Where I am in 2021: How change and challenge is preparing me for the postponed Olympic Trials

Hi, there! I’m Emily.  You might recognize me from my time as a Division III track athlete, or perhaps you’ve seen me sporting a HOKA ONE ONE NJNY jersey around the track during my pro career, or maybe you don’t know me at all and just happened to navigate to this site from social media or a Google search. However our paths may have crossed in the past or happen to be crossing now, you come to me during a very pivotal moment in my career as a runner—a time of change, challenge, and opportunity.

For so many athletes, the year 2020 was supposed to be the year of the Tokyo Olympics. As professional runners, almost every large decision we make and are a part of is with this prestigious event in mind—how long our shoe contracts last, which event we choose to train for, what other life milestones we are willing to put off in the pursuit of our Olympic dreams. When the news hit about the Olympic postponement and athletes realized they had another year to account for in their plans, many began to reprioritize. Some started families, some refocused their training, some made team switches. For me, the extra year allowed me to address a chronic ankle injury that had been gradually worsening for a year and a half. I decided to get ankle surgery.

I got the surgery in May while hopes for a regular outdoor season were practically non-existent, and then planned to spend some time at home in Ohio recovering before eventually returning to New York in the Fall to continue training for the now 2021 Olympic Trials. However, around the same time, another big change was starting to develop. NJNYTC’s contract with HOKA was scheduled to expire at the end of the year (as most contracts do the year of a scheduled Olympic Games), prompting much of the team to reflect on the year ahead. With no competitions in sight due to the pandemic, athletes found themselves with their own periods of time to assess their long-term goals and where they saw themselves in the coming year. To some that meant relocating, to others that meant making a career-shift, and to others still that meant finishing what they had started in New York. Thus, the COVID-induced reprioritization effect started happening very close to home.

I began wondering for myself how these changes would impact me in the coming year. I trusted my team and my coaches and knew they would provide for me no matter what happened with sponsorships, but I also knew that in these pandemic-stricken times, more questions existed than answers.

While I was trying to make sense of all of the uncertainty and figure out how I could be proactive, I got a call from my college coach, Jason Maus. “Em!” he said, “ONU has a part-time assistant coaching position open and I think you should apply for it.”  Now, whatever term you would use here—kismet, fortune, karma, divine intervention (as a Christian I tend to use “God thing”)—this phone call was it. To give you some more context, Coach Maus and I stayed in pretty good contact while I was in NY, but he had no detailed knowledge of the predicament I was in trying to secure concrete financial, training, and sponsorship plans for 2021.

When I told him what was going on, he reassured me that if I wanted to return to Ohio, not only could I have a paid opportunity to coach, but I would have guaranteed access to training resources at the university and him as a coach again. I knew that the offer to return to my roots and kick start a coaching career combined with the promise for stability in such a tumultuous year was too good to pass up.

The caveat was that I only had about a month to act and make the transition from Ohio, where I was still recovering from ankle surgery, to New York, where all of my stuff was, back to Ohio, where I still needed to find a place to live. This added layer of urgency prompted me to completely lean into change: change in my training and my body from surgery, change in my plans and home base for the new year, change I couldn’t even control because it was incited by a pandemic. I collected so much change in such a short amount of time that it felt like my coin purse during a racing circuit in Europe.

However, I knew I had to act with confidence in my decision. I called up my agent and my coaches to talk to them about the plans for Ohio (everyone was really supportive), then waited another week for my foot to heal, spent an entire day calling landlords in Ada until I finally secured an apartment, and finally, instead of flying back to New York in the fall for training, drove out to New York in July with my dad to pack up my things and say goodbye to who I could.

This list of people was shorter than I would have liked, as many of my teammates had vacated to be with their families in the post-season during this time, but it did include my very supportive boyfriend over take-out coffee and croissants from one of our favorite downtown Brooklyn spots, my wonderful babysitting family that became like my own over celebratory marzipan animal creations, and Coach Gags and his lovely wife Robbie over socially-distanced New York bagels under a shady spot in their backyard. Pulling these roots out of the ground was the hardest part of leaving New York.

View of the NYC skyline on our way out of the harbor on my dad’s cousin and her husband’s sailboat. We sailed from Mamaroneck to Port Washington and got to see New York from a totally different perspective from the water.

My dad and I managed to haul all of my stuff back to Ohio in two separate trips with a Dodge Caravan, which he heroically piloted on his own both times. As one final memory, his cousin and her husband gave us a picturesque send-off from the Big Apple via a ride on their sailboat between East River and Long Island Sound. As the sun went down and the sky grew dark, I watched the big, bright city lights shrink off into the distance, reverting back to the snow globe-scale image I had of them prior to experiencing the city for myself. And just like that, my life in New York came to what felt like a pretty abrupt close.

