“Performances out there are valued” – Rory Leonard on stateside ambitions.

Speaking to Rory Leonard you quickly get the sense of a man who knows he has found his fit. A GB international and a collegiate athletic powerhouse in Oklahoma State. Three and a half years to hone his craft.

A family affair

But it wasn’t always meant to be that way. Rory’s parents both went to Arkansas in the early 80s. Tony finished 29th in the 1982 NCAA XC Div One prior to a successful career on the roads (13.35/28.08). Sharon herself was 109th in the women’s race and an English Schools XC silver medalist before then. Arkansas was to be Rory’s destination:

“I thought everything was rainbows in athletics and I saw the flashing lights of Arkansas. The amazing indoor track, the amazing outdoor track. Being 18 I wasn’t thinking what I actually needed and what was going to be beneficial for me.”

His parents advice was eventually what made him look elsewhere:

“We started to become disenchanted with Arkansas because it is run like a business. You start to see before you get there that you’re not the big cog in the wheel that you thought you might be.

Whoever offered the most I would have gone to. I would have been swayed anywhere. I wasn’t getting any guidance from within British Athletics. I’d won some good races then. I’d run for GB. It wasn’t like I wasn’t running for GB at the time. Without my dad it would have been difficult to get good advice.”

Rory Leonard at Lee Valley, August 2020 – Photo Credit: Mark Hookway

Following George Gandy

Rory stayed in the North East, opting instead for the less glamorous surroundings of 35 hours a week working in his local coffee shop, before opting to join Loughborough in 2020. Rory came for one man:

“It was really sad when I got to Loughborough because I came for George Gandy. A few months in and it was so sad for the whole athletics community, George Gandy passed away.

I’m not joking, the week before he did pass away, he was at Broc (a field where we do training sessions) and he was jogging around. Everyone was telling him to slow down but you could never tell him to slow down. It was people like that in the UK that made athletics worthwhile.”

Rory Leonard at Watford BMC 12 June 2021 – Photo Credit Mark Hookway

Making the switch to the US

Though he is keen to praise many involved at Loughborough he soon realized it wasn’t the fit for him. It was the US that seemed the answer:

“I realised I need to go to the States. The funding you get over there is unparalleled. I don’t think there are pros that get better set ups than being at a good programme in the college system.

I started talking to coaches again. It was thinking about who’s going to value me, who’s going to care if I get injured and are going to worry about me getting injured. It’s a long-term development. I found that at Oklahoma State with Dave Smith. I could tell I could trust him on the phone.”

16th at Euro XC U23s – Photo provided by Rory Leonard

Strength of depth at Oklahoma State

Rory has loved his introduction to collegiate running:

“It’s been great. It’s been everything I’ve needed it to be so far. The team is everything I could wish for. I’m training with a 27.50 guy every day. I’m training with low 28 mins guys every day. A guy that finished 3rd at the NCAA for 3k Steeplechase (Ryan Smeeton) who’s strong as an ox.

You’re showing up to the track each time with 20 guys who can run, who can really, really run. So even on your bad days you’ve got plenty of people to run with and get dragged round by. Then you’ve got the athletic trainers, physios and strength and conditioning coach that you can see at any time during the day.”

It seems to be paying off. As well as 16th in the Euro Cross U23s, Rory was 79th in the NCAA XC Div One, not that he knows whether that was a good performance:

“I still don’t know if that was a good run. I was seeing colours and stars in the sky. I was just running flat out the whole time. It’s chaos out there but it’s great. The performances out there are valued. It’s a slight level up from the UK because you need that competition to show what you can do against a wider field.”  

Fittingly Rory’s performance helped Oklahoma State to nudge past Arkansas for third in the team standings.

Rory at the NCAA Mid West Regional XC – Image provided by Rory Leonard

Thankful for the support

It’s all impressive progress for an athlete who only switched from football less than seven years ago but he’s clear where a lot of the credit is due:

“My parents did everything they could for me. They paid for physio but it’s expensive in the UK. I was fortunate that my parents valued athletics and appreciated that in order to stay injury free I might have to visit a physio but there’s a lot of people who can’t do that. I’m lucky now that I go to the States and I don’t have to pay a penny for anything.”

With a focus on the long-term and three and a half years to let it play out, Rory has good people in his corner. With all that Oklahoma State can offer it’s a mix that bodes well for the future.

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Featured image provide by Rory Leonard.

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