'The big star of the time': Urbandale's Karissa Schweizer completes improbable Olympic dream

Tommy Birch
Des Moines Register

Dowling Catholic girls’ track and field coach Kelly Parriott remembers how excited Karissa Schweizer was being around Olympic athletes as a high school runner.

This was back in 2013 at the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships at Drake. The two were waiting in the stands for future Olympian Jenny Simpson, a fellow Iowan, to finish her victory lap around the Drake Stadium's blue oval when Schweizer told Parriott how badly she wanted to get a photo with the track star. 

“She always wanted to be part of those pictures and get a shot with the Olympians,” Parriott recalled.

Schweizer is now an Olympian herself.

The Urbandale native and Dowling Catholic alum qualified for the Tokyo Olympics in the 5,000-meter run Monday night with a second-place finish at the trials in Eugene, Oregon. Schweizer finished with a time of 15 minutes and 28.11 seconds and held the lead until the final 200 meters.

The top-three finishers automatically qualify for the games. So, Schweizer, who has been following the careers of Olympic runners for years, will now be a part of those games.

“Now she’s the big star of the time,” Parriott said.

More:Dowling great Karissa Schweizer qualifies for Tokyo Olympics

Karissa Schweizer, left, and Elise Cranny compete in the women's 5000-meter final during day four of the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on Monday in Eugene, Oregon.

Karissa Schweizer's rise from Dowling to qualifying for the Olympics

It's a little hard for Schweizer's old coaches and her family to comprehend.

She's spent the early part of her years flying under the recruiting radar and running in the shadows of others. When Schweizer first started her high school career, most of the attention in Iowa was on another star runner in the state: Sioux City's Shelby Houlihan. Schweizer was even overlooked at Dowling, where she was a talented but not historic runner at the program. Back then, the best-known runners in Dowling history were the Flood sisters, Katie and Betsy.

Despite winning a state championship in the 3,000 meters back in 2011, Schweizer struggled to attract the attention of colleges. Instead, the only attention she initially received was from a group of colleges in the Midwest that Schweizer had reached out to with interest. Missouri's coaches hadn't even caught wind of Schweizer until she and her team happened to stop at the same Subway the Tigers were eating at during a trip for a competition. 

During the stop Schweizer's father Mike found Brett Halter, the track and field coach for the Tigers and introduced himself. 

More:What to know about Shelby Houlihan, a burrito, nandrolone, and why Olympic officials won't let her compete in trials

"I just went and said, 'Hey, my kid's running, take a look at (her),'" Mike said. 

The Missouri staff did that day and later invited Schweizer to Columbia, Missouri for a visit. They could have hardly imagined the program-defining talent she would become for the Tigers. She is now the first woman from the Missouri program to qualify for the Olympics since 1996. 

The Iowan won two national titles in the 5,000 with the Tigers and developed into one of the nation's top young track stars.

'I don't know if anyone would have predicted it'

Missouri assistant Marc Burns, who was also tipped off about Schweizer by Parriott, saw potential in her when he first watched her film. But the path to two-time national champion to Olympian was nothing he envisioned. 

"When she first set foot on campus, I don't know if anyone would have predicated it," Burns said. 

After college, Schweizer's running career took off further as she solidified herself as one of the top distance runners in all of track.

Anymore, Schweizer's family and friends are now just soaking it all up.

More:Iowa runner Shelby Houlihan suspended for 4 years after nandrolone test, was a favorite to win Olympic medal

For Parriott, it doesn't seem that long ago that Schweizer was trying to chase down photos with Simpson, who went on to qualify for the three Olympics. 

'It's really cool to think about where she is and where she came from," Parriott said. "I'm so proud of her." 

Tommy Birch, the Register's sports enterprise and features reporter, has been working at the newspaper since 2008. He's the 2018 and 2020 Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Reach him at tbirch@dmreg.com or 515-284-8468. Follow him on Twitter @TommyBirch.