June 23, 2015

Anxiety made the trip from the University of Notre Dame to Eugene, Oregon, with Fighting Irish star long-distance runner Molly Seidel for the NCAA Division I Track and Field Championships.

Anxiety about racing in the 10,000 meters for only the third time.

Anxiety about lining up against defending national champion Emma Bates and a galaxy of NCAA long-distance running greats.

Anxiety about running on what is sacred ground for long-distance runners, the University of Oregon’s fabled Hayward Field.

A national championship made the trip back.

Seidel woke up early her first day in Eugene and walked over to the track, which was locked. Standing in front of the brick posts and wrought-iron gates, Seidel soaked in the words on the plaques that celebrate the legacy of Steve Prefontaine, Bill Bowerman and Bill Hayward.

Then, Seidel ran Pre’s Trail, the iconic course named for the legendary American record-holder Prefontaine, who lost his life in an auto accident at age 24 in 1975.

Running along the Willamette River, following the trail into a prairie area, Seidel found the calmness that helped her chase away the anxiety and go on to win Notre Dame’s first national championship by a female athlete in NCAA Division I Track and Field.

Doing the runs on Pre’s trail beforehand definitely calmed me,” said Seidel. “Going out and doing the same thing I’ve been doing over and over — that repetition is good for calming you down.

“I remember talking to (Irish associate head coach Matt Sparks) and saying that the prairie area looks very similar to the trail area right across from my house back home. That was a calming moment. `Wow, I’m hundreds of miles from home, so far from anything that I know about, but this seems normal right now.'”

Irish head coach Alan Turner and Sparks helped Seidel take that calmness and find the right mindset to make a run for the national title. Considered a long shot, Seidel was only competing in the 10,000 meters for the third time.

“I did not expect to win it going in,” Seidel said. “I remember talking to Coach (Sparks) two days before, about who was going to win it, Emma Bates (of Boise State) or Dominique Scott (of Arkansas). In my mind, it was a race for third. I don’t think anybody would have predicted that I would pull this off.”

It started out as a tactical race. Runners in the 10,000-meter event were tightly packed for five miles. Seidel planned to stay with the front pack and wait to see if someone would start to kick it in.

“The good thing about Molly is she can think well on the fly,” Sparks said. “We can give her a strategy, but if it doesn’t pan out she’s going to take the next step and improvise in the best way possible. A lot of athletes, if you give them a strategy, they can’t think outside the box that’s been given to them.

“It’s the same in any sport. You may have a quarterback who can only run the play that’s been given to him. The great quarterback is the one who can improvise and make something out of nothing. That’s what Molly has learned to do. We give her a general idea of what to do, and she’ll take that general idea and then take the three steps beyond what we talked about. That’s a skill you can’t teach someone.”

At about the 1,600-meter mark, Bates started sprinting.

“She went out like a rocket and gapped the field,” Seidel said of Bates. “Mostly, I was just trying to stay calm and slowly close that gap. I didn’t want to try and make it up all right away. I didn’t realize that none of the other girls went with me to try and catch her.”

With 800 meters (two laps) to go, Seidel caught up to Bates.

“By that point, I was rolling, really feeling it, in the zone,” Seidel said. “I passed her and I was like, `I really have to commit to it now, because this is real.’ I passed her on the front stretch just before we hit a half-mile to go. That’s typically a little early to start kicking it in. But at that point, I had taken the lead.

“It was kind of a moment … I had a thought, maybe I should keep it the pace I’m going. The other girls could catch up with me and then I’d kick it in. But then, I had the thought, if I don’t take this chance right now, I could lose the whole thing. It could all blow up in my face or it could work out. I just had to go for it.”

Sparks and Turner talked to Seidel about that exact situation before the race. At the indoor national championships, Seidel passed on a similar opportunity and faded from third to sixth.

“We talked about coming into this meet with a plan and a goal, an objective — and about running the race to make an impact,” Sparks said. “A half hour before the meet, we talk about basically, `You just run with anybody. What do you have to lose? What’s the worst thing that can happen? You fade and don’t score? Well, nobody thinks you’re going to score anyway. You’re not, on paper, supposed to place in the top three or top five. Take a chance and see what can happen. That’s the only way you can really find out how good you are.'”

Seidel had been advised by Sparks and Turner throughout the season not to put Bates on a pedestal, not to let her accomplishments be a difference-maker on the track, not to let a championship reputation hold Seidel back.

“Obviously, Emma Bates is one of the most talented runners in the NCAA,” Seidel said. “I think if I went into it keeping her on that pedestal I had her on most of the season, I don’t know if I would have had the confidence to pass her.”

