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Entering Marathon Trials, Olympic bronze medalist Molly Seidel still thinks her 10-year-old self knows best

2024 Paris Olympics: Hometown Hopefuls
Follow 52 Olympic hopefuls as they work to achieve their dreams in the 2024 Paris Olympics in NBC's Hometown Hopefuls series.

Editor’s note: This piece contains discussion of disordered eating, and may be upsetting to some readers.

Feb. 1 update: Molly Seidel announced she will miss the Olympic Trials due to a knee injury. More here.

The last time Molly Seidel stepped on the start line at the U.S. Olympic Trials, she had never run a marathon.

It’s fair to characterize Seidel’s team-making run in Atlanta in her debut at the distance a shock, a stunner, an upset. But the 29-year-old’s long-term goals for herself had always included qualifying for the Olympics and winning a medal. She was, however, prepared for delayed gratification, knowing full well that it often takes elite runners years and multiple attempts to make an Olympic team. Some of the best in the world never make the team at all.

When Seidel reflects on the 2020 Trials now, she credits her strength of mind more than her physical shape.

“I feel like I might not be the fastest runner,” Seidel explains to NBC Sports. “I might not be the strongest runner out there, but I have a pretty strong mental game when it comes to the race. When the opportunity presents itself, it’s like, ‘I might not get another shot at this so take it while you have it.’”

That mental game propelled her into history. She made the U.S. team and went on to win bronze in Tokyo, becoming just the third American woman ever to win an Olympic medal in the marathon.

Now, Seidel is gearing up to race the 2024 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials on February 3 in Orlando, Florida. While there’s some qualifying quagmires that could come into play, likely the top three women to cross the finish line will be some of the first U.S. athletes named to the Olympic team for Paris. The race will be streamed live on Peacock, and air again later that day on NBC, and the NBC Sports app.

Seidel will be the first to tell you that life has been far from a straight line since her last Trials. But one crucial thing remains the same about the once inexperienced marathoner who stunned in Atlanta and the now proven star of the sport: She is a racer.

“My favorite part about marathons is being able to race the people on the ground,” Seidel says. “I honestly don’t ever care about time. I’m one of those people that I love to read the people around me and base my strategy off that. I’m not one of those people that visualizes my race beforehand because I don’t really see a point. It’s so based off the conditions on the day, the moves that other people are making. You have to really respond in that moment.”

While Seidel admits that she often gets songs stuck in her head while training (Britney Spears’ “Toxic” has been a recent favorite), race day is a different story.

“I think that’s something that I do well is when I’m firing on all cylinders, I am thinking about the race for 26.2 miles,” Seidel says. “I’m not trying to distract myself. I think that’s a little bit of what marathoning is about. You need to be able to concentrate on what you’re there to do. And yeah, it’s hard, but that’s how you get it done.”

Seidel’s takeaways from the Tokyo Olympics

Seidel knows that a lack of expectations is part of what made the Tokyo Olympics so special.

“I think nothing will ever compare to that -- going into something and just letting it be the experience that I kind of always dreamed of,” Seidel says. “I’m so grateful for that.”

Seidel says she will always carry the special memories of Tokyo, specifically her best friend and coach Jon Green going “almost nonverbal” with about four miles to go, along with the many lessons learned since her first Olympic Games.

One of the biggest differences for Seidel in preparing for the 2020 Trials vs. 2024 Trials is her sustainable approach.

“I think so much in the way that I’ve trained in the past is almost this burn-it-down approach of ‘I’m going (to) push as hard as I can and pull out all the stops in order to get this,’” Seidel says. “But that’s a very tough way to train because it leads to a lot of injuries. Being able to respect my body, being able to respect my mind, respecting the toll that all of this takes on me and being able to know when to push and when to pull back, I think is probably the biggest thing that I’ve had to learn.”

Respecting her mind has taken on a whole new meaning for Seidel since the Tokyo Olympics.

Seidel has been open about her mental health and eating disorders throughout her life and in her professional career. Her OCD tendencies, present since her childhood in Nashotah, Washington, weren’t officially diagnosed as such until her freshman year of college at Notre Dame. College was also where she struggled with disordered eating, a recovery process she continues with today. Seidel was also diagnosed with ADHD in February of 2022. As complex and personal a journey as it has been, Seidel has not shied away from sharing. A Runner’s World feature, published in late 2023, shines a light on the candor Seidel has continually demonstrated in talking about herself and her career.

With that trademark candor, Seidel discusses the challenges she faced coming off the highs of a bronze medal in Tokyo.

“I think a lot of people have experienced the depression,” Seidel says. “And coming to terms with that post-Olympic -- I don’t even like the term post-Olympic slump -- because I feel like it minimizes just how difficult it can truly be. We need to call it what it is, which is real depression that a lot of people experience.”

