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Broken records, pro dreams, and Emily Richards’ quest for track immortality

Richards, a junior at Ohio Northern, holds six indoor school records. (photo/ ONU Sports Information)

When it happened, Erin Hester (formerly Erin Hipp) was at her West Chester, Ohio home with her two daughters, ages five and two, and her two stepsons, ages 11 and nine.

“It was something that I was following so I was very excited, knowing that she was going into the meet first in the nation,” Hester (below) said. “It was definitely something that I was following and watching. My kids were all excited about it too.”

It was January 30, 2016, and Emily Richards, then a sophomore at Ohio Northern, had just broken Hester’s school record in the indoor 800-meter dash. Richards did it in two minutes and 12 seconds, two ticks faster than Hester’s 2:14, which she ran when she won the national championship in the event during her senior year, 1998. Hester held the record for 18 years.

Was it disappointing to have your record broken?

“No, not disappointing at all,” Hester, now a pharmacist in Springdale, Ohio, just 30 minutes north of Cincinnati, said over the phone. “They stood there for quite a while, so that’s what they’re there for. I think it’s incredible, I think it’s great that someone has come along and has had the success that she’s had, and was able to break those records.”

“That’s what they’re there for, they’re meant to be broken, right?”

Since that day in 2016, Richards has broken eight other indoor school records. Now a junior, she claims school records in six different events: the 400, 500, 800, 1,000, one-mile and is a part of the record-holding 4x400 team. Those six records are the most of any women’s indoor runner in school history.

Richards will enter this weekend’s NCAA Division III Indoor National Championship meet as the fastest runner in the country in the 800, the event which she considers to be her specialty. She set a personal indoor record of 2:08.83 last month at ONU’s Joe Banks Invitational, which is nearly three seconds faster than the next-fastest time. It is also the sixth-fastest time in Division III history.

What’s more impressive? She’s just a junior.

“ONU​ has had many really good athletes in its history and specifically many in the track and field program. Emily is among them already in her career,” Northern track coach Jason Maus said. “Sometimes it takes a little time to sink in, just how fast she is and put into perspective her times and place in ONU and NCAA D-III history. She's just a normal college student to us.”

Normal may be a bit of a stretch. Richards does not eat red meat, she does not drink during the season, and she is a national champion, as she placed first in the outdoor 800 last spring.

How long has it been since you’ve drank soda?

“Oh, a really long time,” Richards replies, laughing.

Richards will also compete in the one-mile race this weekend at nationals, another event in which she holds the nation’s fastest time. She ran a school-record 4:50.11 last month at the Grand Valley State Big Meet Invite, which is over three seconds faster than the next-fastest time nationally.

Her record-setting mile performance is the sixth-fastest time in Division III history. It was also the first time that Richards had ever raced in the mile.

Her name runs rampant in school record books and her legend is already established, with over a full year of college left. She is Ohio Northern’s most decorated female track athlete, and she is still writing her narrative. But there’s something missing, and it lingers.

She hopes to find it soon.

***

Richards, a Columbus native and graduate of Delaware Hayes High School, had seen Rachel Weber before.

“She also used to run for Dublin [High School], so I competed against her in high school a lot. Her times were always better,” Richards said. “Really great athlete.”

Richards and Weber found each other together at the starting blocks again last spring in the Jesse Owens Track & Field Classic, hosted by Ohio State University. While Weber is a year older than Richards, they both run the 800, and they run it fast.

Weber is Ohio State’s best 800 runner, as Richards is Ohio Northern’s. In the race, Weber beat Richards by 42-hundredths of a second, finishing first while Richards settled for second.

Ohio Northern going toe-to-toe with Ohio State? How often does this happen?

While the answer is hardly ever, last April’s circumstances become easier to understand when considering that Richards thought about walking on at Ohio State. At the time, however, her high school times just didn’t translate. She also wasn’t even sure if she wanted to run in college.

“My times coming out of high school were probably not good enough for a decent athletic scholarship at OSU,” Richards said. “I didn't start running ‘D-I caliber’ times until I started running for ONU.”

“I came here for the academics. I wasn’t sure whether I was going to run at all in college -- I wanted to, but if I could get a good education and couldn’t handle the running part, that was OK with me.”

Things changed when Richards got to Northern. Not only did she ‘handle the running part,’ but she also got better quickly.

Her times improved dramatically during her freshman season, running the indoor 800 in 2:15.91 and improving to 2:11.30 in the outdoor season. She started her sophomore year with a 2:10.52 indoor PR, dropping to a career-best 2:05.54 as she qualified for outdoor nationals.

This year, Richards took it to the next level. The junior dropped her indoor PR time to 2:08.83, nearly three seconds ahead of where she was at this time last season.

One might believe that, had she went to Ohio State, she could be competing as their top 800 runner. The times certainly prove it. But Richards could care less about the ‘what-ifs.’

“You always wonder how your life could have been different had you chosen the alternative path,” Richards said. “The reason I have been able to run times that are competitive at the D-I level is because of the training and coaching I've received here at ONU. For that reason, I would not change a thing about my decision.”

“I don't think OSU could have shaped me into the same athlete that ONU has. I still have the opportunity to run in races like the one I ran against Rachel [Weber], which is really awesome. Our athletic division backgrounds may be different, but the outcome is essentially the same. I'm proud to be able to say ONU has helped me achieve the same results a D-I athlete might experience.”

Not only do Richards’ times compete across collegiate divisions, but they could also eventually compete on an international scale.

