When elite distance runner Sara Slattery clocked an Olympic qualifying time of 1:14:22 at the San Diego Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon in June 2014 -- two full years before the U.S. Olympic marathon trials -- she figured she had plenty of time to have a baby and get back in shape for Rio. A month later, she got pregnant with her second child, daughter Cali. (Her son, Stevie, was born in 2013.)
But a year later, she received some unfortunate news. Her qualifying time had been thrown out because the point-to-point course had not been certified (the start and finish were too far apart). Suddenly her third -- and likely final -- attempt to punch her Olympic ticket was in serious jeopardy. So she set up a new plan: Run another OQT (Olympic qualifying time) at the 2016 Jacksonville Half Marathon on Jan. 3.
"I was nervous, but I had to start getting in shape for Rio anyway," said the former four-time NCAA champion who lives in Phoenix, where she is the head men's and women's cross country coach at Grand Canyon University. With the Jacksonville race taking place just two weeks before the Jan. 17 cut-off to qualify for the marathon trials, the pressure was on.
"It was my first race back [since having Cali] and I had forgotten what it felt like to race. I had fallen off the pace a bit and didn't realize it until there was only 800 meters to go. So I missed the qualification time by seven seconds," said Slattery, who ran 13.1 miles in 1:15:07. "I was really, really upset that I had missed it by that short of a margin. It was a big goal after having my kids to get back to top-level fitness again."
Narrowly missing the mark is unfortunately a familiar feeling for Slattery, who in 2008, at the Olympic trials for Beijing, finished fourth in the 5K. Only the top three made the team.
Four years later, an injury right before the 2012 Olympic trials kept her from competing, forcing her to bow out of the bid for London. That's when she and her husband, Steve, opted to start a family. In March 2013, they welcomed firstborn Stevie, and soon after, the new mom began training again.
So even after failing to make the time in Jacksonville in 2016, Slattery was still determined to make that comeback count. "I was in really good shape and I didn't want to waste the fitness. I decided to return to the track and see what I could do. In April, my students were racing at the Mount SAC Relays in Norwalk, California, and I jumped in last-minute. I ran the 5K in 15:49, which was pretty good," she said.
Two weeks later, she signed up for the Payton Jordan Invitational in Palo Alto, California, and ran the 10K in 32:13 -- achieving the IAAF Olympic "A" qualifying standard with 12 seconds to spare.
"I was just shy of my all-time PR [31:57] when I was at my fittest in 2006," she said. "I'm juggling a lot right now and sometimes I wonder if I should be doing this. It gave me a lot of confidence to come so close to my PR 10 years later. The hard work is paying off. It's good to know that I still have it in me."
Slattery has been training up to 25 hours (about 75 to 90 miles) a week and coaches at the university approximately 30 hours a week, so life has become much more of a juggling act than it was in the past. And if she succeeds at claiming an Olympic berth in the 10K at the track and field Olympic team trials on July 2, she may have to bring her whole brood with her to Rio. "My family has sacrificed a lot for me to continue training. I would love to be able to show my kids, my family and also the runners on my team not to give up on your goals. My goal is to know that I did everything I could to put myself in the best position," she said.
And if that is still not enough, Slattery has made peace with it. Nothing will be as devastating as missing out by one place in the 2008 trials.
"I feel a lot more calm going into it. I was almost scared to run in 2008 because I didn't want to fail. Now I'm more excited to see what I can do."