Aggressive attitude helped ND's Molly Seidel to national title

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – One look at Molly Seidel can be deceiving.

Pleasant smile. Just a wisp of a young woman. Almost the nerdy stereotype of an anthropology major with a job in a lab, who spent a summer doing research in Argentina.

But, man, can she lock in when she toes the starting line.

When the race begins, the senior leader of the Notre Dame cross country team is a stone-cold killer over six kilometers, warning anyone who intends to snatch victory from her that it will come with a price.

A couple of weeks ago, after she won the NCAA Cross Country National Championship in Louisville, Seidel said, “If someone was going to beat me, I was going to make them bleed to do it.”

Wow! Those words just jump off the page. Brian Kelly could use players with an attitude like that.

“I’m usually not that aggressive of a person,” Seidel said with an embarrassed chuckle. “I’m usually more of a low-key person. During races, especially this year, I’ve gotten a lot more confident. When I get out there, everything else quiets down and I can be aggressive.”

The “noise,” especially in her first two years with the Irish, was deafening. Seidel entered Notre Dame as the 2011 Foot Locker national champion, best of the best. Injuries, illness, more injuries, frustration, more injuries, and difficulties adjusting to life as an athlete at Notre Dame had the best runner to come from Hartland, Wis., wondering if she was making her way down the right path.

“It’s tough when you’re in the (rehab) pool, day after day; getting beaten down every single day,” Seidel recalled. “There were a lot of times I considered (quitting) when it just hurt so badly – mentally and physically. I was wondering if I was ever going to get back to where I had been in high school.

“At one time, I fell out of running. It just wasn’t a positive experience anymore.”

The turnaround

Then, things happened. Teammates rallied around her. Her summer anthropology expedition to Argentina came with an opportunity to run trails with the locals, rekindling her love for the sport. Alan Turner took over the cross country and track programs, bringing distance guru Matt Sparks with him.

“As a freshman, having the injuries and not running as well as you know you can, can be very frustrating,” Turner said. “An athlete can get into a downward spiral and Molly was headed in that direction.”

“My job is more of a life skills manager than a coach sometimes, with how much stress and anxiety these kids put on themselves,” Sparks said. “My job is to help them gain perspective as to what’s going on in their life.

“Molly is a very high-stress, high-anxiety person. When it’s time to race, there’s a peacefulness that comes upon her. You just know things are going to happen, and she’s going to dictate how they’re going to happen.”

The drive

With little else going for her at the time, Seidel put her future in Sparks’ hands. She learned that training doesn’t always mean going 110 percent. Her regimen went from that of a middle-distance runner to that of a distance competitor.

Sparks is even able to pinpoint the day – and the race – that changed the trajectory of Seidel’s career.

“That intensity has grown in the last year and a half,” he said. “I saw a little bit of it in the fall (2014), but she’d have really down days when she was the fourth or fifth girl on the team.

“The day that really gave her perspective was the day we ran (an indoor track meet at) Iowa State (in February, 2015). She broke the 5K school record. (Olympian) Molly Huddle had that record. That was a big day for her, when she started to see some of the things she might be able to accomplish.”

Since that record-setting performance, Seidel’s buy-in has been complete.

“We talked more about the process than the ultimate goal,” Sparks said. “‘Let’s try to be the best Molly you can be. We’re going to work on that every day and good things will happen.’

“That day, when she broke the school record, she started believing in herself. When these things started to happen, her personality started to change. She was more willing to speak up and give input about what she thought about things.”

That new-found confidence played a significant role in Seidel stunning everyone, even herself, by winning the title in the 10,000 meters at the NCAA Track & Field Championships.

It was also the springboard to another amazing accomplishment.

The goal

Seidel talks about the track title being a shock, and the cross country championship being the achievement of a season-long goal.

She was much more calculated going into the most recent success.

“People ask me what separates Molly from others,” Sparks said. “There are a lot of people who say they will do whatever it takes to win. When it comes down to it, they don’t find a way to win. Molly finds a way to achieve her goals like no one I’ve ever met.

“She knows when to push on the gas in a race, and when to back off. That last kilometer (of the national championship race) she kept pushing the gas until nobody was left. There are elite people that get that eye of the tiger; that nothing is going to stop them from achieving today.”

The intensity and success have given Seidel the confidence to dictate the ebb and flow of any race she enters. Even on the biggest stage, she wasn’t reluctant to take charge.

“I like running from the front spot instead of sitting back and worrying that I don’t have what it takes,” Seidel said. “You’re very self-aware, but at the same time you have to pay attention to what the people around you are doing.

“It really can be quite terrifying being at the front because you have to govern the pace. You don’t know what the people behind you are doing. At the same time, I really like the sense of power that you get; just the strength and confidence you get leading a race.

“It’s weighing those two things, and knowing when to go and when not to. Everybody has these detailed race plans in their heads. I just go when the moment’s right.”

That race in Louisville was Seidel’s moment. From start to finish, she led the pack. No panic. No pressure. Just a peaceful determination.

Helping Anna

One of the big draws that attracted Mishawaka High standout runner Anna Rohrer to Notre Dame was the opportunity to train with and learn from Seidel.

Given her sixth-place finish in her first NCAA national meet, Rohrer must have been paying attention.

“One thing I stressed to Anna (before she signed), we talked about building a distance powerhouse here,” Turner said. “Anna talked about, in high school, she didn’t have people who were on her level to train with her. ‘We’ve got people on both ends (sprint and distance) that are going to challenge you and push you to make you better.’

“Molly and Anna are often training together. Anna never backs down.”

“(Anna’s) more confident than I ever was when I came in,” Seidel said. “I want to help prevent her from making the same mistakes I made my first couple years – not sleeping enough; not taking care of my body enough; making sure I was getting the amount of recovery that I needed. A lot of injuries happened through that.”

Rohrer said she entered her first semester at Notre Dame as a pre-med major taking 19 hours of classes – a difficult curriculum beyond a full load. She said, a few weeks into the semester she realized the academic and athletic demands didn’t leave any times for the luxuries of life – like sleep.

Rohrer said she battled illness often through the first few weeks and had trouble recovering from tough workouts – possibly on the tip of that downward spiral that Seidel battled.

Before the bottom fell out, Rohrer said she eliminated some hours on her academic schedule and made taking care of herself a priority. Sparks said, over the last six weeks, the progress Rohrer made was astounding.

“Molly’s such a great role model in several aspects, not just running,” Rohrer said. “It’s great to have someone like her to train with. I can see what it takes to get to the level she’s at now.

“It’s encouraging to me that I know how to get to that level.”

From years of development, anything other than full-go is foreign to Rohrer.

“It’s definitely hard for me to run easy,” Rohrer said. “It’s hard to remember to be patient.”

Patience never was one of Rohrer’s virtues.

Life's lessons

College can be a cloistered microcosm of life. The ups and downs of a student, especially a student-athlete, are there as preparation for life beyond the bubble.

Seidel has had a difficult go of it inside the bubble, but the confidence she has gained – in herself and her abilities – should pay dividends down the road.

“I know that even though I’m going to face a lot of struggles (in life), no matter what I face, I’m always going to try and keep going,” Seidel said. “I’ve already faced so many struggles the past couple years, I’ve had to confront a lot of harsh truths about myself. I know I’m not the kind of person who can quit.”

She’s just gonna make ‘em bleed.

Notre Dame's Molly Seidel leads the field on her way to winning the NCAA Cross Country National Championships, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
Notre Dame's Molly Seidel holds up her first-place trophy after her win in the women's NCAA Cross Countru National Championship 6k run, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)