Ciaran O’Leary came to Gonzaga with everything to prove in a tryout. Five years later, the redshirt senior looks to leave an impact, running on one of the best teams in program history.
Not many who walk on to the cross country team at GU end up making it. O’Leary knew the odds, but a work ethic that sets him apart led him to not only make the team but progress through any challenge he faced to become an integral part of it.
“His improvement has to be as good as anyone in program history,” said Jack Pearce, a former teammate at GU. “He went from a pure tryout to a guy who was running for a team who was ranked top 30.”
O’Leary’s running career started with his uncle, who ran for University of Montana and first exposed him to cross country as the coach of O’Leary’s sixth grade Catholic Youth Organization cross country team. He later coached him in high school at Bishop Blanchet in Seattle.
The prospect of running in college was not always the goal for O’Leary, who did not run track until his senior year of high school. It was after he attended running camp ran coached in part by GU Director of cross country/track and field Pat Tyson that he felt something special about how the program at GU.
How he felt about GU was only reaffirmed when he talked to former high school teammates and then-GU runners Kellen Manley and Henry Morris about their experience in the program.
“When I was in high school, I didn’t realize how special collegiate running is,” O’Leary said. “Senior year it really clicked. Kellen came back and raved about the team and coach Tyson. That’s when it changed to have a goal to come here.”
When he arrived in Spokane, O’Leary had to go through the full tryout process to earn his spot on the team.
While not gifted with the same natural ability as many of his teammates, O’Leary makes up for it with his work ethic.
“He was willing to put in the work and do all of the extra little things that can separate you,” Pearce said. “He just had an aura of professionalism. He wasn’t overly confident, but came in and knew what he had to do. You don’t normally get that from tryouts.”
The work he put in paid off on the final day of his tryout. O’Leary ran in an 8-kilometer race in the West Coast Conference preview event knowing it was going to decide his spot on the team.
After the race, he was met and encouraged by guys on the team. Affirmed by what he thought was a decent enough day to make the team, O’Leary realized he had finally accomplished the goal he had worked so hard for.
“I remember meeting with Tyson and him saying he wanted to take a chance on me and offer me a spot,” O’Leary said. “That was definitely the highlight of my college career so far.”
With his spot on the team confirmed, it only pushed O’Leary harder to keep improving. In the years since, he has continued a steady climb to become an important part of the team.
Last year, he earned a spot on the travel team and became a part of a group that was able to earn GU recognition on the national level with the team’s performance at the 2018 Wisconsin Pre-National Invitational.
“It felt like a culmination of a lot of hard work over the years and that I could prove that I deserved that spot and Tyson was right to take a chance on me,” O’Leary said.
To fuel his improvement, one tool that O’Leary has relied on is his mind. He is an exceptionally good student, earning high marks along the way to a degree in accounting last spring and is on the way to earn a master’s in accounting at the end of this year.
“He was always pretty nonchalant about school, but was getting some of the best grades on the team,” Pearce said. “He’s cracked the code on how to get good grades and run really well too.”
The mental part of running has allowed O’Leary to thrive at longer distance. His best races have come at 10k, where factors besides speed take on increased importance.
“We all do a lot of the same training and the one thing you can control is yourself, what you think about and how you operate,” O’Leary said. “The big thing in training for me is training my mind.”
To fuel the grinder work ethic he has, O’Leary has a quiet self-confidence. He is never one to shy away from a challenge which includes having run against some of the top teams in the country and feeling as if he belongs.
“What fuels a lot of us Zags is being an underdog, overshadowed in the WCC by programs like Portland and BYU,” Manley said. “The mindset Ciaran has fits exactly to what coach Tyson and the program are trying to preach.”
While he is for the most part quiet, O’Leary has developed into a leadership role mainly by his example. But his voice can also come out when his true competitive spirit shines through.
“We’ll be playing video games or watching sports and he can get really competitive,” Pearce said. “It’s really fun to see his true colors shine through then because he’s quiet and polite for the most part. But like with running too, when you get him going, he’ll talk some smack and show how competitive he really is.”
Confidence comes from preparation, and it is hard to find someone that will out work O’Leary. His constant drive to improve has rubbed off on teammates who use O’Learys work ethic as a model, no matter their role on the team.
“I always know I can count on Ciaran,” Manley said. “He’s always the guy to text you to go on a run because he’s so consistent and reliable.”
Still a walk on, O’Leary runs out of pure love of the sport.
“He shows that anyone who is determined and smart and has a goal has a chance to run at Gonzaga and break in the top 7, that’s Ciaran O’Leary,” Tyson said.