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Ashley Higginson ’15: Focused on a J.D. and a Place on the U.S. Olympic Track Team

Most first-year students at Rutgers School of Law–Newark spend the summer interning, clerking for a judge, or taking summer courses. Ashley Higginson is not most students. The New Jersey native and second-year law school student spent her summer training to compete in the steeplechase at the IAAF (track and field) World Championships in Moscow.

The steeplechase, celebrated by Wired Magazine in 2005 as “the coolest Olympic event you’ve never heard of,” is a 3,000 meter race in which the runner must clear 28 hurdles and seven water jumps. It is, said Higginson, “so different than normal distance runs, in that every 60 meters there is a more pressing matter than just lap after lap to consider, like a huge barrier that is not going to move out of your way.” She was drawn to the steeplechase because of “the athleticism and unique focus it takes to execute the race.”   

Ashley Higginson at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow in August where she was the top U.S. finisher in the steeplechase.

Higginson has been applying this unique focus for years and is no stranger to balancing academics and competitive running, winning Academic-All America, Academic All Ivy in Track and Field, and NCAA All-America honors multiple times. While studying politics at Princeton University, she was a rising star on both the cross country and track teams. She contributed to two top five cross country team finishes in the 2007 and 2009 NCAA championship meets and found individual success her freshman year, earning her first Ivy League Conference title at 5000 meters and advancing to the NCAA meet. As an Academic All-American and Academic All Ivy in Cross Country and Track in 2010, she made waves in the steeplechase, winning the conference championship title.

In addition to her academic and athletic pursuits, Higginson has explored opportunities that allowed her to further engage with her two passions, the law and running. Following her sophomore year in college, she worked as a summer intern at Lawyers for Children, a Manhattan organization that advocates for children in foster care. Before starting Rutgers–Newark Law School, she spent several months interning at the law firm Pelletieri, Rabstein, and Altman. And for a number of years she has been a columnist for The Harrier, an annual national newsletter focusing on college and high school cross-country.

After her Princeton graduation in 2011, Higginson knew she wanted to attend law school but took a year off to train for the 2012 Olympics. At the Olympic Trials, she missed a spot on the U.S. team by two seconds, finishing fourth. Her determination to compete in the Summer Olympics did not waiver, and she decided to continue training in the New Jersey area for the 2016 games. The attractions and options of the metropolitan area combined with a top-notch track club and the support of nearby family made Rutgers–Newark an obvious choice. “Both the school and my training group offer the same things I want: my family close by, support, a lot of diversity and exposure to different opportunities, and so much within just a few hours drive.”

Higginson realizes that others may see her decision to go to law school while training for the world stage as overly ambitious. Both endeavors, she acknowledges, “take a certain level of preparation and selfishness.” She adheres to a strict schedule to maintain her competitive edge on the track and in the classroom. Logging 70-80 miles of running per week in addition to strength training and physical therapy, Higginson quips that the regimen often “involves two runs a day, so if you see me sneaking out of school between classes in athletic clothes, that’s why!” Additionally, she is a member of the NJ-NY Track Club and meets with a group in New Brunswick twice a week for morning track workouts before rushing to Newark for classes. 

The rigorous training schedule paid off when Higginson was invited to compete in Moscow this past August. Moscow, which she had been warned was “New York City on steroids,” was unlike any other foreign city she had ever visited in that the lack of English speakers made navigating the city a real adventure. Luckily, Higginson, who is fluent in Polish, studied Russian for several years and was able to communicate better than most. In Moscow she was the top U.S. finisher and ran a season best time. “It is just awesome to know that this year I trained and went to school and did this whole thing ‘my way’ and it seems to have paid off.”

When reflecting back on her first year as a law student and professional athlete, she is proud of her accomplishments. While the first year doesn’t allow much flexibility in course selection, Higginson did enjoy Professor David Troutt’s Race, Law and Metropolitan Equity course. “It was the first chance to pick my own elective and start writing about certain areas of the law specifically intriguing and important to me.” She was also fascinated by Criminal Law, which is not surprising given her thesis at Princeton was “Reversing the Rise and Reproduction of Female Crime.” 

Higginson is not certain how she intends to use her law degree but says “as of right now, I like the idea of becoming involved in Urban Law and City Planning or the public interest in some capacity.” What she does know is that, with the next Summer Olympics coming just 14 months after her scheduled May 2015 graduation, she has the discipline and competitive drive to successfully juggle both the beginning of her legal career and training for the Rio games.