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Runge brings experience to new home

by ZwemZa on January 9th, 2019

Cierra Runge (Sun Devils)

After attending swimming powerhouse Cal out of high school in 2014-15 — and breaking three school records in her freshman season — Cierra Runge redshirted her sophomore season to train in Tempe for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

Runge still had a steep hill to climb to be able to compete as a member of Team USA in Rio. In June 2016, after a six-week training camp at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center, Runge participated in the Olympic Trials for a chance to represent her country the following month in Brazil. After coming up just short of the top two in the individual 400-meter freestyle, Runge knew she needed to give everything she had to be able place either first or second in the 200-meter freestyle and earn a spot on the Olympic swimming roster.

“I touched the wall and I made the relay spot and I literally was like, ‘Do I laugh? Do I cry? Do I throw up?’ ” Runge said. “I was just so ecstatic.”

A month later, Runge was on her way to Rio with a team full of superstar swimmers such as Allison Schmitt, Missy Franklin and Michael Phelps. For her, it was a moment she had been working towards her entire life and there was never a time she felt out of place.

“I trained with Michael and Allison and those guys for five years previously so it was kind of like coming home to family,” Runge said. “Obviously I was still freaking out because it was the Olympic Games and this was the first time I was doing this big meet I had been striving for for 18 years, but it was a lot of fun.”

After winning gold in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay, the plan was for Runge to return to Cal to finish up her collegiate swimming career. Things changed quickly, and the Olympian found herself breaking records as a Wisconsin Badger swimmer that next year before deciding she needed a new environment.

Even with an Olympic gold medal and 18 years of competitive swimming on her resume, Cierra Runge was looking for a fresh start.

She found it in Tempe.

“I decided on ASU because I think the coaching staff, the team, what we’re building here is pretty incredible and elite,” said Runge, now a part of her third Division I swimming program. “We’re really striving to push some barriers and do some great things so I was really attracted to that.”

While preparing for the Olympic Games, the former fifth-ranked swim recruit in the nation practiced under legendary swim coach Bob Bowman. Runge had known the current Sun Devils coach from her days making the three-hour round trip to Baltimore from her home in Pennsylvania as a teenager.
“She asked if she could come here and I’m glad she did,” Bowman said. “She’s had a couple of really tough years after Rio. Now, she’s worked through all of those things and is in a really good place. Now, I think she’s in a place where she can start getting back on the progress.”

When Bowman first met Runge in 2011, there was one factor to her swimming that stood out above the rest.

“Her height,” he said. “She has a really great swimming physique.”

At 6-feet-4 inches tall, Runge’s size gives her an advantage both inside and outside of the pool. While Runge is humble about her success, when she steps on deck at a swim meet, her reputation follows her.

“I had been at meets with her but I never actually talked to her because it’s kind of intimidating,” said teammate Erica Laning.

Laning and her teammates found out through a SwimSwam.com article that Runge would be transferring to ASU late last year. After the news broke, there were mixed feelings about the impending arrival of the Olympian.

“We were all really excited,” Laning said. “Like this is going to be awesome and then it’s also somewhat intimidating because she’s an Olympic gold medalist. She’s been everywhere in swimming that we all want to go.”

Having an Olympic gold medalist on your swim team is not an advantage a lot of universities have the chance of experiencing. With Runge’s arrival, the Sun Devils swim team instantly improved and gained a leader who knows what it takes to reach the pinnacle of the sport.

“When she first got here, it was crazy to think somebody that had won a gold medal was going to be on our team,” Laning said. “Just to be in the realm of competing with her in practices is really beneficial.”

Bowman added, “It just gives confidence when you have somebody on your team who can swim on an Olympic level. Number one, you can see what it takes to swim on that level. And you see somebody doing it, it makes it easier for you to replicate. At least you can establish the forest even if you can’t hit all of the trees. She gives them confidence that people who have trained here can do it.”

Runge cannot compete until January when the Sun Devils begin the transition into the championship season, but she is already looking forward to the challenge.

“I like pushing myself to see what I can do on a day-to-day basis, on a meet basis, and how I can best represent ASU, Team USA, myself, my family, and just have fun,” Runge said. “It’s one of those sports where you can’t really fake it. You’ve got to be all-in or else it’s just not worth it. Every day might not be fun but you’ve got to be all-in and you’ve got to do it. Because for me, competing is fun and doing really well is fun.”

In less than two years, Runge will turn her focus to Tokyo in pursuit of a few more medals to add to her trophy case. After only competing on a relay team in Rio, Runge is looking to add a few individual races to the schedule in her next Olympics. If one thing is for certain, it is that Runge will be training relentlessly during her time at ASU to make her next trip to the Olympics even more productive than the last.

“I’m excited for the future,” Runge said. “It’s going to be good.”

 Shawn Moran, Sun Devil Athletics Feature Writer

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