Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 19, 2020

Lessons To Be Learned From An Unlikely Olympian

Back in the old days, meaning a month or two ago, before we all became characters in a Stephen King novel, the process of choosing members of the team that will represent the United States in 33 sports at the Summer Olympic Games in Japan had begun. On February’s extra day, a Saturday that dawned cold and very windy in Atlanta, with gusts pushing 20 miles per hour, the first six members of the American track and field squad were determined at the Olympic Marathon Trials. While gymnastics is the marquee event of the Summer Games, and sports like basketball and soccer are of greater interest to most fans, the track and field competition remains the core of the Olympics, with disciplines that have been part of the Games since their 1896 revival, and no single event is more historic than the marathon.

While the names scarcely carried household familiarity, the field of more than 700 included virtually all the top names in American distance running. For the women contestants, those competing for the three tickets to Tokyo included Des Linden, who won the Boston Marathon in 2018 and ran 7th at the Rio Games four years ago, as well as Aliphine Tuliamuk, who had won multiple middle and long distance events over the past few years, and Sally Kipyego, who raced for Kenya at the 2012 Games, winning a silver medal in the 10,000 meters. There were other racers recognizable to someone with a subscription to Runner’s World magazine, though it’s not at all certain that 25-year-old Molly Seidel would have been on that list.

That level of familiarity would have been more likely several years ago. As a teenager Seidel was one of the best middle-distance runners in the country, winning the prestigious Foot Locker Cross Country Championships at the age of 17. She went on to Notre Dame, where she regularly crossed the finish line first against Atlantic Coast Conference competition and was the NCAA Division I cross country champion in 2015, and the indoor champion at both 3,000 and 5,000 meters the following year.

Then Seidel disappeared from the top tier of competition, a victim of injuries both physical and psychological. Hopes of signing a professional contract with a shoe company and trying out for the 2016 Olympics were derailed by a sacral stress fracture. She plunged into a depression that manifested itself in an eating disorder. Even as she fought her way out of the darkness, a series of other injuries often made Seidel a part-time runner. Rather than joining other elite racers at one of the handful of training sites around the country, she moved to Boston where she shares an apartment with her sister and works at a coffee shop and as a babysitter.

But last Thanksgiving she tied Kipyego at a 5-mile race in Connecticut, and then scored a qualifying time for the Olympic trials at a half-marathon in December. She started training seriously, but with limited expectations. After all, Seidel had never run a marathon in competition.

For almost 21 miles of the Atlanta race, Seidel stayed in a lead pack of runners that remained bunched together, perhaps looking for mutual protection from the biting wind. Then Tuliamuk started out on a breakaway, and Seidel opted to go with her. It was a decision made in the moment, one that she later said was likely to result in her either becoming an Olympian or “spectacularly go(ing) down in flames.” A little more than 5 miles later, against all odds Seidel crossed the finish line a few seconds behind Tuliamuk and well ahead of Kipyego, a 2nd place finish that made her a member of the U.S. Olympic team in her very first marathon.

For the first couple weeks after her improbable performance, Seidel juggled media interviews and phone calls from suddenly interested sponsors along with her two jobs. She began to map out a training plan leading up to the August date of the biggest race of her life. Then the world changed. Massachusetts was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and was one of the early states to shut down. But for Seidel the impact hasn’t just been on her coffee shop job or ability to train with others. Thirty days after the race in Atlanta, she learned, along with the rest of the world, that the 2020 Games will now take place in 2021.

In Boston, Marathon Monday is at hand. The race is always run on Patriots’ Day, that largely New England observance of the skirmishes at Lexington, Concord, and Menotomy, the opening battles of the Revolutionary War. But this year there will be no caravan of buses ferrying 30,000 runners from the Boston Common out to the starting line in Hopkinton. Like every other event on the current sports calendar, the Marathon has fallen victim to the pandemic, with a rescheduled date in September. But as runners and the fans who always line the route all the way to the finish line on Boylston Street contemplate their loss, they should keep Seidel in mind.

As life makes a slow turn toward whatever conditions are going to be the new normal, in addition to the basic health and economic concerns that she shares with her Boston neighbors, Seidel must now also sort out how to prepare for a major life event suddenly moved a full twelve months into the future. But this unlikely Olympian seems perfectly suited for such an equally unexpected task. The runner who has already overcome so much described her sport to the New York Times by saying “it’s dealing with being in pain and sucking for long periods of time.” Yet still she runs, and runs, and runs. After what she’s been through, from athletic heights to personal depths and back again, a little pandemic isn’t going to stop Molly Seidel.


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