Researcher hurdling toward Olympic dreams


Every year, England Athletics conducts national track and field championships.

Along with a gold medal, the event winners also receive a stuffed lion.

Gold medals eluded Isabel Wakefield each year she competed in the championships, but not walking out of there with a stuffed lion was an especially bitter pill.

“I remember so many years driving back from national championships in tears with my mom saying, ‘I didn’t do well, I didn’t get what I wanted.’ Bear in mind, I probably still came in third, but it wasn’t gold,” she said. “Every year they give you this stuffed lion, and that’s what I remember every year growing up, that I didn’t get one, and I was so upset about it.”

A photo of three women competing in the hurdles
Isabel Wakefield (center), research area specialist associate in the School of Kinesiology, runs her way to a silver medal in the 2023 UK Athletics championships 100-meter hurdle competition. (Photo by Martin Rickett/PA)

Last summer, Wakefield got her gold medal and her stuffed lion, and now she has her sights set on far bigger and shinier prizes.

A research area specialist associate in the School of Kinesiology, Wakefield is making a run, literally, for the Great Britain Olympic track and field team that will compete in Paris this August.

Her specialty is the 100-meter hurdles, and she will spend the next several months training and competing around the country and the world to bring her Olympic dreams to fruition. She’s planning to compete in the European Athletics Championships in June and the UK Athletics track and field championships in July, in hopes that solid performances in either of those events land her a spot on the Olympic team.

That’s in addition to her full-time job working in the Exercise and Health Behavior in Oncology Laboratory of Angela Fong, assistant professor of kinesiology, who is implementing and evaluating health behavior interventions for cancer survivors from historically marginalized backgrounds to reduce health disparities.

“It’s definitely busy and long days, and it’s been an adjustment the last month or so,” she said. “But I think I’m getting my feet under myself now and it’s about balancing and being prepared.”

Wakefield came to U-M after graduating with multiple degrees from Duke University, which she chose for its high-quality academic and athletic programs, a combination that universities in her native England could not offer.

Her boyfriend was a wrestler at Duke who decided to join the U-M wrestling team as a graduate transfer, and Wakefield made contact with the U-M track coaches to inquire about training with the team after she accepted the position in Fong’s laboratory in January.

A photo of a women accepting a medal
Isabel Wakefield competed at Duke University where she earned athletic honors and two academic degrees. (Photo courtesy of Duke Athletics)

Under U-M track coach Steven Rajewsky, she trains with Aasia Laurencin, who was a First Team All-American in the 100-meter hurdles in 2023. Wakefield is working to hit a time of 13 seconds, which is the 100 hurdles qualifying standard for the European Athletics Championships, which take place June 7-12 in Rome.

Wakefield’s current best time in the event is 13.05 seconds.

“So it’s really close,” she said. “I have to hit the time by the end of May, so the selection should happen based off of that.”

The Olympic standard for the Great Britain team is 12.8 seconds, and while two-tenths of a second does not seem like much, shaving that from her personal record is daunting.

“With hurdles, it’s different than a flat sprint. There are so many small movements, millimeters, centimeters going over the hurdle,” she said. “There are so many elements that can go right but can also go wrong. There’s a lot of variability even though it’s such a short race.

A photo of a woman competing in the hurdles
Isabel Wakefield competes in the 100-meter hurdles at the 2023 Penn Relays. (Photo by Chris Frezza)

“Once you get sub-13, that’s when it really starts. Those tenths really matter, and they can be quite hard to get. It can take people years to chip away at that time.”

She only has months, and she’s optimistic she can get the job done. She’s already competed in some indoor 60-meter hurdle events and will open her outdoor competition season March 23 at Baylor University to attempt to hit or break 13 seconds.

Her route to the hurdles was paved with multiple sports, injuries and sheer determination. She played field hockey until her senior year of high school and ran cross country. When she was 13, a family friend suggested she check out the local track and Wakefield was smitten by the activities of the sprinters and jumpers.

“I saw the sprints group was doing long jump and high jump and trying all different events, and that looked more fun to me than running around in circles,” she said.

Her dad took her to a competition and the pair showed up just as the hurdlers were getting ready to compete. She watched them run, immediately wanted to try it and the next competition entered herself in the event having never done it. Her coach showed her how to hurdle just before she stepped to the start line.

“It was not pretty or fast, but I did it, and from that moment, I was like, ‘This is an event I’m gonna try to do more,’” she said.

When she was 15, she received a call from a regional coach who needed a fourth to fill out a team attempting to qualify for nationals. That was her introduction to pentathlons, which are five track and field events in one competition. She ended up winning at nationals and had a realization.

“I’m not bad at this,” she said. “I’m good at it, I’m having fun and carried on from there.”

Wakefield eventually graduated to the heptathlon, which is seven events over two days at competitions. She did that at Duke before opting to focus on the hurdles to avoid the physical toll the heptathlon can impart.

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That’s one of the reasons she believes she’s equipped to carve her PR down.

“Having done a lot of events to now focusing on just one, that gives me the capabilities to really drop some time and have a fresher body to do that,” she said.

Wakefield has many ways of qualifying for the Great Britain Olympic team. If she qualifies for the European championships and runs well in Rome, that could be enough to be selected. If she finishes in the top two and/or runs a time of 12.8 at the England Athletics national championships, she will punch her ticket to Paris.

Regardless of the outcome of either her training or competitions over the next few months, Wakefield will attack her goals with gusto, and she knows another Olympics lurks four years away if this one does not work out.

“I’ll be 28 then, so that’ll be more of a shot,” she said. “I’ll just do what I do and compete and hopefully run some fast times.”



  1. Gregory Kinney
    on March 22, 2024 at 10:39 am

    In the lane to Wakefield’s right is Cindy Ofili Sember, U-M 2013-2016, who took first place in the 2023 UK Athletics championships. Sember is seeking a third trip to the Olympics for Great Britain. She finished 4th in the 2016 games, .02 seconds from a bronze medal. Her sister Tiffany Ofili Porter, U-M 2006-2009, was a three-time Olympic hurdler for Great Britain. The Ofilis grew up in Ypsilanti. Their mother is British and father Nigerian, which allowed them to compete for Great Britain under Olympic rules.

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