June 5, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
oon after Ashley Beutler moved into her Sullivan Hall dorm as a Wisconsin freshman, she was in meet-and-greet mode and looking to make new friends. She knew one of the girls that she competed against in high school was on the floor below, so Beutler dropped by to say hello.
While there, she met the girl’s roommate, Caitlin Comfort.
“We look back on it quite a bit,’’ Comfort said. “I remember it fondly.’’
Whereas Beutler was from nearby New Glarus, Wis., Comfort was from out of state and feeling a little out of touch with her new surroundings. “I didn’t really know anyone because I’m from Peoria, Illinois,’’ she said, “and no one really comes to the University of Wisconsin from Peoria, Illinois.’’
Beutler and Comfort ended up going on a long run, which turned out to be an icebreaker.
“We took the Lakeshore Path and kind of admired the view that we were going to have for the next year on Lake Mendota,’’ Comfort said. “And we just ran around Madison and got to know each other. We talked about our families and high school and I could tell she was a great girl from the get-go.’’
One thing they could have used was a campus map. “We both got lost,’’ Beutler said. But they found that they had much in common. “After the run,’’ Comfort said, “I went back to my dorm room and thought, ‘Yep, she’s going to be one of my best friends here.’’’
Beutler and Comfort made a connection five years ago that’s stronger than ever today; a bond that factors into their last competition together at the NCAA outdoor championships in Eugene, Ore. Beutler will compete in the 3000-meter steeplechase and Comfort in the 10,000 meters, both on Wednesday.
“To be able to go to the final meet with her is the greatest thing ever,’’ Beutler said. “If I didn’t have her around, I don’t know what college would have been like because I have the luxury of training with someone who’s not only at my level (as a runner) but better than me, so it pushes me.’’
There has been a mutual give-and- take. “She has been one of my biggest supporters, one of my biggest fans and I’d like to think I’m one of her biggest fans, too,’’ said Comfort. “We’ve been through a lot together. It has been great to have a teammate and a roommate and a friend in Ashley.’’
Before the NCAA West Preliminary Round in Austin, Texas, last week, Beutler presented Comfort with what she called a “goofy card’’ reflecting on their friendship. “Inside,’’ she revealed, “I wrote her a nice note and I just said, ‘I really wanted us to finish this up together the right way at nationals.’’’
What kind reaction did that draw from Comfort? “Oh, my gosh, I cried,’’ she said. “She gave me the card and I read it about a half-hour before my race. It was so cute and it brought a tear to my eye on what our friendship has meant to her. Everything she said in that card, I felt the same way.’’
After Comfort won her first Big Ten championship -- the 5000 meters at the Big Ten indoor meet in late February -- it was Beutler who couldn’t hold back the tears. “I felt like a mom,’’ she said. “It happened for her finally. It was the same when I qualified for nationals. She was so happy.’’
• • • •
eutler was not a lock to get to Eugene in the steeplechase after a fifth-place finish in the conference meet. “I expected a lot more out of myself to at least PR and get in the top three,’’ said Beutler, who was also 12th in the 5K. “But I wasn’t feeling it that day. Thankfully, it wasn’t regionals.’’
The steeplechase was an acquired taste for Beutler, who didn’t begin competing in the event until her junior year at Wisconsin. “I had fought Coach (Jim Stintzi) on it the year before,’’ she remembered. “He was like, ‘Just try it.’ And I was, ‘No way, I can’t hurdle, I’m a terrible hurdler.’’’
A persistent Stintzi eventually informed Beutler, “You’re doing it.’’ That was that. “A week later, he threw me into one (steeplechase) and I’ve been doing it ever since,’’ she said. “I had watched and admired those girls -- being able to hurdle and doing the water jump while racing is tough.’’
Beutler had one major issue with the event.
“For the longest time I was actually afraid of the water,’’ she said, “because it’s such a deep, slanted pit and there was just something about it. I could do it in sand when we practiced. That was fine. But all of a sudden you’d bring in the water and I’d just panic. I had to get over that part.
