Sept. 16, 2015
By Todd Burlage
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Molly Seidel admits to some expletives racing through her mind last June the moment it appeared her unlikely chance at making Notre Dame track history was literally racing away from her.
With only about 1,600 meters remaining in the 10,000-meter race at the NCAA National Championships in Eugene, Oregon the prohibitive favorite and defending event champion, Emma Bates of Boise State, busted from a pack of about 20 runners and opened a seemingly insurmountable 100-meter lead.
“When [Bates] first made that move it was kind of that moment of, `What is she doing?!'” Seidel recalled. “It was kind of a confusing moment because everybody on the track didn’t know how to respond to that. I just had to keep her in sight, keep a handle on it and wait for her to come back.”
Staying cool and on task, Seidel caught Bates with 800 meters left in the race, passed her rival, then pulled away and completed the impossible, winning the event by about seven seconds to become the first Irish woman to claim an individual national title in track and field.
With Seidel buried on a talented and experienced entry list that day, and running only the third 10,000-meter race of her college career, the then-Irish junior’s upset became one of the top athletic achievements of the 2014-15 Notre Dame school year, and an inspiration for the entire University.
“I crossed the line, I was kind of in disbelief at that point,” said Seidel, who finished the 6.2-mile race in 33:18.37. “Being able to do that for Notre Dame made it that much more special. When you look at the caliber of athletes from Notre Dame, it is such a big honor to have that, and to kind of add to the legacy.”
A lifetime moment for Seidel, no doubt, made even more special after a complicated journey that may be more amazing than the historic destination.
Rock bottom for Molly Seidel didn’t arrive in one direct drop. Her low point came gradually over two years while fighting through a seemingly endless string of misfortune and injury.
Stress fractures, Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, sciatica; Seidel found herself more of a medical malady than the budding Irish track and cross country star she was expected to become.
“My first two years were kind of an exercise in ego destruction with each successive injury,” said Seidel, now a senior. “I would go to an event somewhere, I wouldn’t run well and you hear it, `Oh, she’s done. She’s never going to get back to where she was in high school.’ It’s really hard to hear those kind of things, especially when you are 18 or 19 years old. You’re not even 20 and people are saying you’re kind of washed up.”
Calling herself the “queen of weird, random injuries,” Seidel says of the string of setbacks took a heavy toll on both her body and her mind.
With 12 career state titles in track and cross country at University Lake High School in Hartland, Wisconsin — all of which predicated her Gatorade National Female Cross Country Runner of the Year honors in 2011 — Seidel arrived at Notre Dame with similar career expectations to legendary Irish distance runner, Molly Huddle. But Seidel’s race results weren’t matching the high school hype.
“I doubted myself a lot,” Seidel said. “I think a lot of other people doubted me as well.”
SOME NEEDED SPARKS
When Notre Dame hired Matt Sparks in August of 2014 as its associate head coach for cross country/track and field, his immediate order of business for the new school year was using confidence to improve Seidel’s consistency.
“There were times that she looked like the superstar that she became in high school, and there were times when she was honestly one of the last kids on the team throughout the fall cross country season,” Sparks said. “I think the key to her success was how she felt about herself. And I think the first half of that season, she was pretty down about the kind of runner she had developed into her first two years.”
The blueprint to big dreams was basic: thinking only about today will bring only a brighter tomorrow.
“We were more worried about the process along the way as opposed to worrying about the end results,” Sparks explained.
The plan took and Seidel’s improvement started to show as her confidence continued to grow.
In what became a breakout cross country season last fall, Seidel finished the year as a USTFCCCA (United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association) All-American (placing 19th out of 253 runners at the NCAA Championships) and as an all-Atlantic Coast Conference performer with a fifth-place finish in the conference meet, a couple of highlights to build on with the indoor track and field season up next.
“As the weeks went by, I think Molly remembered what running was to her and what she was able to do as a runner throughout her high school years,” Sparks said, “and the confidence just grew week by week.”
Momentum from cross country spilled into the indoor track season and culminated in February 2015 when Seidel won the 5,000-meter race at the Iowa State Classic in 15:54.45, breaking Huddle’s Notre Dame event record.
Two weeks later, Seidel captured the 3,000-meter and the 5,000-meter titles at the 2015 ACC Indoor Championships to earn Most Valuable Track Performer at the conference meet.
Both teacher and student pinpoint the win at Iowa State as the “breakthrough” race of Seidel’s junior season — and perhaps her career — when she parlayed that record-setting performance into All-America honors after a sixth-place finish in the 5,000-meter race at the NCAA Indoor Championships.
“I think Iowa State gave her a new-found look into what she could develop into,” Sparks said.
Sticking to a deliberate plan of steady improvement ahead of immediate results, Seidel’s outdoor season peaked at the perfect time a month before claiming her national championship, when she added the 5,000-meter ACC outdoor title to her two indoor conference gold medals.
Seidel logged all the hard work and countless training miles during her magical junior season, but she is quick to recognize her coach — affectionately known simply as “Sparks” — as the mentor who got her back on track, so to speak.
“He is kind of a good relaxed yin to my crazy yang,” Seidel said with a laugh. “I tend to run myself into the ground very easily so he does a great job of helping me keep my eye to where I need to be going, and to be smart about my training.”
STUDENT BEFORE ATHLETE
While Seidel’s track career was going through some ups and downs, her schoolwork flatlined at an exceedingly high level.
Seidel’s University bio is dotted with ACC and national academic honors and achievements, including a prestigious 2015 Capital One All-Academic District V First Team selection. She remarkably balances the rigors of cross country, indoor and outdoor track with a double major in anthropology and environmental science.
Instead of relaxing with friends and family this summer, Seidel drove 90 minutes one way each day to participate in an internship along the Ice Age Trails back home in Wisconsin — a rugged but beautiful terrain that weaves throughout the state, and remains an intimate place she has trained thousands of miles on, and holds dearly in her heart.
The internship work included studying the sustainability of the trails, interviewing visitors to their experiences there and even building a new half-mile trail section.
“It is really down-in-the-dirt work to create these trails but it is really worth it once you can see the finished project,” Seidel said. “[The trails] are such a great resource for us here, I wanted to help out. It has been such a blessing for me to have. It is kind of cool to go and say you had some part in maintaining this trail.”
Seidel is still weighing her future career options but she hopes they will include something that blends business with eco-consciousness and eco-sustainability.
Limited to one track meet during a potential redshirt freshman year, if Seidel chooses and if approved, she could return to Notre Dame in 2016-17 as a graduate student, an athlete, and a mentor for future Irish to follow.
Anna Rohrer, the reigning prep Gatorade National Runner of the Year out of nearby Mishawaka High School, is part of the incoming 2015 Notre Dame cross country recruiting class that ranks No. 1 in the nation.
“I am really excited to have someone like Molly [Seidel] on my team who has really taken her running to the next level,” said Rohrer, who recently arrived on campus with similar expectations to Huddle and Seidel. “Just seeing what she has done this past year, I think training with her will really help prepare me for what I want to do in the future. It is going to be really motivating and really helpful to get me to that next level as well.”
The college scholarship offers for Seidel were many, but the choice was clear.
Her mother, Anne, is a Saint Mary’s graduate, and her aunts, Molly and Kathleen, were both competitive rowers at Notre Dame.
“The only thing I never really understood when I was younger was why Notre Dame alumni were so crazy and believed Notre Dame was the best college in the world — now I get it,” said Seidel, who lost count of how many Irish football games she attended growing up. “I am turning into one of those crazy people who thinks Notre Dame is the best place on the planet.”
It’s hard to argue with a historic national champion.