An Unlikely Pro


Photograph Courtesy of Joe Hale

 

Australia’s Jack Anstey, graduate of Illinois State University, recently signed his first professional contract with Under Armour and Dark Sky Distance. Joining a relatively new team after graduating from a lesser-known program thousands of miles away from home, The Oval wanted the inside scoop.


Looking at the best high school runners, the Katelyn Tuohys and Nico Youngs of today, we fall into a trap of projecting them to be the next Olympic hopeful, destined for professional running. Besides the undue pressure placed on these young athletes, we are totally missing the crop of untrained talents newer to the sport of running, athletes like Jack Anstey who began running towards the end of high school.


Growing up in a small town in Australia, Anstey was an active kid but never took running seriously until his school PE teacher, recognizing his talent, prompted him to join a local club. Despite only starting to run seriously at age fifteen, Anstey’s natural ability was clear and he steadily progressed through the ranks of Australian high school running, winning state and national medals by the end of his senior year.


Anstey’s Recruiting Story


International student-athletes go through a different college recruiting process to high schoolers in the US, often only beginning their senior year. Communication with coaches tends to be virtual, recruiting trips are less common, and options are likely more reliant on scholarships.


For Anstey, college conversations began his senior year talking to coaches at smaller D1 and D2 schools like Illinois State University, Samford and Southern Connecticut State University. Never “too late,” Anstey’s recruiting journey continued throughout his senior year, catching the attention of the Power 5 as he progressed down to running 3:48 for the 1500 meter run.


“Everything just happened so quickly,” Anstey explained. “At the start of the year I was… really nothing that special on paper… And then over the six months… I ran 1:50 and 3:48… In the end, I had interest from Oklahoma State, Tulsa, University of Oklahoma, Georgetown and Iowa State.”


Anstey’s choice to attend the lesser known Missouri Valley Conference’s Illinois State University highlights the importance of looking beyond the big names and fancy facilities to find the perfect match.


“I knew at that age and at that point in my career, I did not want to go to a program where I was expected to perform nationally right away,” Anstey admitted. “I felt like I needed a bit more time to develop and I didn't want to be thrown into running 100 miles a week my freshman year.”


Unable to go on a recruiting trip, Anstey connected well with the coach at Illinois State University, who, understanding the enormity of the transition from growing up in Australia to college in America, would give him the time and space to develop free from early pressure to perform.


The College Years


While he entered college on a hot streak, Anstey’s freshman year was far from picture perfect. The high school to college transition is challenging enough without having to relocate across the world alone to somewhere you’ve never even visited before.


“I ran PRs and made it to regionals, but freshman year was by far the rockiest year that I had at ISU,” Anstey said. “I came in January, and it was pretty overwhelming with challenges I hadn’t even thought about. The weather was a struggle, I had never seen snow before or been in temperatures that cold, I was just getting sick every couple weeks and couldn’t be consistent. Not to mention, the academic aspect was a big big change to what I was used to in Australia, living in a dorm and eating different foods.”


The team culture and coaching support helped Anstey find his feet and begin to build consistency. It wasn’t long before Anstey was dominating the Missouri Valley Conference, racking up six conference championship wins over his time at Illinois State University.


Photograph Courtesy of Illinois State University Athletics

One small school perk is the individualized attention athletes can receive from their coaches, and as Anstey blossomed on the track, so did his relationship with his college coach.


“As the years went on, my relationship with my coach developed and I had a lot more say in what I was doing and knowing what worked well for me,” Anstey explained. “I was certainly training a lot more on my own.”


Based on NCAA finishes alone, Anstey’s career highlight happened his junior year when he stormed to a 7th place All-American finish in the 1500, finishing fractions of a second behind future Olympians Oliver Hoare and Yared Nuguse. And, earlier that season, Anstey became the 68th Australian to break four minutes in the mile running 3:59.66.


Anstey's senior year came to an abrupt end in 2020, with the pandemic hitting as Anstey was wrapping up his senior year with plans to graduate that spring. Thinking his running career had come to a premature end, Anstey struggled mentally with the uncertainty about the future. Having always dreamed of being a professional athlete, Anstey was faced with the reality that he might need a plan B.


Out of this low point, however, came Anstey’s favorite team memory at Illinois State when he was able to come back for a 5th year.


“During COVID I didn't have indoor eligibility, only outdoor, so I went to Austin, Texas to run the Texas Qualifier meet,” Anstey explained. “I ran 3:39 for the 1500 and that was the first school record I broke and it was also a conference record at the time. Then it was on the fence as to whether I would run the conference cross country meet three days after that Texas race. I finished this race and I was on a high and I wanted to run even though it was in the mud in Missouri and I was in Texas.”


What makes this even better is that Anstey is historically an anti-cross country runner. Talk about a change of heart.