“What I had to do was realize that it’s just water, and it’s no different than jumping into sand. If you’re not afraid and you attack, it actually works out much better. So now I’m over that. But it’s still a challenge when you get tired at the end; it’s a challenge to keep attacking it.’’
|“I felt like a mom,’’ Beutler said of her reaction to Comfort's first Big Ten title. “It happened for her finally. It was the same when I qualified for nationals. She was so happy.’’
At the preliminary round, Beutler was determined not to make the same error that she had made during the Big Ten steeplechase. “I made the mistake of sitting on the third place girl and we got kind of comfortable in the middle,’’ said Beutler, whose finishing kick fell short of the desired result.
Having filed away that lesson, she said, “At regionals, I didn’t wait for anyone. I got behind the first-place girl and stayed there, so I didn’t have time to mess up.’’ Almost. Beutler got in trouble where you might expect her to have trouble given her past concerns: the water jump.
“I fell on the last barrier; I didn’t hit it, but I tripped coming out of the water and I went down on all fours,’’ she said, shaking her head at the painful memory. “I realized at that moment if I didn’t hurry up and get going, I was going to get passed by everyone.’’
Replaying that stumble, she said, “I felt like I was going in slow motion. I felt myself falling and sliding on the track and it was like, ‘Oh, no, they’re going to catch me.’ When you have to go from a stopped position and jump the next barrier, it felt like it took forever to get over that last one.’’
But there was enough separation between Beutler and the pack that she was in still good shape. After crossing the finish line, she collapsed. “I was tired,’’ she said. “As I was lying in the grass, I looked up at the board and saw it (her time) and I couldn’t help but smile.’’
Beutler not only had clocked a personal best, but she set a school record in the steeplechase. “I had no idea what our splits were at any point in the race,’’ she said, “so I didn’t know that I was even close to the record until coach yelled at me with 200 to go, and then I fell.’’
Comfort saw it all unfold in front of her eyes. “I knew she was going to run a great time,’’ Comfort said, “because she looked so good and she had that pep in her step the entire race. When she fell I was a little nervous, but she’s such a fighter, I knew she’d be fine.’’
Admitting to get emotional upon learning Beutler had broken the UW mark in the event, Comfort said, “She has high standards for herself. I tried to say to her (before the race), ‘Ashley, you’re going great right now and you’re going to end your season in Eugene at Hayward (Field).’’’
Sure enough, Beutler punched her ticket to the NCAA meet. “But I don’t think it’s OK to be just satisfied with getting there,’’ she said. “I want to get past the (semifinals); that’s my first goal. Then I want to finish in the top eight. As long as I run well -- and if stay on my feet -- I’ll be OK.’’
|After finishing ninth at last year's NCAA championships, Caitlin Comfort has her sights on cracking the top eight and earning All-America honors in the 10,000 meters.
Comfort has similar expectations. Unlike Beutler, she has experience in the NCAA meet. Last year, she was ninth in the 10K, thereby earning second-team All-America recognition. In retrospect, she felt like she may have settled for placing in the top 10 instead of setting her sights on a podium finish.
“It’s important for me to go in knowing that I’m capable of running with some of the best runners in the nation,’’ she said, revising her goals accordingly. “Just the fact that I was able to crack the top 10 last year at nationals will give me confidence going into Eugene.
“I’m racing against 23 of the nation’s best 10K-ers so everyone is going to be my competition. It’s kind of unusual in that a lot of the really great 10K runners were in the West Region so I’ve already raced against them and I’m going to set my sights on a few of those girls.’’
On already showing her mettle by winning the 10K at the Big Ten meet, Comfort said, “It has become my race; it’s something I love; it’s a race that I’m very passionate about.’’
In the next breath, she conceded that she had a “big target on my back’’ and “I wanted to live up to the high expectations.’’
Obviously, Comfort and Beutler would both like to end their college eligibility on a high note. Next season, Comfort will be a volunteer coach with the Badgers, while Beutler will enter the work force in Madison. Most importantly, they will continue to be roommates, if not teammates.
“We’re not ready to part ways yet,’’ Comfort said. “We get along too well.’’