For Seidel, that meant a relapse of her eating disorder, which led to her entering eating disorder treatment in 2022 for the second time in her life, after an initial stay in 2016.

“It’s been one of those things where I had to take a really, really large step back,” Seidel says. “And reevaluate a lot of things and approach things in a very different way in order to move forward because I was running up against this brick wall that I could not get past. And if I didn’t take that very, very specific, very hard step backwards, there was never going to be any growth from there.”

This phase of the journey, Seidel says, has been one of the hardest things she has ever done, changing the way she thinks about her own body and sense of self.

After two “transformative” years, Seidel says that she feels like a different person.

“I think I always have thought of myself as ‘Yeah, you’re going to have an eating disorder the rest of your life. You’re always going to struggle with your mental health, you’re always going to have this,’” Seidel explains. “And I’ve worked really, really freaking hard over the last two years, and I’ve gotten to a place where I feel really good about myself, about how my brain is working and about how I relate to this sport.”

Amidst injuries and the continued work on her mental health, Seidel went from November 2021 to October 2023 without finishing a major marathon. The 2023 Chicago Marathon was therefore significant not just from a racing perspective, but a mental one.

“It is a little bit scary to approach the sport that I do in a completely different way,” Seidel says. “Stepping to that line and being like, ‘Man, I feel like I’m really in a good place mentally. I’m in a good place physically.’ But you never know until you lay down the cards what it’s going to look like.”

Spoiler: Seidel ran a personal best of 2:23:07 for eighth place overall in Chicago, the second American to finish. The time made her the third-fastest American female marathoner in 2023 and secured her the Olympic qualifying standard for Tokyo.

“Being able to come away with a personal best after almost two years away from the sport, that was that vote of confidence of, it’s been a rocky road but I’m doing the right things.”

Seidel is thinking of the 2024 Trials as a continuation of her successful Chicago build.

As part of that build, she returned to her Wisconsin roots, joining other runners in the state for what she calls a “glorified progression run” at the Pettit National Ice Center, an indoor ice-skating facility in Milwaukee.

“We’re trying to just get a lot of volume of work, but also leave space for joy and fun in the training,” Seidel explains.

This balance between working hard and having fun has helped Seidel find her identity in running.

“I’ve really struggled with owning who I am in this sport,” Seidel says. “I’ve sometimes felt shame about, people see me as this or treat me as this. Even after the Olympics there were all the headlines of ‘Drink a beer for me!’ and ‘She is the fun beer girl!’ I see myself coming to the line of these Trials with a professionalism and maturity while still having that fun and joy and love of this sport.”

Preparation for the 2024 Olympic Trials

As women’s distance running continues to reach new heights (and depth) in the U.S., a race like the Olympic Trials comes stacked with so many contenders that it’s almost impossible to predict. But Seidel is expected be in the mix.

The marathon will start and finish in the heart of downtown Orlando, near Lake Eola Park. Athletes will run one 2.2-mile loop and then shift to three 8-mile loops. The course is expected to be lightning fast, and eyes will be on the weather forecast on a potentially hot, humid, or rainy day in Florida.

“I think the U.S. has incredible depth and incredible speed right now when it comes to its female marathoners, so I’ll admit that’s going to be one of the big challenges for me because I’m not the fastest woman out there,” Seidel says. “There are a lot of women with faster PR’s than me, so I’m going to need to really work to my strengths on this course and challenge myself.”

Amongst these elite athletes, there’s also a unique bond. “In that race, it is going to be an all-out prison fight, no rules go-for-it, but at the end of the race, we’re going to be hugging,” Seidel says.

“Even if your own heart is broken, you know that you can feel happy for the women who have done it because they’re all genuinely great women. They’re women that I’ve trained with in Flagstaff or raced against and they’re moms and girlfriends and all these things. I feel very blessed that I get to be a part of this renaissance of American women’s distance running, where you have so many talented women who are all just genuinely awesome people too.”

Friendships aside, Seidel is dreaming of Paris. She has been “salivating” over the Olympic course since it was released.

“I’ll be honest, one of my goals behind why I want to make the Paris team is I really want my family to be there,” Seidel says. “That’s a really meaningful thing to me, and I didn’t get that last time.”

Making the Paris team would only further help Seidel reach the goal she has dreamed of since she was a kid. After Seidel won bronze in Tokyo, an image surfaced of her at 10 years old holding a sign that read “I wish I will make it into the Olympics and win a gold medal.”

Now at 29 years old and with one medal under her belt, Seidel still think it’s her 10-year-old self that knows best.

“I feel like it’s always, ‘What would you tell your 10-year-old self?’” Seidel said. “And I feel like I almost need my 10-year-old self to tell me that even on the really hard days, even when it sucks, this has always been your dream. Always be grateful that at the end of the day you’re doing what you always dreamed of and no matter what the struggles are, no matter how Trials go, I feel like the person now that 10-year-old Molly always hoped she would be.”