas and qualifying for the NCAA Outdoor Championships, Gianna Woodruff should have been getting psyched up for the chance to earn her first All-America honor in the 400-meter hurdles. Instead, she was getting an MRI to confirm that the consistent pain in her shin was a stress fracture. Rather than risk further injury by running on it again, Woodruff had to scratch from the semis, and could only watch as her training partner and friend Kayla Stueckle, who had qualified right along with her, compete in Eugene. But now less than a year later, Woodruff is back at full strength, and running some of her best times. Her 58.25 second time in the hurdles at the Drake Relays last week ranks her 20th in the U.S. this year. The junior from Los Angeles talked to GoHuskies about the painful decision to miss the national meet last year, her comeback, and the motivation she gets from her older sister.
GoHuskies.com: Go back to the end of last season, where you run a huge PR, qualify for the NCAA meet, and then learn you won’t be able to compete. That had to be very tough.
Gianna Woodruff: Throughout the season, starting in March, I started having some pain in my shins. But I just kind of let it go and pushed through it. I was running on it like a slight stress fracture. Then I brought it to the training staff after regionals and they said I should get an MRI. We finally did it and the doctors were pushing me around in a wheelchair making it seem bigger than what it was. But I guess they don’t play around with bone injuries. They told me it was a slight stress fracture, and they pretty much told me that I wasn’t going to be able to run in the national meet. But I said I had to – I didn’t make it this far and not compete. This was my first year going and I had to do it, because who knows when you’re going to get this chance again. Then they told me to talk to Coach Metcalf, and whatever he says is fine. So we were debating on whether I should run or not, and he told me that I have two more years, and we’d rather me be healthy and be able to compete these next two years than be out forever with a broken shin. I was devastated. I started tearing up. I didn’t cry, but this was something that I love and am passionate about, and I couldn’t even compete. But throughout the whole summer I was resting on it, and in the fall we took it pretty easy, and now I’m going full throttle. Nothing can stop me.
GH: Do you feel fully back to where you were before the layoff?
GW: I think I’m in better shape than I was. My times reflect that. At this time last year, I think I was just breaking 60, and now I’m breaking 60 with ease now. I think in the dual meet or the Pac-12s, 57 (seconds) will be within reach.
GH: Was it tough to stay patient during your recovery?
GW: It was so hard. I just wanted to get out there and run. I was out for a month and I was doing easy stuff, then I finally had a workout with Kayla (Stueckle) and Krista (Armstead). I thought that I was in shape, but after that workout, I realized I wasn’t in shape at all because I hadn’t been doing the harder stuff. I was doing more of what the short sprinters do, which really isn’t that much compared to what the long hurdlers and 400 people do. The transition to get in shape was definitely hard, but I’m here now and everything is good.
GH: How do you feel about your last couple races after posting a couple 58-second times?
GW: The beginning of the season was good because Coach Sheen said that our goal was to get under 60 the first race, then after that go down to 58, 57. So I started off pretty good. Then the second meet was Stanford, which was not very good. I felt like I went backwards. Then these past two meets I’ve been really good. I’ve been having season-bests, and I feel like there are still things that I can work on. The last 150 (meters) I feel like I can push a little harder. I should have a little more in me. This past weekend at Drake was really good. The track was super nice, I felt like my steps were on point – I didn’t have to alternate until the fifth hurdle, which was good for me. I still have some things to work on, but other than that things are going pretty well.
GH: When did you first start track? Your mother played soccer in college, so did you play other sports growing up?
GW: I played soccer in elementary school up through middle school. I did track and gymnastics too, so I was juggling those three sports. I stayed consistent with gymnastics and track, but when I got to high school, I stopped doing gymnastics. I wasn’t that good, and I realized that getting a scholarship would be really, really hard, so I wanted to just go with something I was really good at, so I stuck with track. I wasn’t that good as a freshman and sophomore. I started improving my junior year when I started doing the hurdles. I found something and I stuck with it.
GH: Your older sister Yasmin was a sprinter as well, correct?
GW: She was a 100, 200 runner. She went to UCLA. She was really good in high school. She had a really good freshman year – she made it to regionals I believe. But then she got injured, she tore her meniscus I believe, and then she went back last year because she had a fifth year. I think physically she was there, but mentally, it just wasn’t the year that she wanted. It was really tough seeing her go through that. I told her I was kind of doing this for her, since she wasn’t able to have the track career she wanted to.
GH: You also have three younger siblings, did they do track?
GW: My younger sister ran a little in high school but now she does gymnastics at the University of Chicago. My younger brother does track. He does the high jump and long jump I believe. Then my youngest brother plays soccer and runs track. Everyone is active. I got to see them this past month because my dad’s parents passed away, so we all got to see each other although on bad terms.
GH: Last year the 400m hurdles in the Pac-12 had three women who were three of the best in the world. With them moving on, do you and Kayla feel like you’re among the favorites now?
GW: I think that this year Kayla and I have a really good shot. The number one girl right now from Arizona I think has run a 57:07. I think that once we step on the track, it’s going to be whoever can bring their A-game that day. I think Kayla and I really have a good shot – we could go one and two. I don’t really care who goes one and two, as long as it’s Washington.
GH: How has it been having Kayla to train with these three years?
GW: It’s been really great. I didn’t really think about it until last year, because freshman year I was still getting acquainted with college track, but now I’m really thankful that she’s my training partner. We’re really good friends, she’s my buddy, my roommate at hotels, so I’m with her all the time. I really learn and grow from her. We’re a little opposite on the track but meet in the middle. She specializes in longer stuff, so I feel like she can run for days, but I’m more of a sprinter, but both of us together work as a unit. We’re both kind of quiet but goofy too. We go well together.
GH: Are you looking forward to the Dual Meet this weekend?
GW: Right now on paper, the Cougars are supposed to smack us, but that's not going to happen – at least I’m not going to let that happen. I’m going to run my hardest in the 4x1, I’m going to run my hardest in the 4x4, and in the 400 hurdles Kayla and I are going to go one and two. So I’m going to handle what I have to do, and I’m going to try to pump up the other females so that we can handle what we have to do, because we’re going to come out of there with a win.
GH: What motivates you most to get through all the tough days and practices?
GW: I just think of the end goal – possibly the U.S. Nationals. I think that if I could possibly make it there, that keeps me motivated. And my sister – I want to do it for her.
GH: Do you think you still have a lot of room to improve? What times would it take for you to keep pursuing the hurdles after college?
GW: I would have to run 55, and I think that’s very possible. I just really have to sit down and think about where I have to do that in my race. Because last year when I ran 57:88, I didn’t know how I could run faster than that. I thought I was giving it my all. But there is some type of way that me running between hurdles faster, maybe starting off faster, finishing faster, I haven’t even thought about that yet. But it’s there. I feel like once I have that moment when I break 57, I know I’ll have it.
GH: Have you settled on your major yet, and what led you to that decision?
GW: I’m going to major in sociology and minor in diversity. Believe it or not, I was going to major in chemical engineering, but then I took a chemistry class and that completely went downhill. I like the medical field, and I want to be a hospital administrator when I get older and possibly own and run my own hospital. I’ve seen a bunch of policies at certain hospitals and don't really like it, so I want to do it my way. I know I can major in sociology and do that, and maybe change people’s way of thinking.