Nashotah native Molly Seidel had long set her sights on competing in the Olympics, but she never expected to be wearing the red, white and blue in the Summer Games as a marathoner.
Seidel, 26, made history in February at the Olympic Trials in Atlanta, becoming the first U.S. woman to make an Olympic team in her debut marathon, a stunning second-place finish to earn one of the three spots on the team that will take part in the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
The most decorated high school runner ever in Wisconsin, Seidel qualified for the Olympic Trials marathon with her winning time in a half marathon in San Antonio in December. She turned in another strong half-marathon performance in Houston in January.
Seidel went into the Trials marathon mainly with the intention of using it as preparation for the 10,000 meters, which she had planned to compete in at the Olympic Trials for track and field that had been scheduled for June in Eugene, Oregon, before being postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It seemed like a cool opportunity to do my first marathon at this high-caliber race that only comes around once every four years rather than do it in the more conventional route,” Seidel said.
Seidel’s training had gone very well heading into the marathon but having never raced at that distance caused trepidation.
“I’m the kind of person who enjoys the race the farther it gets, but I had never raced over a half marathon before,” Seidel said by phone recently from Maine while on a brief vacation. “It was going into the unknown. There definitely was a lot of fear around it. It was a very stacked race, but I felt very confident in my ability to finish with a pretty OK time.”
Seidel’s performance turned out to be better than OK. Much better.
As the race unfolded, she stayed strong and in the latter stages began to realize it would be more than just a training-type run as she pulled away from the pack with eventual winner Aliphine Tuliamuk.
“It exceeded my expectations,” Seidel said. “In the moment, I wasn’t trying to think about it too much. If I had really started thinking ‘Oh my God, you are in second place in the Olympic Trials marathon,’ then I would have psyched myself out.”
After crossing the finish line, her spot for Tokyo secured, a flood of emotions took hold.
“A year earlier, I literally didn’t know whether I was going to be able to keep running because of injuries,” Seidel said. “Obviously, this is a life-long dream of mine, as I think it is for any runner, and I was able to have my entire family and so many of my friends there. These were the people who had been with me through some really rough times. They all came out, not with the expectation that I would make the Olympic team, but just to watch me run my first marathon.”
A photograph of Seidel snapped immediately after the race showed her wrapped in an American flag, a look of utter disbelief on her face.
“Obviously, it turned into this absolutely insane thing,” Seidel said. “I don’t think I could have imagined a better day. Even if I had written out a dream of what my day would have been, I wouldn’t have expected it to be like that. I made my first Olympic team and everybody I love was there to share it with me.”
Seidel starred at tiny University Lake School in Hartland in Waukesha County. She won four consecutive Division 3 state championships in the 1,600-meter and 3,200-meter runs, setting state records along the way.
She also won the state cross country title four years a row, joining legendary runner and three-time Olympian Suzy Favor Hamilton as the only ones to accomplish the feat. Seidel turned in a record-breaking time to cap her senior year.
On to Notre Dame for college, where she won an NCAA Division I cross-country national title and three titles on the track.
An injury sidelined Seidel for the Olympic Trials in 2016. She then essentially disappeared from the running scene for the next three years, plagued with injuries and struggling with an eating disorder, which she opened up about in story that appeared in Runner’s World.
She’s been on the comeback trail over the past year, capped by her performance at the Olympic Trials.
Seidel’s surprising performance made her an instant hit with the national news media, some of whom portrayed her second-place finish as nothing short of a miracle for a runner who had a side hustle at a Boston coffee shop.
“It was a super click-bait story. First time marathoner makes the Olympic team,” Seidel explained. “A lot of people read the story and thought this girl has literally never run before. She’s a barista who just made the Olympic team. But I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m a pro runner.’”
For now, the coronavirus pandemic has led to a one-year postponement of the Tokyo Games, which will be held next summer, and put Seidel’s Olympic dream on hold.
“Obviously, it’s very difficult,” she said. “Everyone’s life is so drastically different from what it was.”
Desperate for competition, Seidel recently helped organize a set of races in Massachusetts, which turned out to be anything but a simple task. All racers had to take two COVID-19 tests and spectators were banned.
Daily training runs have changed for Seidel due to the pandemic. Boston, where Seidel currently makes her home, has a mask ordinance, which presents an added challenge as she logs major miles in and around the city.
“It’s not great. I’m not going to lie,” Seidel said. “The mask can get soggy in the summer and it’s not fun to have it on. Running is already uncomfortable, so why not add some more discomfort to it.”
Seidel lives near Fenway Park with her younger sister, Isabel, who runs for an elite amateur team and captured state titles in the 1,600 and 3,200 during her senior year at University Lake School.
“Izzy is a very good runner in her own right, so I always have someone to go on training runs with and to have around,” Seidel said. “I think it would be incredibly difficult to be going through this (pandemic) completely solo.”
Seidel, who is sponsored by Massachusetts-based athletic shoe manufacturer Saucony, continues to train and prepare as if the Tokyo Games will take place as planned next summer but knows that uncertainty remains.
“I have cautious optimism,” she said. “We’re training and preparing for it as best as we can. I’m hoping we have a vaccine by next summer.”
Not having key major races on which to focus has been a struggle for Seidel.
“As a pro runner, you kind of frame your year around races,” she said. “It’s kind of a monastic lifestyle. You buckle in and do your training and you have these long blocks of time where you are just preparing for a race and all of a sudden it’s hard to structure a year when you don’t know when those races are going to be, or if they are going to happen at all.”
Although she’s forced to wait another year, Seidel is relieved that she’s already secured a spot for Tokyo.
“I am very lucky in the sense that I was able to get this huge racing opportunity in before the world shut down,” she said.
Seidel still spends part of the year in Wisconsin, primarily as a training base during the summer months.
“I love being in Wisconsin. My family is there,” Seidel said. “I still consider myself a Wisconsinite. I still have a Wisconsin driver’s license. I grew up in a really great community. It’s a small town and as my running took off, I feel like a lot of people in town were very excited for me and got to share in that. Even now, when I come back to Wisconsin, I’ll be running down the road and people will be honking and waving.”
She quickly rattles off favorite local spots for a run.
“It’s really a great area for running with Nashotah Park and Lapham Peak. I love running on some of the roads up near Merton,” Seidel said. “Whenever I come back, I call it my Wisconsin training camps but it’s just an opportunity to be home and go to the Kiltie (Drive-In).”
Seidel credits Brian Borkowski, who served as her coach in middle and high school, for fostering her love of running. The two remain close to this day.
“He ran the Boston Marathon every year,” she said. “He was one of those people that completely changes your life when you need them. I consider him an extremely good friend.”
Borkowski, who left coaching two years ago and bought a wine bar, Vino Etcetera, in Oconomowoc, described Seidel as incredibly shy and “a little bit scared” when he first encountered her as a 7th grader. After nerves got the better of Seidel in her first race, she then showed off her incredible running ability and would only lose one race over the next six years, Borkowski recalled.
“She was just lightning. Always leading the pack,” Borkowski said. “She has a lot of confidence. Not cocky confidence, just confidence in herself.”
He warned against doubting Seidel’s abilities, no matter the situation.
“If you look at the field in the Olympic Trials, it was incredible,” Borkowski said. “She was on the outside looking in. Everybody thought that, except Molly and the people who know her best.”
Early on, Seidel also played soccer and field hockey. At an athletic banquet, Borkowski offered a foretelling message. “I said I hope we can convince your parents to drop the other sports because I think you are going to be an Olympian someday. I get chills when I say that now. I saw something in her that was so special.”