Freshman Sebastian Steffen is one of the newest and fastest members of the Princeton Varsity Track Team. Hailing from Greifwald, Germany, Sebastian placed fifth in the 200 meters at the German National Championships at the age of 19. He holds personal bests of 10.56 seconds in the 100 meters and 20.86 seconds in the 200 meters, which put him into contention for qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics.
NW: So how have things been going here for you at Princeton?
SS: Pretty busy…making the transition from high school to college. I’m trying to do my best to manage my time well and to balance sports and academics.
NW: So far how well do you think you’ve adjusted to living in the United States?
SS: I think I’m doing a good job. I’m watching my eating habits, which I guess is the most important thing. Other than that there isn’t anything really different except the language.
NW: Are you at all homesick?
SS: Not yet.
NW: Now, why is that you run? I mean, what’s at the other side of the track that makes you want to get there so quickly?
SS: Well, I’m really ambitious. It’s always a great feeling to beat other people, but it’s more about the feeling of running. When I sprint it feels like I’m flying over the track, which is just as good as flying in the air. When you are running those long strides it’s like NEEEEOOOOW!
NW: How long have you been running for?
SS: Overall, I have been doing track for 10 years, but competitively maybe only around 6 years. Around then I would practice 5-6 times a week, but it wasn’t until 3 years ago that I started to practice every day.
NW: At what point did you realize you had the potential to become as fast as you are?
SS: Honestly, I never thought I could be faster. I always just listened to my coach, and then I just did it. I would always hope I could run faster, but always thought I reached a new limit. I guess I made my biggest jump four years ago when my PR (personal record) in the 200 meters was 24.0 seconds, and in the next race I ran 22 point something. My coach was all like “Holy Shit!”…I’m always the kind of guy who is surprising his coach—smoking his expectations.
NW: What goals do you currently have for yourself?
SS: Right now, I first have to get healthy and get back to running. Then the most important thing is that I get through the winter without getting sick, so I can run well in the spring. At that point if I train well, I would like to run maybe around 20.7 seconds for the 200 meters and 10.4 seconds for the 100 meters. And if the coach wants me to run the 400—I don’t know what my potential is—but maybe I could run a 47.5. Also, the Olympic standard for Germany in the 200 meters is 20.59, and I want to run that within the next three years in order to qualify. Also besides the Olympics I am hoping to qualify for the European under 23 championships next year.
NW: How often do you think about 2012 Olympics?
SW: Not often. I like to always focus on the next practice. Step by step. If you already think of those kinds of goals, you are giving yourself too much psychological pressure and people will expect more of you. I don’t like that pressure. Dealing with it has always been my biggest problem. I think I have it in my legs to run the standard, but I know my head needs to be in the game too. I need to learn how to deal with that kind of pressure. That’s why I’m happy that Princeton has a psychological trainer… it’s really, really cool.
NW: Why did you decide to attend Princeton?
SS: First I wanted to study at an American university because German universities don’t have sports teams, as there isn’t enough time to study and train. So staying in Germany would have meant the end of my track career. And for me, academics have always been more important than athletics. So since I wanted to study math, I looked for a university with a really good math department. Luckily Coach Samara was so kind as to recruit me.
NW: What will be harder, Princeton math or your Ivy League competition?
SS: (laughing) At the moment the math is harder. That’s also what I need to focus on first.
NW: So whom do you consider to be your competition?
SS: Honestly, I don’t know yet. I have never competed against American runners. So I don’t know them, and I guess they don’t know me either…yet.
NW: Do you hope to emerge as the dark horse of the NCAA who everyone comes to fear?
SS: I hope they will be shocked and petrified! (laughing) Yeah. I want to surprise and beat everybody at Heps.
NW: What was it like competing at the German National Championship?
SS: First it was really intimidating thinking of running against all those super fast men. But then that huge audience made me get this tunnel vision during the race. They were cheering, and I was just running as fast as I could. Since it was the Men’s Championship, I had nothing to loose, because I was still in the junior age group. So I didn’t feel any real pressure in that race, since I had nothing to lose running against those old men.
NW: What other big meets have you competed at?
SS: German Junior Championships, Øresund games in Helsingborg, Sweden, and the Deutschland Track Association Meet, which was the final race for the Olympic qualifiers… I am a member of the B-Squad of the National German Team. To get on the A-Squad you have to earn a medal at an international meet. So, for example, the fastest German sprinter is only a member of the B-Squad. The B-Squad is made up of all of the athletes who can compete internationally for Germany. Germany sets stricter time standards for the B squad than most international meet standards, because they only want to have runners who have a chance at making it to the finals.
NW: Now at the age of 21 you are a little older than most freshmen. What accounts for this age difference?
SS: In Germany we have 13 years of school. 4 years of elementary school and then 9 years of high school. And then the second extra year comes form mandatory civil service, which is an alternative to mandatory military service. I served in a nephrology center, which is a hospital for people whose kidneys are malfunctioning. I would order the supplies, help take care of the patients, and I also took care of the nurses by getting them coffee and food. It was just like a normal job—five days a week for nine hours a day. So that was quite a difference from before when I just had high school and then practice. It was tougher, but it was okay.
NW: Do you think this helped you prepare for college in any way?
SS: I think it did because I learned to get into a work rhythm, to do things I don’t like, and how to deal with death and sickness. I also learned to appreciate the work of people who did the dirty jobs, since I was one of them, and to value everyone’s contribution to society.
NW: During this civil service year what team did you compete for?
SS: So the name of my club was Greifswalder SV04. It was a small club; we had maybe only 20 people. But my coach was really good, and he may actually start working for the Qatar Sports Academy of Excellence, which has one of the best facilities in the world. The ages of the members of my club ranged from twelve to forty or so. We would all compete together at the state level, but only myself and a female distance runner were fast enough to qualify for the national level.
NW: Are you excited to compete now for Princeton Track Team?
SS: Absolutely! I am so looking forward to running for such a good team, because I will be able to run on a really fast relay, and there is a really great team spirit that I have never experienced before.
NW: What will be the biggest adjustment you will have to make from training with your club team to training with the track team?
SS: Well, I’ve already found out that there is a lot more competition during practices, which, on one hand, I like since it pushes you to your limit, but on the other hand, maxing out during practice doesn’t lead to the best training results…so I need to watch my pacing more. But I’m good at that.
NW: Ultimately what do you view as the key to your success?
SS: The key to my success is that I enjoy pain, but only when it’s about sore muscles. Really, though, I think I’ve been successful because of my ambition and my focus on my goals.
NW: Thank you, Sebastian.
SS: Thank you.