When Seidel made her move, she ran the final two laps at a torrid pace.

“It’s terrifying leading in the last 800 meters,” Seidel said. “I was running as if the other competitors were right on my tail. At indoor nationals, I was third and then I was blown by in the last little bit. I was like, `whatever you do, don’t let that happen again.’ I learned my lesson. I was able to use a lot of what I learned from indoor nationals in this race. What Coach Sparks and I talked about a lot was when an opportunity presents itself, you need to take it. I got sixth instead of third at the indoors, and I regretted that all outdoor season.”

By the time Seidel had 100 meters left, it was evident the national champion would be wearing Fighting Irish colors.

“Coming around Bowerman Curve on that last, final kick in … you hear the crowd, you think of all the people who have come around that turn before,” Seidel said. “It’s just such an incredible place. The scene just explodes into your senses and it all becomes very real, very fast.”

Turner tried to keep his game face on as Seidel crossed the finish line in first.

“I didn’t want to show too much emotion, because I was around other coaches,” Turner said. “I was hollering and clapping like a normal person, but I was doing cartwheels inside.”

Seidel ran the historic event on a historic track in 33:18.37, and Irish nation celebrated Notre Dame’s first women’s national championship in NCAA Division I Track and Field.

“People counted me out for this race because I haven’t been in the picture for the last two years,” Seidel said. “I couldn’t believe it when I won. At the same time, this is what’s been in the back of my head, what I’ve been aiming for.”

Heart and perseverance have been Seidel’s constant companions on her journey to the national championship. The junior from Hartland, Wisconsin, fought persistent stress fracture injuries for two seasons.

“I’ve tried to not let stuff from the past hold me back this season,” Seidel said. “For the past two years, being injured, being hurt, if I just keep dwelling on that, if I kept focusing on the injuries I’ve had and the amount of time I’ve had to spend healing up from those injuries, I wouldn’t have been able to move forward.

“I wanted to be able to focus on how those experiences are going to help me be a stronger athlete, rather than think about what they’ve taken away. There are so many things that have happened that I could look at negatively, but I feel like, on the whole, being injured and sitting only made me want to train harder and go for it even more. I try to put a positive spin on a negative situation.”

There were times Seidel wondered if she would ever compete at the level she did when she arrived at Notre Dame. Seidel won 12 state titles in Wisconsin and was the high school national champion in cross country.

Having the whole Notre Dame family to support me meant so much,” Seidel said of overcoming adversity. “One of the main reasons I came to Notre Dame was because of the girls, because of the team. I felt like I had more here. It’s such a family. It’s just a supportive and loving environment. That’s where I’ve gotten most of my strength over my college career. It’s like you have 20 of your best friends pushing you forward and helping you forward. When times are good, they’re there to cheer for you and share in that excitement. When times are bad, they’re there to push you back up and help you get where you want to be. There is no place like Notre Dame.”

Notre Dame’s resources played a tremendous role in getting Seidel to world-class status.

“We have great doctors here and great facilities for helping us get back to running,” Seidel said. “We have multiple AlterGs (zero gravity treadmills) that have been donated by the alumni. Those are so helpful and get so much use. The training staff has been invaluable. They have cool, cutting-edge technology to help us get back from injury. The support from the coaching staff has helped me more than anything, helping me become more mature in the sport and help me get where I am.”

Seidel’s national championship is the latest accomplishment in an amazing career. She ran a 6:09 mile in her gym class in the fifth grade.

My gym teacher told me afterward that I broke the school record for the mile,” Seidel said. “Not just the elementary school record, but the whole school, the high school record.”

Seidel honed her craft in Nashotah Park in Wisconsin, running on a path carved out in a grass prairie, ringed with cedar, pine and maple, just like Pre’s Trail. Those runs have vaulted her to world-class status and have vaulted the Fighting Irish track program to world-class status.

“I hope everyone has taken notice that I’m serious and our staff is serious about Notre Dame being one of the top programs in the country,” Turner said. “We know we’re well respected as one of the most prestigious institutions in the country, but we also want to be respected as, `Hey, this is a great place to come to and run and become a national champion.’ This boosts and elevates our program so much, that we have a national champion.

“It comes from someone who battled through some issues the first couple of years. She really gravitated to Coach Sparks and the workouts.

“I can’t say enough about Molly. She’s been on fire since day one when we started in the fall. And it’s not a flash-in-the-pan kind of thing. She’s shown that from cross country, indoor and now. I’m so excited about what she’s done and where this program is headed, and Molly is playing a major part of that.”

— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent