LiveBIG Staff, August 6, 2015

Like another famous New Jersey native, Rutgers alumna Ashley Higginson was born to run. She not only took gold in the 3,000-meter steeplechase competition at the Pan American Games last month in Toronto, but also set a Pan Am record in the event with her time of 9 minutes, 48.12 seconds.

?I came out really motivated and excited to run for our country,? she said of the race. ?The most you can ask for in this sport is to get to hold the flag and hear the anthem as you stand on the platform.?

Higginson (right) with fellow American athlete and Pan Am steeplechase runner-up Shalaya Kipp.
Higginson (right) with fellow American athlete and Pan Am steeplechase runner-up Shalaya Kipp.

That?s something she?s hoping to experience again at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro next year. Mentally, setting her sights on the Olympics represents quite a turnaround from where she was just a couple of months ago, when she had a ?disappointing? fifth-place finish in the steeplechase at the 2015 USATF Outdoor Championships.

With its origins in equestrian competitions, the steeplechase is a unique running event - neither dash nor long-distance, neither flat oval track nor cross-country natural terrain. The standard 1.86-mile course features 28 hurdles and seven water jumps.

Higginson said the keys to her victory in Toronto were working with her running coach on a course strategy, staying relaxed and confident in the first two-thirds of the race, and then digging deep to finish strong in the final thousand meters - ?the kick,? in steeplechase lingo.

Now, Higginson is looking ahead to the kick of her running career, so to speak. She?s got a few competitions coming up over the next year, but the biggest events for her will be the Team USA qualifying event in July 2016 and, hopefully, the 2016 Olympic Games in the month after that. Once that?s done, she?ll redirect her energy into a legal career.

?I?m going to focus on running more over the next year than I ever have,? she said. ?I think that?s the only way to walk away from it - to give it all I have and try to fulfill my Olympic dreams.?

In the meantime, she?ll have another ?bar? to hurdle: the State of New Jersey Bar Exam. After graduating from Rutgers Law School-Newark in May, she put off taking the test for her running competitions, but gave members of her class a shout-out on Twitter recently.

Rutgers_Higginson3John Farmer Jr., one of Higginson?s teachers, said he was ?in awe? of her ability to balance the demands of pursuing a graduate degree in law with running competitively at the highest levels. That's serious praise, given that Farmer's not only a former dean at the law school, but also a running enthusiast himself.

So, how did she do it? Higginson said part of it was having a great support system for running, which included family and friends, competitors and coaches, sponsors and the NJ-NY Track Club. She also credited the helpful and understanding people at Rutgers with helping her get through law school.

?I love my fellow students and the faculty,? she said. ?They knew I could do it, because they know I?m a little nuts.?

Her experience working at one of the law school?s legal clinics also helped her formulate a clearer career path. While there, she served as an advocate for special education students in Newark?s school district. In that role, she provided legal representation to those students? parents to ensure they were getting the academic and service resources they needed from their schools.

[btn-post-package]Higginson said the time she spent doing that was ?eye-opening,? and it led her to think about pursuing a career helping similarly disadvantaged people.

?It?s been a great experience at Rutgers,? she said. ?They do a great job helping people find their passion in law.?

Still, Higginson isn?t exactly sure what her ?dream job? will be. She thinks it will involve some combination of government affairs work, educational policy, community planning, and health and fitness.

?I don?t know where I?ll land with all that,? she said with a laugh.

That uncertainty aside, one expects that - as she does after clearing a hurdle on the steeplechase course - Higginson will land on her feet.

By Brian Summerfield