Watching the Olympics, what you see is the glory: Athletes performing super-human feats, records being broken, medals being won.
What you don’t see is the path these athletes take to get there: the immense personal, trying professional, and grueling physical challenges they have to overcome in pursuit of representing their countries at the Games.
And that’s why, over the next several weeks, we’re giving you an inside look—a peek inside the life of women with Olympic aspirations. For anyone who’s dreamed of being an athlete (or just loves being a spectator!), it’s a series you can’t miss.
In late 2011, 23-year-old Molly Pritz found herself with $20 in her bank account and without a job, sponsors, or coach. She had just left the Hansons-Brooks Running Project (a prestigious American running team), and she didn’t know where she was going or what she was going to do. But she was in love. So she did the only thing she knew how: She kept running.
Having been kicked off the Hansons-Brooks training team for beginning a relationship with another member (a team taboo), Molly was encouraged by the local New York Road Runners (NYRR) group to enter the New York City marathon, one of the most prestigious and well-covered marathons in the world. If she did well, it would improve her chances of getting a job as a runner. If she didn’t? Well, she had nothing to lose. So a scant eight weeks before her NYC marathon debut, Molly, coach-less and sponsor-less, began training on her own.
She did more than well. On November 6, 2011, Molly was the fastest American woman to complete the NYC marathon, clocking 2:31:52 and finishing 12th overall. I was inclined to look up the big shot names she beat, but I know Molly better: She would have frowned on it. In fact, when I asked her about competition, she told me confidently, “You can’t help who shows up to the race. I don’t want to be disappointed if I don’t get first, but I get my personal best. So I try to construct my goals around something I can control. You don’t want to be constantly improving yourself around everyone else, especially when you are training every day. In running, there’s not one direct winner or loser when you focus on a personal goal.”
So what are some of those goals? For Molly, running is an outlet for her thoughts and stress, and her goals have always been to “be the best that I can be. I’m still trying to figure that out exactly, but I’d like to set the American half-marathon record. I think it’s currently 1:07:34. Oh, and I’d like to break the 2:20 barrier for the marathon before I retire.”
At 24, Molly has a lot of miles to put in before she even comes close to her athletic peak potential. Most women peak in their early to mid-30s, and Molly has only been running seriously for a few years. When I asked her about her background in running, she replied,
I started out as a major band geek in high school, and athletics was lowest on my priority list. I would overload on classes and try to get out of gym class before you would see me run laps. Unfortunately, my pride took over when I was last in our presidential fitness test (the mile run) my senior year, so I ran track with moderate success. It was just for fun.
After high school, I chose Bucknell for college because they have a stellar geology and engineering program, but with room for lots of liberal arts classes as well. I knew it would be a perfect fit for my academic interests. But the running bug kept growing in me all summer before my freshman year, so I begged the cross-country coach to allow me on the team.
Although I learned a lot, I found that being on a Division I team and pursuing my academic interests was not feasible, and I became burned out on running quickly. I took a year off, but like every runner knows, you can’t stay away for long!
It wasn’t until my junior year of college that I started to get really serious about running. Although I knew I wanted to be a full-time runner, school and my research was my priority. So I tried to put the thought out of my mind until I graduated but kept entering road races with some success. After Bucknell, I joined the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project and became a full-time runner.”
Our conversation went from Hansons-Brooks, to her boyfriend in Boulder (for whom she was kicked off the team, and who also happens to be her biggest supporter and fan), to geology, and finally to how we meet in cycling. At no point did Molly mention the Olympics. Finally, I asked her, “What happened at the Olympic trials?”
She responded frankly, “It was one of the worst moments for me in running. I tripped on the sidewalk in my lead up to the Olympic Trials and fractured my kneecap. I was in the best shape of my life, and I was 100% sure I had an outside shot of making the team as one of the youngest competitors in the field, and to have a freak injury stop me was devastating. I only began running 10 days before the marathon at the Trials, but I showed up to ‘experience’ them anyway. I mean, it’s the Olympic Trials. But to see something so big like that literally slip away because of one tumble was one of the hardest experiences in my career.”
I asked Molly if the Olympics were also part of her list of goals, and her reply surprised me. “While the Olympics are part of my goals, they’re not my ultimate goal. Most athletes will give you a spiel about how the Olympics are the be-all-end-all, and I simply don’t agree with that philosophy. The moment you start comparing yourself to others, I feel like you’ve lost sight of the point of running: self-improvement.”
Clocking near 115 miles a week during marathon training season and 90 miles a week during off-season, I asked Molly what will happen when she retires from running. This is where the conversation took off again, and Molly began giving me a lesson on rock formation and geology. At one point, she said, “I’m just really obsessed with sedimentary geology, sedimentary rocks, and show paleo-climate. You see these 360 million-year-old mountains, and as a geologist, you can investigate what’s happened. It’s like you’re a detective… a geological historian. The moment I retire from competitive running, I will be in Alaska and Canada to map out the rock record.” For a girl who says she likes “slow, enduring pain,” I was impressed.
Finally, I asked Molly about her new tattoo, which spreads across her rib cage and reads a Nicki Minaj song: “I fight for the girls who never thought they could win.” Her reply was, again, full of irony:
Well, Pan Pan, I really hate tattoos. You’re going to make fun of me for the Nicki Minaj quote, but the story is that I’ve had struggles since I started in sports, especially to get respect: I wasn’t a national champion in college, I never got sponsored. People ask: ‘Who are you? We didn’t know you in high school, and you’re not an All-American.’ Running has given me a type of self-confidence. I was a very insecure girl, and that confidence has helped me both academically and socially.
I’ve met so many women through traveling as a professional runner for Asics America and realize that women are the first to put themselves down. I want to go to races and say to girls, ‘Hey, you are going to do well! You have to believe you can do well before you do well.’ I lost a lot of my confidence after the Hansons, and going into New York, I was betting on myself, even though very few people were betting on me. I want to show that regardless of your background or where you come from, you can succeed.”