Fast forward six months and into 2021, however, and I’m fully embracing the opportunities Ohio has provided to me, allowing them to continue to impact me in big ways. I’m waist-deep into college coaching, having thrown myself into a productive fall season of recruiting with Coach Maus and now preparing for the team’s first organized season of competition since last Spring. I feel very fortunate for the opportunity to encourage others in the same way I was encouraged as an athlete here. I adopted a rescue kitten of my own (a dream I’ve been looking forward to fulfilling since I was a kid). She’s my new best friend and I’m not ashamed to admit it. My boyfriend moved back to his hometown in Illinois, so we enjoy the luxury of a much shorter commute than New York would have been and find great comfort in knowing we are navigating these changes together.

Training has been directly dependent on progress in my post-op recovery, which has been a challenging battle of setbacks, breakthroughs, and lots of refining—I consider this “a God thing,” too—another piece of adversity to add to the fire that fuels my will to overcome, learn, and succeed. In the absence of running mileage, I’ve filled my log with long pool days, sweaty Elliptigo workouts, and a few pretty intense partial-bodyweight intervals on our program’s anti-gravity treadmill.

Furthermore, I find myself once again surrounded by all of the incredible people who cheered me on throughout my time here as a college athlete. The university and the Division III community are what molded me and gave me a chance at running for a pro team in the first place. Returning to this foundation makes me feel at home.  

I also feel greatly impacted by where I was before all of these changes hit. My time with NJNYTC, albeit brief, created some of the best memories of my life so far. It was a dream come true to run on a professional team with so many incredibly talented, like-minded athletes. Their victories and their heartbreaks became my own and I created friendships in New York that I know are for life. I still keep in touch with many of the women, and we continue to encourage and update each other from afar. They will always be my own form of Pangaea.

And of course I’d be remiss not to mention the very heartbeat of the team, the coaching staff, that made my time with NJNY so memorable. Coach Gags showed me the kindness that only family can, uplifting, supporting, and believing in me no matter what, and he was never afraid to tell the truth when it was truth I needed to hear. I am forever grateful to him for bringing me to New York and making sure I was more than taken care of in every aspect of life.

Coach Nohilly became a great mentor and a strong voice of reason in times of worry. He’s someone who seems to survey your thoughts for the precise one that requires attention, only to immediately snuff it out with the corresponding words of encouragement. The amount of sacrifice he offered to the team while juggling other roles in work and family was truly remarkable. Coach Trautmann graciously sacrificed his time and was always ready to step into any role that was needed. He made me feel incredibly welcomed onto the team from day one and offered great support when it came to consulting surgeons about my ankle.

NJNYTC will hold a special place in my heart forever.

800m teammates Meg Manley, Cecilia Leeper, Kenyetta Iyvebele, and Ce’Aira Brown (plus bonus 1500m teammate Megan Mansy!). These women were my core group of training partners on workout days and also part of my core group of friends off the track (Photo/ Jay Bendlin)
Teammates Megan Mansy and Dani Aragon plus Coaches Nohilly and Trautmann at the Millrose Games in the Fort Washington Armory. We spent the majority of our winters training here under each coach’s great guidance (Photo/ Michael W. Mansy).

Finally, NJNY could not have been all that it was without HOKA backing it for so many years. They provided support to many athletes, including myself, giving us all a chance to truly turn running and dream-chasing into our full-time jobs. I have signed a new contract with HOKA ONE ONE and will continue to represent them in the year 2021. I am very grateful for their ongoing support to pursue my dreams, especially as I navigate these new changes.

As I mentioned above, you’re reading this (now very lengthy) write-up at a crucial time in my career. A time when one incredible chapter has closed and a new one is just beginning.  I’m stoked to be back at my alma mater with Coach Maus, someone who knows me as an athlete arguably better than anyone else and who I know will work tirelessly to help me reach my goals, as he has always done in the past. I’m antsy to string together some consistent running mileage post-surgery but know I emerge from this recovery journey a stronger athlete and person both, more familiar with myself and more determined in my goals than ever before.

While the path has taken a course completely different from what I thought it would, I know that it was never really my path to dictate in the first place (it’s that “God thing” again). Everything truly does have a funny way of working out in the end. But for me, this isn’t the end yet. My dream is still alive, and my dream is well.

I look forward to continuing this journey with you all and thank you eternally for your support.

Love, Emily

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