The United States has long dominated the Olympic Games. The marathon, though, has never been one of our strengths. Molly Seidel’s unlikely bronze medal from Tokyo is only the third for American women since the introduction of the event in the 1984 Summer Games.
Molly Seidel, who grew up in Wisconsin, attended the University of Notre Dame for college. During the 2015 and 2016 NCAA Division 1 cross country and track seasons, she was a sensation, winning multiple national titles. Seidel was the girl to beat – and, for a time, no one could.
Choosing Health over Big Contracts
Upon graduating from Notre Dame, though, Seidel shocked the running world when she didn’t sign a big sponsorship contract and compete in the Olympic Trials. Instead, she quietly checked into a treatment program for an eating disorder that had been wrecking her mental and physical health for years. She suffered multiple injuries because her bones were dangerously weakened by a years-long battle with overtraining, disordered eating, and bulimia. A close friend sat her down and told her, “You’re not okay. You’re not yourself. You look like you’re dying.” That was the moment, Seidel said, that she knew she needed to get help. She spent a summer at a rehab center in Wisconsin, unsure of where her running career would go (or not go) from there.
Eating disorders are a shockingly common part of collegiate distance running.
“Eating disorders are a shockingly common part of collegiate distance running, and it is all too familiar in this sport to watch a young woman succeed for a short time, crash from low body weight and energy availability, and never be heard from again. The comeback, of learning to run – or simply live – with a new body and a new approach to eating, is the hardest part,” she told ESPN.
Fortunately, Seidel triumphed in this comeback. She eventually moved to Boston to live with her sister, signed a contract with Saucony, and worked as a part-time barista and babysitter while she trained.
Seidel’s Path to the Olympics
In February 2020, Molly Seidel ran her first ever marathon – the Olympic Trials marathon in Atlanta, Georgia. She placed second behind Aliphine Tuliamuk, qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics.
The Olympic marathon on August 6 was only Seidel’s third marathon. Such inexperience is unprecedented in the Olympics – especially for a grueling event like the 26.2 mile race.
But Molly Seidel was certainly not lacking in grit and determination. She matched strides with Peres Jepchirchir and Brigid Kosgei, two world-record-holding runners from Kenya, for most of the race. Despite the brutal conditions (80 degree heat and nearly unbearable humidity), she led for much of the way, maintaining a 5:39/mile average pace. 15 other competitors succumbed to the conditions and dropped out.
The race came down to the wire. Two Kenyan athletes finished just ahead of Seidel, who crossed the finish line in third place, pointing to her U.S. jersey and pumping her fists.
On Sunday evening, the unlikely medalist was honored at the Closing Ceremony – a moment the 27-year-old called “one of the greatest” of her life. She’s only the third American woman to ever make it to the podium for the marathon (preceded by bronze medalist Deena Kastor in 2004 and gold medalist Joan Benoit in 1984). This truly was a victory for the United States – a most unexpected and most inspiring one.
There’s not much better, in the world of sports, than a good underdog story. Molly Seidel’s bronze this past weekend certainly qualifies as one of the best such stories from Tokyo. She battled injury, an eating disorder, tremendous inexperience, and overwhelming conditions to claim a medal for her country. Her ability to overcome has made her wonderfully victorious and has shown the world that, when you put in the work and tear down your obstacles, you can achieve the improbable.
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