The U.S. marathon runner, affectionately known as "By Golly Molly", has gone from relative obscurity to Olympic marathon bronze in just a year and a half. Read her story below.
It’s 29 February in Atlanta, Georgia. Some of the biggest names in running were about to take part in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, hoping to book their ticket to Tokyo 2020. Among the field of seasoned and decorated athletes was someone who was running their first marathon. Ever.
Her name is Molly Seidel.
She was 25 years old, holding down two jobs and, after her 2nd place finish that day, qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
To say that Molly Seidel shocked the sporting world that day would be an understatement. But the idea that she appeared out of nowhere is also a little off the mark.
Only five years ago, Seidel was the leading female distance runner in the NCAA with four national titles to her name. She’d looked destined to make a breakthrough in a big way, but injury and personal issues took their toll on a highly promising career.
Before the U.S. Olympic Track Trials in 2016, Seidel was sidelined with a sacral stress fracture - or as most people would say, a broken back. She had also been quietly struggling for a long time with OCD that had led to the development of an eating disorder.
As she told Runner’s World in a recent interview: “With OCD, you just have this anxiety all the time and feel like you can’t control anything, so you develop patterns and behaviours.
“I would compulsively knock on things in specific patterns because you feel like you have some control over the universe. Over time with running, it developed into turning my eating or my running into a control mechanism.”
In the end, instead of embarking on a career in athletics, Molly Seidel sought treatment for her eating disorder. She checked into the REDI Clinic in Wisconsin for a period of four months, going on to spend a total of two years in therapy.
It must have seemed at that time that her running career was over.
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26 miles from glory
Fast-forward to 2020 and Molly Seidel was about to compete against an all-star field at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. It was only two months earlier that she had qualified for the race after an impressive win in the Rock ’n’ Roll San Antonio Half Marathon. But going into the race, her expectations were modest.
Realistic, some might say.
“Tenth to 20th range would be a good day for me. All of these women are really good and have the times. I want to go out and be realistic, but not count myself out”, she told Runner’s World.
What happened next made history.
After a relatively quiet first 21 miles that even included her high-fiving her sister at the 7 mile mark, Seidel broke from the pack. Alongside Aliphine Tuliamuk and Sally Kipyego the break created daylight between the frontrunners and the chasing group.
It was a move that was destined to end in glory or spectacular failure, with Seidel acknowledging she would either “make the team or spectacularly go down in flames.”
By the time the race ended it was clear to everyone that the gamble had paid off. And in breathtaking fashion.
Not only had Seidel run the 10th fastest ever marathon by an American woman, she had also finished second.
And, by doing so, she fulfilled her dream of qualifying for the Olympic Games.
From ordinary to extraordinary
One of the most endearing parts of Seidel’s story is the fact that her life before the race appears to have been so normal. She still holds down two jobs, including one in a local coffee shop.
“I usually get up, do my main training session, come back, work a couple of hours at the coffee shop or go babysit, then can run later in the day,” she told the New York Times.
And it seems her customers have been far from wowed by her Olympic trials success.
“I told them I qualified for the Olympic trials, and they were excited, but they’re also like, ‘You’re a nerd who runs.’”
But if life beforehand was normal, it was about to take a spectacular turn as Seidel got ready to take part in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
When the marathon started on 7 August in Sapporo, Seidel was not expected to be among the fastest finishers. Among the athletes on the start line were the Kenyan duo, current marathon world record holder Brigid Kosgei and two-time world half marathon champion Peres Jepchirchir, as well as numerous runners with faster PBs and more impressive marathon resumes.
Astonishingly - miraculously some would say - Seidel stormed to a bronze medal in 2:27:46 - only 20 seconds behind the winner, Jepchirchir.
It represented an incredible end to a journey from first marathon to Olympic marathon - and third-ever female Olympic marathon medallist from the USA - in just 18 months.
By golly, Molly.