Richards, along with junior ONU men’s 800 runner Matt Molinaro, are considering trying to qualify for international meets such as the U.S. Championships or the Worlds Championships this summer.

While the Olympics will not be played for another three summers, the two could qualify for the U.S. Championships, which are held in July, or the Worlds Championships, which are held in August. According to the U.S. Track & Field website, Richards is just over two seconds away from qualifying -- the cutoff time is 2:03 and her outdoor PR is 2:05.54. Meanwhile, Molinaro is just under three seconds from qualifying -- the cutoff time is 1:46 and his outdoor PR is 1:48.99.

“Both Emily and I are at the point where we have to drop about a second or two more to qualify,” Molinaro said. “That would definitely be a really fun experience, hopefully both of us can get there.”

Molinaro will be competing at indoor nationals this weekend as well, and currently owns the fourth-fastest time in the country in the 800-meter dash. Like Richards, Molinaro is an All-American, All-Region runner. But with her recent success -- at one point this winter, she broke five school records in the span of four weeks -- sometimes Molinaro gets lost in the shuffle.

“Sometimes I definitely do feel like I’m overshadowed a bit,” Molinaro said, smiling. “She’s crushing all the school records. But when you compare our times nationally, we’re both up there pretty high. I wouldn’t have it any other way; I’m not jealous or anything, and I really love having her on the team. She’s a great runner and I have nothing but respect for her.”

For Richards, running internationally in the summer could also have future professional benefits.

Richards has talked about potentially running professionally after college, and says that performing well in international meets could help heighten her value.

“After nationals, if we could qualify for a race like that, that would be a really cool opportunity -- to keep training through the summer and to run at an event like that and get some more national attention, which would be really helpful for running professionally down the road,” Richards said. “If they saw a performance at the national level, it would make me a better candidate.”

Richards says that her ability to run after college will likely depend on her health; she is still managing knee pain that has been an issue since the fall, and, like all runners, deals with shin splints.

“We’ll see how my body handles the next couple of years. I’ve been going through a couple of injuries so hopefully I can get past that,” Richards said. “But I would love to take a couple of years off, before doing more education and grad school, and try to run professionally for a couple of years -- I think that would be really awesome.”

But for now, Richards wants to just take things one race at a time. Her next stop is Naperville, Ill., this weekend.

She’s got some business to take care of there.

***

Jeff Coleman remembers it like it was yesterday.

“She would just glide,” Coleman said. “I can see it today, her taking off after a ball on the other side of the field and just running past people.”

Coleman was Hester’s soccer coach when, yes, Erin Hester played soccer at Ohio Northern. Hester would play soccer in the fall and then immediately turn around and run track in the winter and spring.

“This isn’t a knock on the other girls -- I don’t know how you want to write this -- but sometimes her intenseness was not accepted all the time,” Coleman said. “Her intensity was at a different level than most. And, of course, I loved it, but we had to pull the reins back at times, just to make sure that she [was going] in the right direction.”

Coleman, who is currently the Director of Development for Athletics at ONU, coached women’s soccer for nine years. He remembers Hester as an entirely unique talent.

“She’s one of those rare ones, that comes by every now and then, that you don’t see that often,” Coleman said.

In her two years at Northern, Hester played near midfield on defense. She would steal the ball, beat the opposing defenders down the field and shoot the ball, and then run back and play defense again. When the coaching staff switched her to offense after two years, it became even easier for Hester to score; this time, she only had to beat three or four opposing players to score, not eight or nine.

With only two years of play on offense, Hester finished her soccer career at Northern as the second-leading scorer in program history, and she also ranks fourth all-time in assists. She was fast, and her opponents knew it. They just couldn’t stop her.

“She got everybody’s best shot every game, and there were a lot of teams trying to get her out of the game if they could,” Coleman said.

Like Hester, Richards also gets everyone’s best shot.

The 2016 OAC Female Sprinter of the Year and the 2017 OAC Female Distance Athlete of the Year, Richards is a marked woman when she steps onto the track. She has a target on her back, and she knows it.

“That’s definitely something that I’ve talked about with my coach,” Richards said of her near-celebrity status at the D-III level. “We talk about people knowing who I am, and you know there’s someone out there who is training to beat me right now. It’s better to not pay attention to how other people perceive me, and to just pay attention to what I do.”

“So, one of the things that I have to focus on is not really paying attention to what I did last year; it was really great, but that’s in the past. It’s a new season.”

A new season it is, and thankfully so for Richards. While she won the outdoor national championship last year, the indoor national championship race was a different story.

Richards came into the race last March with the fastest time in the country, and easily finished first in Friday’s prelims. But she started the championship race towards the back of the pack, climbing her way back to the front only to finish in third place, just 66-hundredths of a second behind first place and two-hundredths of a second behind second.

“The indoor season last year didn’t go the way I wanted it to,” Richards said. “I got third, and I had gone into that race wanting to be a national champion, and that didn’t happen.”

This weekend, Richards will return to nationals in search of gold.

Richards has accomplished nearly everything imaginable thus far; in addition to the plethora of school records, she is an All-American, a three-time NCAA qualifier (and outdoor national champion) and a nine-time OAC champion. She walks the halls of King Horn as a living legend -- they could induct her into the ONU Athletic Hall of Fame right now if they wanted to.

But something’s missing. There’s an unchecked box on the checklist. And the only thing between that something and Richards is two breathtakingly fast laps around the track this weekend.

If she wins, maybe she’ll indulge in some soda. On second thought, probably not.