Sports

Track and field

Kelly chasing down her running dreams

By Bernie Puchalski

Mariah Kelly placed sixth in the 1,500 metres at Canada's track and field Olympic trials.

Mariah Kelly placed sixth in the 1,500 metres at Canada's track and field Olympic trials.

NIAGARA FALLS - 

Mariah Kelly’s long run has her on the cusp of being an Olympian.

The 25-year-old Niagara Falls native placed sixth in the 1,500 metres at this past summer’s Olympic trials and is on the start of a journey she hopes will land her on the podium at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

It has been anything but a smooth ride for the former Saint Michael High School student, who qualified for the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Association championships her first four years at Saint Michael.

“I was good but I wasn’t running sub-2:10 or anything in 800,” Kelly said. “I ran 2:11 which was good enough to draw some interest but not good enough to have every school wanting me.”

She desperately wanted to attend NCAA Division 1 Baylor in Waco, Texas and pursued a scholarship there. With no scholarship available after Grade 12 year, she returned for a high school victory lap.

“I had other offers, but I didn’t find any of them to be a good fit and I really wanted to go to Baylor.”

To enhance her grades and take one final run at an OFSAA medal, Kelly returned for a second year of Grade 12.

“That was the hardest thing I ever had to do,” she said.

Her perseverance paid off and she was offered a scholarship to the Baylor in the winter of her second year of Grade 12.

While she achieved her scholarship goal, her OFSAA medal hopes were dashed when she broke her foot in the provincial final. The injury was far from healed when she arrived at Baylor.

“It was way harder than I thought it would be and it came with a lot more challenges than I expected,” said Kelly, who graduated from Baylor with a degree in health sciences. “But it was very rewarding at the end.”

One of the biggest challenges was having to red shirt (sit out) her first year because of the injury.

“It took me almost a whole year to come back from that and that was really difficult because the coaches weren’t happy and I wasn’t performing properly,” she said. “The first two years I was terrible. I was threatened with my scholarship being taken away, but I knew I had what it took to be at the top of that level.”

She drew inspiration from someone close.

“In my second year, my roommate was dealing with depression and she had to go home,” Kelly said. “I had to witness how hard that was for her and I realized things weren’t that bad.

“I had to suck it up and make the best of it because she lost her opportunity and I didn’t want to lose mine.”

Kelly did just that, becoming the captain of Baylor’s track and country cross country teams and having a fantastic career. When she graduated in 2015, her running resume included: two Big 12 Conference titles; two school records; four NCAA national championships appearances; two NCAA quarter-finals berths; two NCAA semifinal races; and, two appearances in NCAA finals.

“In high school I didn’t have the times to be pursued by everyone but I knew I could be great,” she said. “In college, it was the same thing. I worked really hard and it ended up happening.”

Upon graduation, Kelly spend a while in the United States trying to land sponsors and a pro running contract.

“I was looking at two groups in the States and talking to two groups in Canada and I never really found a fit in the States.”

She visited with coach Heather Hennigar in Victoria, B.C. and found a fit at the western hub for Athletics Canada’s middle distance running development group.

“That was the place that was going to get me to the next level,” she said.

In Victoria since September 2015, Kelly has made significant progress, thanks to going injury free.

“I went 49 weeks without anything and as a result of that I was able to drop six seconds off in the 1,500 metres, which is huge.”

Her time of 4:10 was only three seconds off the Olympic standard and Kelly’s sixth-place showing at the Olympic trials was her highest-ever finish at the Canadian nationals. She also dropped three seconds off her personal best in the 800 metres from 2:06 to 2:03

While in Victoria, Kelly receives developmental funding from Athletics Canada, which covers her hotels and flights when she attends competitions. The developmental funding ends this year and she now has to earn senior carding.

The criteria for senior funding is based on performance, doing well in the Canadian final and showing enough progress to be considered an Olympic medal contender in four years.

“Even if you meet the criteria, there’s no guarantee you will be selected,” Kelly said.

To help support her training, there’s a fundraising event this Sunday at the Regency Hall from 2 to 6 p.m. The event includes food, prizes and a band. She also has an on-line fundraising campaign (https://www.pursu.it/pursuit/campaign/220).

“This year is the outdoor world championship and the main goal will be sorted out around those championships,” she said. “I want to have a healthy pre-season and off-season and go into the indoor season and use it to get freshened up.

“Once the championship season gets started in May. I want to be able to hit a new standard so I can put myself in the pool for the team.

The worlds are in London, England, in August.