By BOB ETTINGER
For the Star Beacon
Mount Union sprinter Mary Mahoney wasted little time in recalling the last time she had felt the way she had prior to the NCAA Division III Indoor Track and Field Championships.
“I guess it was high school,” Mahoney, a 2009 SS. John and Paul graduate, said. “I felt a lot of pressure, even at the county level. A lot of people looked to me to see what I did. I always felt people were looking to beat me, that’s the objective in track and field — to beat everyone. There was a target on my back.”
Mahoney, the daughter of John and Karen Mahoney, gave her competitors a good view of that target in winning the national title in the 400-meter dash at North Central College in Napierville, Ill. in a record time of 55.21.
“It was pretty amazing,” she said. “I didn’t know right when I crossed the finish line (I had set the record). I just knew that I won.
“I reached the highest level I could. I ran the fastest time for an individual ever at the national championships. I was stunned.”
After finishing second in the 400 a year ago at the national championships, Mahoney entered the event this time around as the woman they had to beat.
“I think everything started to build from indoor season last year,” Mahoney said. “I had the mentality that the girl who beat me was graduating. I wanted to train as hard as I could. I put in a lot of work in the summer and did a lot of weight training.
“There was definitely a target on my back. People knew I was second last year and I was coming in with the top time. There was pressure internally. I felt like people were looking at me. They knew I was the one to beat, in a way.
“That hasn’t happened to me a in long time.”
And if anybody would remember, it would be Mahoney, considering she knows what it was like to first run the 400 as a freshman at SJP eight years ago.
“When I first started in track, my first meet, I ran the 100 and 200,” Mahoney said. “My high school coach, Mrs. (Heather) Halford, ask me to try the 400. I had no idea what it was or what it entailed. I was like, ‘Wow! One whole lap around the track?’
“I felt it was something I wanted to do. Even though it hurt, I enjoyed it in a way. Other people didn’t want to do it, but I said I would.”
There was a reason Mahoney stuck with it and has flourished in the event.
“After I ran that first 400, it was something I could try and conquer,” Mahoney said. “It’s one of those events people don’t like, but I ran with it. (Winning the national title in record time) was what I had always been striving to do. Until now, I guess.”
Mahoney understands there’s something fundamentally different about her than most other runners.
“Oh yeah, I definitely think anybody who can run the 400 or 800, has to have something be a little off about them to run that long as fast as you can.
“There’s no strategy involved. It’s all guts. You run as fast as you can as far as you can. (The 400) is the longest event that you do that.”
That last sentiment — that she runs without a strategy — has been a point of contention between Mahoney and her coaches. She, however, has remained true to the way she’s always approached the event.
“My coaches joke that I run as fast a 200 as I can then settle in. I go fast as I can as long as I can, in a way.
“I think, at first, they did (have a problem with my approach). They asked me why I went out and ran a 25 flat in the first 200. I think they realized that was just my running style. I get to the front of the pack as fast as I can and then they’re like, ‘She’ll just have to try and hang on.’ I think they’re used it to it now.”
In her indoor and outdoor careers, Mahoney has earned All-American honors eight times. She has been a national champ twice, having claimed the 200-meter title at the outdoor championships last spring.
Mahoney enters her final outdoor season with little or nothing left to prove, but that won’t stop her from trying to climb the mountain yet again.
“I always go into every season just hoping to get back to nationals,” she said. “It gets harder every year. The times gets faster every year and they only take the top 20. My first objective after the conference meet is to get back to the national meet. Then I hope to make the finals and then I’ll try and see if I can defend my national title in the 200.
“I’ll see if can get in the 400 again, too. That would be awesome.”
If she were to capture outdoor championships in both the 200 and 400, Mahoney would accomplish what even some of the most elite runners have trouble doing.
“That would be a huge feat to do that,” she said. “A lot of people try to do the 200-400 double, but I don’t know the last time someone actually did it. I know a girl last year won the 400 and was trying to do it, but fortunately I didn’t.
“It would definitely be a huge feat for me. I’ve just got to rely on my training.”
And, if all else fails, coming from SJP, Mahoney knows she can scale the mountain simply because others from there have done the same thing.
“When I was going through high school (Ohio State football coach) Urban (Meyer) was winning national championships (at Florida),” Mahoney said. “There were tons of trophies from a woman who was trying to become an Olympic swimmer.
“Anything can happen as long as you set your mind to it.”
It won’t hurt to have a few good people in her corner, either.
“I don’t know how I would have ever gotten to this point without a huge support system,” Mahoney said. “My family and friends, the coaching staff, my teachers, they have all helped me not only be a good athlete, but also a good student. They take a lot of the stress off.
“I had no idea it was building up to this. People were talking about me possibly being an All-American. Then they thought I could win a national championship. I didn’t think that would happen to me. I’m very lucky.”
Ettinger is a freelance writer from Ashtabula.