Jessica Hull is not who you think she is
University of Oregon star Jessica Hull doesn’t look like a killer. The softly-spoken, bubbly Australian is best described as ‘sweet’ – she’s forever smiling, and deflects any sort of praise onto her teammates or support staff. But watch her races, especially her most famous victory to date, the 2018 NCAA 1500m title, and you’ll get a sense of that killer instinct.
From the gun, she establishes her position on the shoulder of the leader and remains there until there’s only 120m left to run. Patiently waiting.
She knows she only gets one chance to make her move. Finally, when she knows her opponent is depleted, she goes. Others have been waiting for this moment, too. They are determined to stay with Hull as she rounds the bend. But the effort is for nothing. In the space of maybe 10 strides, Hull is clear. It’s a controlled, calm, methodical execution.
Her win in the 3000m at NCAA indoors was just as clinical. Staying out of the early chaos, Hull was mid-pack at best with 6 of 12 laps completed.
With 3 laps remaining, she moved up to 4th, on the outside of lane 1 – unencumbered by other runners and close enough to strike when she sensed weakness.
2 laps remaining. Hull moves past Weini Kelati of New Mexico to sit alone in 2nd, almost close enough to reach out her hand and touch Taylor Werner of Arkansas.
By the time the bell rings, it’s over. Hull surges, and only Werner can hold on, and only briefly. For Kelati, the rubber band snaps on the back straight, and by this time Werner is also gone, left to run a valiant 2nd place.
Hull’s win in the same event a month earlier at the Husky Classic was even more impressive, her kick with 100m remaining absolutely deadly. In a faster race, Hull set a new school record of 8:53.91 – taking nearly 4 seconds off a record that previously belonged to Jordan Hasay.
You get the point. Jessica Hull may look like a sweet, smiling teenager (Hull is in fact 22), but make no mistake – she is cold-hearted and ruthless on the track.
“I never expected to break any school records. Even last year when I broke the mile record for the first time, I had no idea I had done it. I didn’t even know what the record was.
You put everything that has come before you on a pedestal, you don’t realise that if you work hard you can be part of that history one day.”
There are no easy school records in the NCAA. There are definitely no easy school records at a school the calibre of the University of Oregon.
It would be forgivable to chalk Hull’s success up to things like belief and determination. The fluffy stuff you can’t quantify. That's the stuff of legends, the stuff that builds reputations and turns mortals into heroes, but unless your name is Prefontaine (and even if it is), it’s rarely (if ever) the deciding factor.
“What has happened in the last 12 months isn’t because I changed anything drastically, its because we started stacking on layers and because I’ve been healthy for a long time. When you’re healthy and you can start reaching new heights in training, everything comes together on the track on race day.”
Hull’s ability to stack blocks on blocks over a long period is just part of her success story. Taking a tour of the facilities at Oregon, it’s clear the athletes have access to an incredible arsenal of resources that would rival those of any national facility in the world. It also becomes difficult to understand any argument for young Australian athletes to not attend college. But it’s not just about the facilities – as Hull explains, student athletes at Oregon are set up for success.
“Coming from Australia you have very separate academics and athletics, but here it’s all combined in the best way for you to go forward. We still have a very strong focus on academics, but at the same time you have every opportunity to make everything work in your sport.”
Hull is studying Human Physiology, and while her daily schedule is full, she says she still finds time to think about life back home in Australia.
“I definitely miss home; I actually miss it the deeper I get. When you’re a freshman everything is new and exciting, whereas now as a senior I’m counting down days until my family comes to visit or I get to go home for the holidays.”
However she’s balancing her day, it’s working. At the conclusion of the 2018 cross-country season, Hull was named 2018 Division I Women's Scholar-Athlete of the Year – only the third Oregon athlete to achieve the feat – the other two being Galen Rupp and Ed Cheserek.
I sit with Hull in a boardroom of the track and field department of a larger athletics building. The walls are covered in memorabilia, images of past greats, and school records. Finally, inevitably, our conversation turns to that 1500m win at Hayward Field.
“When we used to practice at Hayward, we would come in at the top end, right near the 400m start line. We would walk past the grandstand every single day. After the indoor season I walked to practice one day and looked up and thought ‘wouldn’t it be amazing’. And then I just started to visualise it and piece it together.”
“We had our last home meet in May and I came 2nd in the 800. At the time I remember thinking ‘oh well, that was probably my last chance to win on Hayward Field’.”
Hull went into the outdoor championships ranked 3rd in the nation, and had hopes of at least running to her ranking.
“I knew I was fit and I could be ready for any style of race, but that 1500m in the NCAA is always deep and can go any way on the day. I had done a workout 10 days before the race and that gave me the confidence that if I was in a race at those paces, I could probably run it and be in it.”
“My family were there, my teammates were all there. It was pretty much a fairy tale. That will stick with me for a long time.”
Hull showed remarkable versatility later in 2018 at the NCAA XC Champs, placing 3rd individually and leading Oregon to 3rd in the team classification.
“Having raced a couple of NCAA XC’s before, I knew it was going to be chaotic, and I knew I didn’t need to be part of the chaos. We had such a strong team, we knew we had a podium team so it was up to me to do my bit.
The team element helps me stay relaxed; it’s a shared nervousness, not individual pressure.”
As Hull nears the end of a college career littered with notable achievements (in January Hull was even named to the Bowerman Watch List for the first time), she’ll face important decisions about her future.
“I’m always getting reminded to stay in the moment and in the process, which is good because I do get a bit carried away with looking forward to the future. But that’s also what keeps it exciting and fresh.”
When the time to turn professional comes, rest assured Hull will make the right decisions. Her success may have come as a surprise to some, but Hull has been toiling away in Eugene, putting in the work, for years. All for that chance to stand on the start line and stalk her opponents.