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Summer Exclusive: Inside Emily Richards’ U.S. Championship experience

Senior Emily Richards finished eighth in the U.S. World Championship finals last Sunday afternoon. The race was televised on NBC. (photo/ ONU Sports Information)

There Emily Richards stood -- under the California sun, in lane two, at approximately 2:06 p.m. Pacific Time last Sunday.

And here came the camera.

Moving from lane eight to lane one, NBC’s cameraman spent a brief moment on each runner as they were introduced before the start of the race.

Meticulous time and preparation are what got Richards to this point, just seconds away from competing in the biggest race of her life, the 800-meter final at the U.S. Track & Field Outdoor Championships.

Yet she was, in no way, prepared for this.

“I was one of the last ones they put the camera on. I was trying real hard to think about my race and focus -- I always kind of visualize my race before running so I can feel out what I want to do. But then, there’s this camera,” Richards said. “And I was like, ‘What are people doing, are they looking, are they smiling? I don’t know what to do.’ So I was watching, and no one was really looking at the camera, no one was smiling, so I was like, ‘Alright, I’m going to try to look tough.’”

“I’m not used to having a camera in my face right before I race,” Richards said. “And so I decided not to look at the camera, and I started thinking, ‘Why am I thinking about this, why am I not thinking about the race?’ And then it was time for business.”

Business is the right term to use in this context, because for six of the eight runners on that track, this was their job. They were not running for team points, nor were they running for conference or even national titles -- they were professionals, running for money.

Richards finished the race in 2:01.74, her second-fastest time ever, although she came in eighth. She was one of just two collegiate runners competing in the final, alongside six-time Division I national champion Raevyn Rogers of Oregon. The rest were professionals, sponsored by the likes of Adidas, Nike and New Balance.

The race capped off a Cinderella-esque weekend for the Ohio Northern senior, as she ran three of her best career times in four days. It also closed the book on the most decorated individual season in ONU women’s track & field history: four national championships (between indoor and outdoor), nine school records (if you include the three relay teams she competed on), and the opportunity to race alongside some of the world’s top runners -- herself included -- in Sacramento last weekend.

But as Emily Richards stood at the finish line, a little over two minutes after she looked tough for the camera, and now with sweat dripping onto her school-issued orange top, she couldn’t help but be disappointed.

She felt that she was better than eighth, even on that stage, and that she hadn’t raced her best race. And, besides; when was the last time Emily Richards finished last?

***

Richards doesn’t know.

“I can’t even tell you, honestly. Like I have no idea.”

“It’s hard when you’re not used to that. It’s like a punch in the stomach, when you’re the last one to cross the finish line.”

Richards, the five-time Division III national champion and six-time All-American, had not finished lower than second place all year before last weekend. In fact, it had been over two full years since she had finished lower than third, and you could count the number of second and third place finishes over that time span on one hand.

Since her freshman year, few have truly challenged Richards in the 800 meter dash, despite being entered in increasingly competitive races like the Raleigh Relays and Mt. Sac Relays this spring.

She even finished third in Sacramento last Thursday and Friday, in the prelims and semifinals, respectively.

But on Sunday, when all eight runners were in the world’s top 35 and five were in the top 15, Richards said that mental mistakes cost her a higher finish.

She went out too fast, for starters. She usually hits the 200-meter mark at 28 or 29 seconds, but on Sunday she reached it in 27. The hurried start was likely due to the fact that it was the finals, and the pace was blistering; it was nearly five seconds faster than Thursday’s prelims and one to two seconds faster than Friday’s semifinals.

“It was way harder than I’d ever gotten out in a race before,” Richards said.

Richards said that the unfamiliar pace caused her to overthink things.

“I don’t know whether it was a conscious decision or not, but I realized how fast it was and was kind of taken aback a little bit, and I think my body kind of slowed down,” Richards said.

When she slowed down, things became crowded around the 400-meter mark. Richards said that she was patient in trying to find an opening to break away during lap two, but when that opening came, with 200 meters left, she didn’t seize the opportunity.

“I don’t think I took full advantage of it,” Richards said. “Everyone behind me closed in in front of me and cut me off when I should’ve taken the chance, and I didn’t.”

While Richards finished last, however, she was still within the pack. She was three seconds away from third place -- those who finish in the top three and clear the 2:01 benchmark in the U.S. Championships qualify for the World Championships in August (and all did) -- and four seconds away from first.

It takes most runners multiple tries to make it to the final meet; Charlene Lipsey, who placed second on Sunday, has raced in the U.S. Championships four times but only made it to the finals twice. Richards, however, qualified during her first trip.

Richards’ final time was two seconds slower than Kate Grace, who represented the U.S. in last summer’s Olympics. Richards’ PR of 2:00.62, which she set in Nashville on June 10, is just one second behind Grace’s time last summer in Rio de Janeiro.

Last weekend’s times mirrored those in the 2016 Olympics, and Richards was right in the mix.

“That race this weekend is essentially the Olympic trials in a non-Olympic year,” ONU track & field coach Jason Maus said. “So, think about that -- last year was the Olympic trials and the Olympics. Can you imagine turning on the television and watching Emily Richards in the final? Well you just did, essentially.”

***

If anything, this past weekend in Sacramento proved just how close Emily Richards is -- not just to Olympic times, but to the Olympians themselves.

But that took some time to get used to.

“It was difficult not to be a fan early on,” Maus, the coach who follows track like most follow football, said. Maus, his wife Lindsey, and sports information director Tim Glon served as Richards’ entourage last weekend in California -- Richards’ family could not make it, but they had a watch party back home in Columbus.

“We walked into the athlete facility on the first few days, and you were a little starstruck, at least I was,” Maus said.

Maus mentioned seeing Olympic hero Justin Gatlin and meeting steeplechase medalist Emma Coburn, still with a giddiness in his tone.

“You walk into that meet, and it’d be like anybody else basically getting a chance to be in the locker room with the Cavs,” Maus said.

Richards got to meet her racing idol, American Olympic medalist Sanya Richards-Ross, and she signed her book, telling her to “always believe in yourself.”

Maus said that Richards made friends with Nike runner Laura Roesler, winner of the 2014 Division I national championship, as they raced against each other in Nashville as well.

But once Richards got past the fandom -- which she did quicker than Maus, he said, as “she had a lot more to focus on” -- she seemed comfortable amongst the professionals.

“You hear about these people all year long but you’ve never really ran against them head-to-head. But then, at the same time, I felt ready,” Richards said. “This is definitely a level where I think I fit in and belong. Once you get past the star-struckness, you get a sense of belonging and it was really cool.”

Richards, who won the Division III NCAA championship by nearly five seconds this spring, finally felt like she belonged. But as comfortable as Richards felt among the country’s most prestigious striders, she was still the runner who no one really knew about.

In the final race, Richards trailed the top two finishers -- Adidas teammates Ajee’ Wilson and Charlene Lipsey -- closely after one lap. On a connecting flight home after the race, from Sacramento to Dallas, Lipsey sat down next to Richards, Maus and Glon (Oh my gosh, Maus mouthed in awe to Richards after the former five-time Division I All-American found her seat. Even on the final day, the fandom hadn’t worn off).

Lipsey admitted to Maus that she and Wilson did not know who Richards was as she pushed them on the back stretch. “We thought she was Hanna Green (the Virginia Tech All-American who missed the final cut),” Lipsey told Maus. “We had no idea why she was still hanging on to us, so we had to push a little bit harder than we wanted.”

Going under the radar was quite the phenomenon for Richards, who has been somewhat of a Division III celebrity for the past year or so.

“Usually, when ONU goes to the national championship meet in Division III, we have a lot of athletes there and I know a lot of people there, and you feel pretty comfortable,” Maus said. “When we went there for practice on Wednesday, we hardly knew anybody.”

While last weekend was technically about racing for Richards, the experience also doubled as a networking opportunity. If she were to run professionally one day, the exposure and connections she gained last weekend are hugely important.

“This was probably the best thing I could have done for myself, to run the way I did and make it to the finals,” said Richards, although she still is hesitant to plan a professional career just yet.

“I know that’s a goal of hers, and that’s something we’ve talked about, trying to set herself up for that,” Maus said. “I think this weekend helped a ton. It gets her some attention, gets her to know some people. Sitting here today, I’d say it’s something that’s absolutely attainable.”

***

At the moment, Richards is taking some time off -- two weeks, to be exact, before she begins training for the coming cross country season.

She’s on vacation at Lake Erie, giving her body a break from what has been nearly a full year of running. After cross country in the fall, she immediately transitions to track, which entails 30 to 40 miles of training per week from December to June.

She’s tired, but she’s also still on somewhat of an emotional high. She doesn’t want to stop.

“This season was so successful,” Richards said. “It’s kind of hard to let go of that.”

It is a time of reflection for Richards, who has been running the fastest times of her life for the past month and has yet to look back. But as she thinks about on the fastest year of her life -- the records, the trophies, the spotlight -- she has mixed feelings.

“It’s kind of a two-way street, in that, you look back and you’re like ‘Wow, I was able to do this and this and this,’ and then you look forward and you’re like, ‘Wow, I still want to do this and this and this,’” Richards said. “Even though I made it to the U.S. final and I ran two-flat, I would like to place higher than eighth and run under two [minutes]. It’s a constant process.”

“You never just stop after you experience success. You want to keep building on that success and do more than you’re able to do the past year.”

Sunday’s eighth-place finish takes Richards back to her freshman year at ONU, when she finished 16th of 17 runners at the NCAA indoor national championships and failed to qualify for the finals. Even in her freshman outdoor season, Richards made it to the finals but finished second-to-last.

“It was really hard, and I remember finishing and thinking, there were so many things I should’ve done and could’ve done better in that race,” Richards said. “It was kind of a similar feeling to this.”

While those freshman experiences didn’t bear medals or recognition for Richards, they did award her the most important component of her recent collegiate success: confidence.

Once she knew she could compete on the national stage, her times dropped at an alarming rate. She went from running 2:15 her freshman year to running 2:00 last month, and has gone from ‘one of ONU’s best runners’ to the 28th-fastest runner in the world in the 800 during that time span.

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Now, Richards says that she has the confidence to compete on an even bigger stage, against Olympic-level athletes, as she did last weekend. What a scary thought.

But to keep improving, Richards will need to keep racing against the best athletes in the nation on a regular basis. Maus entered her and Matt Molinaro, her phenom senior counterpart on the men’s team, in multiple elite races this spring, including the Raleigh Relays and the Mt. Sac Relays. Maus knows, though, that Richards will need to have even more national opportunities during her senior year.

“We just have to get her more opportunities to get to that stage, and compete against women of that caliber,” Maus said. “That’s something that the future has to bring. For her growth and development, she has to spend more time in races like that and has to spend more time on that stage, in order to be prepared for the Olympic trials in 2020.”

Maus said it will be easier to lobby for Richards’ entry into bigger races now because of her success last weekend in Sacramento. As long as the athletic department is willing to fund the trips, which they have been so far, Maus plans on getting Richards and Molinaro the most exposure possible -- all while coaching the rest of the team’s 100-plus athletes.

If all goes according to plan, Richards will be back at the U.S. Championships again next summer. Because there will be no World Championships to qualify for in 2018 (they run every other year), Richards expects that the U.S. meet might be slightly less competitive. That, along with the additional confidence and experience that she will gain from another year of elite running, could propel Richards to a higher finish.

“Next year, I’m looking to try to make the U.S. meet again and finish higher because it won’t be a worlds year,” Richards said. “People who do their events might do an off-event or they might double because there’s not as much at stake, making it to Worlds. So that almost gives me a better chance to advance farther at the U.S.A. meet, maybe place a little higher than I did this year.”

But that’s down the road, a year away from now. After all, it’s easy to look ahead, especially for a competitor like Richards.

Sometimes, however, it’s important to soak it all in. Emily Richards just completed the greatest single season in ONU track & field history, and will likely go down as not only one of the best Division III runners of all time, but also one of the best collegiate runners ever.

Richards will soak it in eventually. But Maus? He already has.

Before he, Richards and the entourage left for Sacramento last week, long-time athletic department secretary Jane Williams stopped Maus.

“Jason, make sure that you enjoy this,” Williams told him.

Maus tried, despite his own competitive urges, to put things in perspective last weekend. He has been at Richards’ side for the past three years -- has seen her break out her freshman year, then struggle at nationals, then gain the confidence to get back to the same stage and win it all -- he has seen it all.

And he was keeping it together just fine, until Richards hit the final stretch in last Friday’s semifinal. Richards was locking up in the last 200 meters, fighting to maintain third place and advance into the finals (the top four moved on). As Richards distanced herself from fourth and fifth place and willed her away across the finish line, running the second-best time of her career at the time, tears welled up in her coach’s eyes.

“It kind of hit me. It’s like, ‘Wow, she just made the final,’” Maus said. “I was so proud of her.”

Maus has been coaching at ONU for 15 years, and has been head coach for the last eight. As much as he has elevated the school’s track & field program -- Maus coached a combined 26 OAC champions this year between the men’s and women’s teams and he and his staff have been subject to numerous honors -- he knows that athletes like Richards don’t come around very often at the D-III level.

“You make sure that you enjoy the ride and you soak it in,” Maus said. “Because it may never happen again.”

Richards has one more year at ONU, likely full of unprecedented expectations and attention. Lots of time to soak it in.

Relaxing at Lake Erie, Richards will try to get to that point. Right now she says that “it’s still kind of floating around, it’s still in the clouds.” She still can’t believe it, what happened last weekend.

In his office, reflecting on Sacramento, Maus can’t either. Had this really just happened?

“I mean, Ohio Northern was on NBC Sunday afternoon,” Maus mused. “How sweet is that?”

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