Photograph Courtesy of Illinois State University Athletics

“I went with the team and had no expectations to do well, whatsoever: I just wanted to go on a trip with the boys!” Anstey quipped. “My best friend, Kevin, who had had a pretty tough career up until that point, won the individual title, and our team goes three, four, five, across the line together, basically holding hands. We ended up with the lowest point total in conference history and won by an absolute landslide! It was our first cross country title team in 20 years!”


Despite missing out on making NCAAs his senior year, Anstey built up his running resume with a bunch of PRs and an Illinois State University school record of 3:39.17 in the 1500m, not to mention, seemingly every Missouri Valley Conference accolade under the sun!


But this is not a happy ever after. In fact, once his final collegiate season was over, Anstey again found himself questioning his future in the sport.


From College to Pro


Antsey’s journey from college to pro-running is utterly remarkable and slightly unbelievable: a true tale of fate! After not even making NCAAs his final year at Illinois State University, Anstey was ready to hang up his spikes alongside his textbooks after graduating. All but having given up on professional running, Anstey was on his way to start a new life back home in Australia last Fall when Covid kept him in quarantine instead of on the plane.


As Anstey told me:


“When I got knocked out of NCAA regionals my senior year, I thought I was toast. I’m thinking that there’s no way in my mind that I'm going to get a contract, especially with how fast people were running at that point in time. I did actually get some interest from Atlanta Track Club and a few other pro teams, but nothing there that was going to be a good fit for me.


“After regionals, I ended up racing through the summer and had a couple of good races but nothing crazy. Then, by the end of the summer, I had essentially decided that none of the groups sounded right to me and I was going to move back to Australia. At that point I wasn’t even sure if I was going to move back and keep running. And so I booked a ticket home at the end of August, had everything packed and ready to go. Then, lo and behold, a week before, I'm scheduled to move back to Australia, leaving America forever, I get COVID. Because of travel restrictions and quarantining that meant I wasn’t going to be traveling. The travel caps in Australia meant I couldn’t just book a new flight as soon as I was out of quarantine but I had to stay in America for 6 more weeks. With Covid I was fine and I didn’t have any complications, I was just stuck in America for 6 weeks.


“A month goes by, and I’m about to leave in 2 weeks, then I get a phone call from Haas (coach and agent Stephen Haas) asking what I’m doing. I spoke with him and he said that he wanted to be my agent and was interested in having me join Dark Sky. I said I was interested and the next day I had a call with Pat Casey, who’s coaching here now and helping us out with the group, and then 3 days later I was on a flight to Flagstaff and meeting everyone on the team. It all happened so fast and if it wasn’t for getting Covid none of this would’ve happened and I’d have been back in Australia.


Photograph Courtesy of Joe Hale

“It still doesn't feel real, just being able to pour everything into trying to be the best runner you can. It's hard as someone who works a full time job, or is in school, even college athletes at any level, having to go to class and do all those things. It takes a lot of energy and sometimes you can just feel so drained. I know it sounds cliche, but having the ability and support to just be able to wake up every day and put everything into running is the best part!


“I want to make an Olympic team and I want to represent Australia. I think, honestly, that if I finished my contract and I made an Australian team and an Olympic team, at that point I'd be pretty happy to walk away from the sport knowing I've come further than I ever thought was possible.


“There’s two championships this year with the Commonwealth Games and the World Championships, and I’m going home in March to compete at Nationals. Being a first year pro, I just want to keep progressing. There hasn't been a year yet where I haven’t run PBs, and so I just want to keep that going, keeping chipping away at those times.”



A week after The Oval sat down with Anstey, at the record-setting 2022 Boston University David Hemery Valentine Invitational, he went and rewrote his 1500m personal best, running 3:38.65 to knock over half a second off his outdoor PR. Anstey’s time of 3:38.65 snuck under the 3:39.00 qualification standard for the 2022 World Athletics Indoor Championships. Now in the hands of the Australian Athletics team selectors, Anstey's goal of representing Australia in a global championships may be about to come true.


Now with some certainty over his future, running professionally with Dark Sky, Anstey is taking strides forwards making his dreams a reality. With clear short and long-term goals, Jack Anstey is a name worth keeping an eye on.


Photograph Courtesy of Joe Hale

 

Rapid-Fire Questions


TO: What’s your go-to pre-race meal the night before?

JA: Pasta, spaghetti or any kind of pasta dish.


TO: What’s your post PR race celebration meal?

JA: I'm a big tacos guy. So you can’t beat good Mexican food with a Corona.


TO: Do you have any pre-race nerves or superstitions?

JA: I honestly can't pick one! But I'm definitely superstitious on race day and just like to keep things the same. You wouldn't know it, but I get pretty nervous.



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