Combining talent and perseverance, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Bird ’17 made the British Olympic team in the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase, advanced to the championship race in Tokyo, and finished ninth in the final in 9:19.68 to break her own British national record. Her Tokyo clocking represents a whopping 35-second improvement over her top steeplechase performance as a Princeton undergrad.
That journey has not been an easy one.
Bird’s pathway to Princeton was circuitous. “I was interested in the U.S. initially because it had such good running and track and field schools in general,” says Bird. “Somehow Princeton got on our list. It was the best Ivy, and it had the best track and field history among the Ivies. I visited and I just loved the team.”
It took Bird a while to find her event. Head Coach Peter Farrell and some teammates convinced her to try steeplechase, an obstacle race that borrows its name from horse racing. While occasional injuries hampered her collegiate career, the four-time All-Ivy honoree still holds second place on the Princeton All-Time List for steeplechase, with a time of 9:54.76. She also holds the University record for the indoor mile. The public and international affairs major even garnered national All-Academic honors in each of her four years at Princeton.
While pursuing a master’s degree at the University of San Francisco, a stress fracture in her femur nearly prompted her to give up. But then her coach, Pat McCurry, told her she stood a chance at qualifying for the world championships. “And I kinda thought, ‘OK, I don’t really think so. But let’s give it a go. I’ve nothing to lose.’” She took a job at an immigration law firm and kept training on the side.
The plan crafted by McCurry, who remains Bird’s coach, worked. She competed for Great Britain in the world championships in Doha in 2019, narrowly missing making the final. “It was very frustrating,” recalls Bird. But it was a personal record, “and it gave me the belief that I could make the Olympics. That’s what kept me going these last two years.”
After more races where she kept coming close, she finished third in May 2021 with a time of 9:26.73, at last earning that elusive Olympic qualification. Then Bird went on a roll. As a pre-Olympic tune-up, she headed to Monaco for one final steeplechase race before Tokyo.
A shot at the British steeplechase record of 9:24.24 was on her mind. Racing in a stacked field featuring the world record holder and assorted global medalists, Bird finished seventh, clocking 9:22.80 to set a new British national record. Then in Tokyo, Bird advanced to the final where she lowered the British record yet again.
At the end of August, Bird began her first year of law school at the University of Colorado. With an impressive collegiate track and field career, having twice set the British national record in the women’s steeplechase, is this Olympic finalist ready to hang up her spikes?
“I’m still going to keep doing it. But I am going to do it alongside law school,” Bird says. “At least, I’m going to give it a go this year.”