Not done yet
Physically imposing football stars and agile, long-limbed basketball types most readily come to mind as symbols of the University of Notre Dame’s undeniably rich and famous athletic tradition.
Yet few Irish athletes have accomplished more than Molly Seidel. By football or basketball standards, she is waif-like at 5-foot-4 and 107 pounds. But her size has never impeded her from setting and achieving a remarkable set of goals in track and cross country.
And her work is not finished.
In the spring of 2015, her junior year, a victory at 10,000 meters in the NCAA Championship outdoor meet gave Seidel the first individual title for a female Notre Dame athlete in track and field.
“The first one is the one that stands out as something you’ll always remember,” Seidel says. “It gave me the belief that I might be able to do something on the national level.”
In the fall of 2015, she was the Atlantic Coast Conference and NCAA champion in six-kilometer cross country, a few months before becoming a double winner at 3,000 and 5,000 meters at the 2016 NCAA Championship indoor meet.
Seidel produced four individual NCAA championships in less than a year.
Taken as a whole, those achievements earned Seidel the Mary Garber Award as the 2016 ACC Female Athlete of the Year. But nothing has come easy for the Hartland, Wisconsin, native, whose determination and genuine love of running have enabled her to overcome a succession of injuries to her legs and lower back that might have ended the career of a less driven competitor.
“I love this sport more than anything, no matter what happens,” Seidel says. “I’m one of those people who thinks better when I’m moving. If I’m stressed out or confused about something, I’ll go for a run. The world makes more sense to me when I run.”
A repeat of her 2015 outdoor success could have established Seidel as a candidate for a spot on the 2016 United States Olympic team for the Summer Games in Rio.
“She would have been in the mix at 5,000 and 10,000 meters,” says Matt Sparks, an Irish assistant coach who works closely with Seidel as Notre Dame’s distance specialist.
But as she intensified an already rigorous training regimen, Seidel developed a sacral stress fracture in the area of her lower back near the tailbone—a broken back, in layman’s terms. The injury is truly debilitating to a runner, sprinter or distance. Rest is the only cure, so Seidel had to bypass the 2016 outdoor season, as well as the Olympic Trials.
“There’s not much that’s worse than taking running away from a runner,” says Sparks, “especially someone who loves to run as much as Molly does.”
“Crushing” is Seidel’s recollection of her disappointment: “I got hurt before I could get a qualifying time in the 10,000. That was my better event, but I had a qualifying time at 5,000, and I was ready to give it a shot.
“I went to the Olympic Trials anyway, and I got to see some of my friends do well and live out their dreams. I can only hope I’ll get another chance.”
Overtraining may have been a factor. In her freshman year at 63-student University Lake High School, Seidel was sometimes her school’s only competitor in track and cross country meets, although her success gradually attracted enough participants for a state-contending team. She relied on hard work rather than sophisticated coaching to augment her natural talent.
“Great athletes are also great competitors and, with many of them, every achievement pushes them to want more,” Sparks says. “So rather than rely on what has worked for them and trust their bodies, they push themselves to go even harder when it might not be what’s best for them.
“With Molly, we’ve talked about the process more than the ultimate goal. Let’s try to be the best Molly you can be today, and if we do that every day the results will take care of themselves.”
A National Merit Scholar with a 4.0 grade-point average in high school, Seidel chose Notre Dame for its academic rigor as much as its athletic prestige. She had her pick of the nation’s top track schools as the Gatorade Cross Country Runner of the Year and the Foot Locker national champion.
There were family ties as well. Seidel’s mother, Anne, is a Saint Mary’s College graduate, and her namesake aunt, Molly, is a Notre Dame grad who was a rower for the Irish in the mid-’80s.
“At Notre Dame, you have a chance to be a full student and an athlete at the same time—it’s definitely what I wanted from college,” Seidel says. “You’re not ‘playing school,’ you have to put in the work at both ends. It’s not easy.”
That was especially true of those first two years, as illness, injury and self-doubt caused her to rethink the direction of her life.
“Kind of hellish” is how she describes a period in which she considered abandoning a sport that had brought her so much joy.
“I was incredibly sick my whole first semester,” says Seidel, thinking back to the fall of 2012.
“It was basically the worst sinus infection you could have. I couldn’t breathe. I was coughing up blood. I couldn’t do anything. I ran the worst race of my life at cross country nationals (she finished 217th).
“It’s tough when you go for these long spans of time not racing. Sophomore year was probably my lowest point. I couldn’t get my head in the race. Physically I was nowhere near where I needed to be. I lost confidence in myself and I was wondering if I would ever get back to that trajectory I had coming from high school and having these high expectations. Was I really ever good enough to do that kind of stuff?”
Sparks’ arrival before her junior year changed things.
“I had planned to quit the track team for a while—I was at such a low point mentally that I didn’t know if I wanted to continue,” Seidel says. “Coach Sparks came in and said, ‘Just trust me,’ and I did.
“Now it’s the process, the daily grind, putting in the work that I appreciate and enjoy the most. The races are like the icing on the cake, a reward for all the work you put in.”