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The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference

SEC 40/40: McGovern Born To Run

1630 days ago
Mark Maloney | SEC Digital Network
Photo: SEC Digital Network

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Growing up as a teenager in Dublin, Ireland, Valerie McGovern had a dream.

"I always remember, as a kid, running and just wishing, 'gosh, all I want to do is to get a scholarship.' I didn't really know what that entailed," she said. "But if you remember Eamonn Coghlan, Ray Treacy, all former great Irish runners, had all left for Villanova at one point or other and just did tremendous. I just saw a scholarship as an opportunity to really do what I wanted to do, run. Because in Ireland at the time there was no such thing as scholarships."

Upon graduation from St. Mary's Glasnevin School, no offers came.

McGovern took a job handling accounts for an advertising company. She continued to keep fit by biking to work, biking to practice with a local running club, then biking home.

Looking back, she guesses she was running eight-to-10 miles a day and biking 25.

She was on a working vacation in the Greek islands when her old dream became possible.

Her parents, Eddie and Maureen, called to tell her she had a scholarship offer, with a caveat.

She would be returning to Ireland on a Friday, and she had to commit by Sunday.

The offer came from one of her club coaches, who was taking a job at Austin Peay State University.

He wanted McGovern to be the first piece in building a women's program.

Although she had no idea where Austin Peay was, McGovern said yes on Sunday.

She gave notice to her employer on Monday, then left for Clarksville, Tenn. -- Austin Peay -- on Friday.

A soccer player and a baton twirler also tried out for the cross country team.

Being the only true runner in the Austin Peay women's program, McGovern traveled to meets with the men's team.

At the end of the season, the women's program was dropped.

McGovern had a few partial scholarship offers to transfer, but an Austin Peay teammate suggested she check out Kentucky. The Wildcats had a very good and young group of female distance runners.

She spoke with UK assistant coach Gene Weis, but didn't get a scholarship offer until she was home in Ireland.

For a second time, in 1988, she committed to a college that she had never visited: Kentucky.

McGovern -- now Dr. Valerie McGovern Young and living in Novato, Calif., a bit north of San Francisco -- would go on to become one of UK's and the Southeastern Conference's distance-running legends.

Right off the bat, she helped the Wildcats win the 1988 NCAA Cross Country Championships.

She would win three NCAA individual titles at 5,000 meters, earning All-America honors eight times in cross country and track. She won eight SEC titles and still holds five school records.

When her head coach at UK, Don Weber, retired earlier this month, he couldn't help but mention two of the stars on the 1988 national championship team.

"You've got people like Lisa Breiding and Valerie McGovern, who were the sweetest, nicest people you'd ever run across," he said. "I remember, it kind of bothered me in athletics, and I don't see it as much anymore, but all the chest-thumping, macho stuff. Being a great competitor is much more about brain power than it is brawn.

"And seeing some of the sweetest, nicest young women being the most competitive, daring -- it was inspiring to watch. ... That's the best thing about coaching."

Competitive, daring and unwittingly focused.

"I ran for the love it and really was very much clueless on the standpoint of competition," she said. "It was like 'I' was my own competitor. I lined up there and ... I never wore a watch. I didn't know what splits were. It was nothing like that for me.

"Many a time I would line up and wouldn't even know who the other people on the line were. The guys would laugh at that because they had read up on everybody. They knew what the splits were. They knew how people raced. And I was oblivious to all of that. ... I can remember in some races that maybe I wasn't familiar with, like my first 3,000, my first 5,000, I would say to Coach Weber 'you tell me when you think is a good time to pick it up.' He shouted out 'McGovern, pick it up; da-da-da; settle in; whatever,' and that's kind of how I ran my races."

All the while, she was hitting the books.

At UK, she earned a Bachelor of Science in dietetics, a Master of Science in nutritional biochemistry and a doctorate in nutritional sciences.

"The irony of it is that when I left high school in Ireland, I had never had one science class," she said.

Science classes for females were just starting to become available in Ireland, and on a limited basis. Valerie was encouraged to take "domestic science" -- learning how to cook.

Her first chemistry class at UK was the freshman Chemistry 101. That also meant studying in a very large classroom setting, which only added to her challenge.

She credits UK's CATS (Center for Academic & Tutorial Services) program and its director, Bob Bradley, for enabling her to put everything together.

Ask her if her athletic success fueled her academic success and McGovern doesn't hesitate.

"Yeah, I think absolutely it did," she said. "I think when you're running at the national level, as I was doing, you're very structured and you're very disciplined, and it was kind of like school just fit into that structure. It was a very organized day. Sometimes I would do a morning run. I think back -- I stretched 20 minutes before I went, I did my run, I stretched after, and school slotted right in there.

"School, to me, was as important as athletics, and that's what I thought of, and that was my priority when I was running. So though they were very separate, they both helped each other. I think to some degree the discipline and the motivation and the organization, to me, probably just spilled over into my academics."

That, in turn, has spilled over into lifestyle. She still knows how to manage her time.

Now a masters runner, McGovern Young still loves to run.

Her professional life has included work at various hospitals, mainly in intensive care, putting her nutritional knowledge to use with cardiology, endocrinology and renal patients. She also has served in private practice, consulting with athletes.

For now, though, she is a stay-at-home mom. Her daughter, Fiona, will turn 11 in August. A son, Sean, will turn 5 in November. Mom plans to return to work when Sean becomes a full-time student.

Husband Shawn, whom she married 18 years ago, works for a company that provides the tools for minimal invasive surgery. He manages a division, sometimes "coaching" doctors how to use the tools.

As for how fate led her from an Irish advertising company to Kentucky's Bluegrass, McGovern Young said: "No regrets. As long as I was there, between running and then graduate school, I had tremendous support. Beyond the scholarship. Just from the community. It was like my second home."