March 9, 2015
Molly Seidel wasn't sure she had the 5,000-meter race in the Atlantic Coast Conference Indoor Track and Field Championships locked up, even though she had a stunning 19-second lead with about 800 meters left.
Matt Sparks, the University of Notre Dame associate head coach for cross country and track & field, saw Seidel's breakthrough long before she stepped up to the starting line at that last weekend in February in Blacksburg, Virginia.
Seidel, a junior from Hartland, Wisconsin, held on to that 19-second lead to win the 5,000 meters in a time of 15:55.84, a half-second off the ACC record. She followed that up with a blue-ribbon effort of 9:10.63 in the 3,000 meters and claimed the ACC indoor track championships Most Valuable Track Performer honor.
"I think it was definitely a big-level surprise," Seidel said of her sweep and MVP performance. "I had been working out well. I had been training very hard and felt very good going into it, but I was trying to keep my expectations tempered a little bit. I didn't want to put too much pressure on myself. I knew what my goals were going in as far as trying to win both of those races.
"I knew I definitely was going to have quite a bit of a challenge because of the experience level and the talent in the field. It turned out very well. I was very happy. There was a level of surprise and excitement."
When Seidel ran a school-record 15:54.45 in the 5,000 meters on February 13 at Iowa State, Sparks saw the potential transforming into reality. Seidel basically ran by herself at Iowa State -- she was that far ahead of the pack. Sparks wanted to see if Seidel could step up her game when there was tougher competition. Seidel responded by running away from the pack at the ACC Championships as well.
"I felt that if she got in a race with other people to chase after and run with, that the competitive side of her would come through," Sparks said of Seidel. "She spent most of the year running by herself. There wasn't a lot of competition at that level. We knew at the ACC meet there would be a lot of competition.
"Just seeing the ease she was winning by in some of our regular-season meets gave me a little bit of a look at what she could probably do when you put her out there with people who were fairly equally competitive."
Seidel sensed the competition may have been falling off in the 5,000 meters at the ACC Championships, but she never let up.
"I think you're always kind of aware there might be somebody who is coming back full strength," Seidel said. "You keep pushing. There's no point where you let off and ease up. Then, when you cross the finish line, you realized you might have been farther ahead than you thought."
Seidel has made major strides to qualify for the NCAA Indoor Championships this week in Fayetteville, Arkansas. She struggled with her kick in previous seasons, as well as this past cross country season. Working with Sparks, who is in his first season at Notre Dame, Seidel entered the indoor track season stronger and with a kick that has her on a championship course.
"I pretty much got my butt kicked in the last 400 of every race I was in," Seidel said. "I think I'm the benefactor of the training that Coach Sparks has had me doing. I'm more confident to be able to go hard in the finishing part of the race and lay everything out there, rather than holding back anything.
"I think it hit a point where I was just saying, `I've worked hard to be here.' I let myself be good enough to win it, finally. Up until this point, I've been fearful of the kick not working. I was confident enough to finally go out and race bravely."
Seidel said Sparks has brought a new energy to the Irish and changed the training. Now, Seidel does more tempo work rather than intervals. That's helped play to her strengths and turned the kick from a weakness into a strength. She's staying away from speed work that brought on pain. The tempo work is allowing her to flourish.
Sparks thinks a positive attitude along with the change in training has benefited Seidel.
"From all indications, Molly's content with where she is in life," Sparks said. "She's happy. She's confident now. That's maybe something she lacked over the last couple of years. I'm not sure what to attribute that to, other than maybe she's growing up and being a more confident and secure person."
Seidel hopes to springboard off her ACC success to a strong showing in the NCAA Championships.
"I'm trying to use this as an opportunity to gain confidence to race on the next level going into nationals," Seidel said. "I definitely want to keep a cool head about it, even though it was a great honor. I know there is still a lot of work left to do. I'm going to try to use it to buckle down in my training even more and be able to put myself into a position to race strongly throughout the rest of the year."
Seidel's two championships in the ACC meet have a tremendous upside for the Irish program.
"I think it obviously gave the other eight to 10 (distance) runners in the women's program a lot of confidence that what we're doing for workouts and the general vibe in the program goes up a notch and the expectations of the program go up," Sparks said of how Seidel's wins help the program overall. "I think it helps in recruiting. We've already kind of locked in our recruiting class of 2015 with some pretty elite people. It gives those elite recruits who are coming the peace of mind that they've made the right decision and will also, hopefully, lead the way for underclassmen to give them the confidence to know that Notre Dame is going in the right direction. We move up on their radar a little bit more."
And with the way Seidel is running heading into the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships, the Irish might move up even more on the radar nationally.
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent