Sara Vaughn's unexpected path to the track and field world championships
In June at the U.S. track and field championships, with 400 meters to go in the women's 1,500-meter final, Sara Vaughn was in ninth place.
Had she stayed there through the finish line, it would have been another solid showing for Vaughn, whose previous best nationals result was a seventh-place finish at last year's Olympic trials. But Vaughn aspired to something better than solid. And on that sweltering afternoon in Sacramento, the 31-year-old unleashed a 61-second final lap that moved her past six runners and earned her her first-ever world championships berth.
It was a career-defining performance. But what made it even more notable was Vaughn herself. Unlike the vast majority of her competitors, Vaughn doesn't focus exclusively on her training. Instead, she fits miles and strength sessions around her full-time job as a real estate agent and her all-hours job as a mother to three daughters.
Vaughn's spot at the 2017 IAAF World Track and Field Championships this week represents the culmination of a decade of hard work -- during which she and her husband Brent have balanced work, dual professional running careers, three pregnancies, and the raising of their children, Ciara, 10, Calia, 7, and Cassidy, almost 2.
Vaughn's typical routine involves twice-a-day training sessions, working with clients as a realtor (she usually dresses professionally, but if the clients are fellow runners, everyone goes to house showings in sneakers), and juggling school drop-offs and pickups with babysitter arrivals and departures.
It's not a schedule for the unmotivated. But even now, it's nothing compared to what Vaughn endured as a junior at the University of Colorado when she gave birth to Ciara, known as Kiki, on a Friday and was back in class the following Tuesday.
"I will never be that busy or that stressed or that sleep-deprived in my life again," says Vaughn of the early days with Kiki. "It makes everything else seem pretty easy in comparison."
Kiki was born in September 2006, and Sara and Brent, who were teammates, mastered the art of the on-campus baby handoff during the academic year.
"Brent and I were really good partners in that time of our lives, and we just kind of did what we had to do and saw the light at the end of the tunnel," Vaughn recalls. "There were very few university support systems in place then, and most of my professors and TAs didn't have kids and didn't know what to do. So I just showed up to class wearing the baby in a carrier."
Vaughn returned to competition six months after Kiki was born, and after solid outdoor campaigns in 2007 and 2008, she graduated with a degree in psychology. She and Brent continued to train in Boulder, and in 2008 Vaughn ran 4:10 in the 1,500, significantly faster than she had ever run in college. Their second daughter, Calia, was born in 2010, and they moved to Beaverton, Oregon, the following year so Brent could be coached by Jerry Schumacher as part of Nike's Oregon Track Club. Both Sara and Brent competed at the 2012 Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon, but by 2013, after Brent's running career stalled, they were back in Boulder. Sara took online courses to get her real estate license so she could contribute to the family income while continuing to race.
Vaughn became pregnant with Cassidy two years later -- and this pregnancy proved the toughest to come back from. Pelvic instability forced her to stop running halfway through the pregnancy. "I could hardly put my pants on while standing on one leg, so running was out of the question," she recalls. When she started running again after giving birth, she found her fitness was slow to return.
Cassidy was only 6 weeks old when Vaughn began bringing her to the daycare at her gym, and it wasn't unusual for Vaughn to be paged while on the treadmill so she could attend to her newborn. "There were a lot of nursing breaks halfway through a workout during those first couple of months," she says.
By the spring of 2016, under the tutelage of then-coach Lee Troop, Vaughn's stride and confidence were returning. She weaned Cassidy two weeks before the Olympic trials, and then headed to Eugene, where she placed seventh in the 1,500-meter final. It was a respectable result, especially considering her third child was less than a year old, but Vaughn finished more than 4 seconds behind the third-place finisher (the top three finishers make the Olympic team).
Vaughn had realized earlier in the year that she would soon need to strike out on her own, running-wise. Her pro running group liked to meet at the track early in the morning -- before Kiki and Calia would leave for school -- and it was impossible for Vaughn to make those workouts. So Vaughn asked Brent, who had never coached before, to write her training schedule and oversee her track sessions. He hesitated.
"He really didn't want to upset the balance that we've had going on," Vaughn says of Brent's initial resistance. "We're pretty egalitarian in parenting and household duties, so to have him all of a sudden start telling me what to do -- he was nervous about that."
When Brent reluctantly assumed coaching duties in February, he made two changes to Sara's regimen that paid immediate dividends. First, he implemented a 9-to-10-day training cycle (as opposed to the traditional weekly cycle), which allowed Vaughn more rest days and more flexibility to switch around workouts in case, for example, she's up in the night with a sick kid. Second, the workouts focused more on specific race-pace work -- intervals of anywhere from 200 to 600 meters done at 64 seconds per lap (a 4:17 mile pace).
"You can develop muscle memory, and it's like second nature," says Vaughn. "I just think 'race pace' and all of a sudden I'm clicking off 64s because I've done it so much in the last four months."
Vaughn says Brent is hard on her during workouts, employing a tough-love, get-it-done style. But after the training session ends, so does the coach-athlete dynamic.
"We just decided that at the track, this is the role that we play, and as soon as the cooldown's over, it's a very cognitive, very intentional shift back to husband and wife."
It seemed to be working out. Two weeks before nationals, Vaughn set a personal record for 1,500 meters, running 4:06.64 at the Music City Distance Carnival in Nashville.
In late June, Vaughn traveled to nationals, where she needed a top-three finish to qualify for a spot on the world championship team. She successfully navigated the first round and the semifinals to advance to the final.
On the backstretch of the last lap of the final, she surged from ninth place to fifth. Then on the final straightaway, with 30 meters remaining, she sprinted past Alexa Efraimson and Lauren Johnson to eke into third place. Vaughn's finishing time of 4:07.85 put her less than three-tenths of a second ahead of Johnson, and onto the first outdoor world team of her 10-year professional career.
"When I came up on the back of Efraimson, I felt really strong, and knew I could pass her," Vaughn says of the race's final straightaway. "Then when it came to chasing down Lauren, I felt like I had extra gears, but I almost ran out of space. It definitely came down to the line."
There wasn't much to be said, just, 'We did it, we did it!'Sara Vaughn, on the moment she shared with her husband, Brent, after making the world team
Vaughn had been counting runners in front of her, so she was fairly certain she'd snagged third, but it wasn't until someone handed her an American flag that she knew for sure she'd qualified for worlds. She staggered around the finish area in joy and disbelief, mouth agape, hands on her head -- a reaction that resonated with athletes around the sport.
"In tears over @MomVaughn performance. That was insanely amazing. So much love for the Vaughn family," tweeted Shalane Flanagan, an Olympic silver medalist.
"@MomVaughn my hero! No big deal, I'm just a puddle over here..." wrote Gabriele Grunewald, a close friend of Vaughn's and an elite runner who competed in the first round of the 1,500 at this year's nationals despite the fact she's in treatment for adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare cancer.
Kevin Hanson, the coach of two-time Olympic marathoner Desiree Linden, tweeted: "The fact that there is universal love for @MomVaughn speaks volumes to her character. The entire T&F community shared her excitement today."
Brent caught up with Vaughn on her victory lap, and the two shared an emotional (and mostly wordless) embrace.
"There wasn't much to be said, just, 'We did it, we did it,'" Vaughn remembers. "He's been telling me for a long time this was a possibility, and it took a leap of faith to believe him and totally buy in, so seeing him was probably the most special moment of the whole thing."
During the national TV interview that followed her race in Sacramento, Vaughn gave her girls, who were watching from their grandparents' house in Nebraska, a shoutout, telling them through tears, "I'm taking you to London!" She has stayed true to her word, enlisting both grandmothers to make the transatlantic trek with the family, and hastily procuring a passport for Cassidy.
Vaughn's goal for this week is to make the final: "I might have to set a PR in the semifinals to do that, or it could be a really slow sit-and-kick race where I have to close in a 28-second last 200, but we've been preparing for all scenarios."
Regardless of how she performs, Vaughn is making the most of her world championship berth, with planned post-meet travels to Paris and Barcelona.
But for the three girls, the highlight of their European adventure may well come at London's Olympic Stadium on Friday evening, when their mother is introduced at the start of the women's 1,500-meter heats. Kiki, Calia and Cassidy will be present to witness the moment when the woman known in American track circles as the mother-realtor-runner is identified in a new way: "Representing the United States, Sara Vaughn."