As Sarah Jonathan’s peers in the Class of 2016 were receiving their diplomas last May—a finish line of sorts—she was toeing a different starting line. At the MIAC conference outdoor track and field championships, Jonathan was hoping to race her most memorable steeplechase—an arduous 3,000-meter run with 35 hurdles and water jumps—in the midst of a remarkable track season.

And that’s exactly what transpired—although she didn’t realize it immediately. The geology major from Guilford, Conn., had set a goal to run the event in under 11 minutes, and knew that shaving six seconds off her personal best time should qualify her for the Division III national championships.

With no clock running in the stadium, though, she didn’t know her final time until she saw head coach Betsy Emerson afterward, who told her she had produced her fastest time ever by 14 seconds. That breakthrough performance set a new college record and qualified Jonathan for nationals. (Later that month at nationals she took 10th in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, barely missing all-American status.)

It was an incredible trajectory for an athlete who came to Macalester focused on cross-country rather than track. But Coach Emerson saw almost immediately that Jonathan’s strengths— including her fine motor coordination from years of Irish step dancing—could translate into a particular talent in the steeplechase. Unsurprisingly, the event is not for everyone. “It’s hard enough to race 3,000 meters, but mixing in the barriers makes it really grueling,” Emerson says. “It takes a lot of resilience and toughness. Sarah was just made for it.”

Jonathan had to rely on that resilience and toughness off the track as well. Both of her parents died while she was attending college: her mother halfway through her freshman year and her father during her junior year, while she was doing research in Chile’s Patagonia region.

She learned of her father’s death via satellite phone while deep within Patagonia Park, and immediately began her trip back to the U.S. with a 10-hour drive to the nearest airport. She’ll never forget, she says, how many people helped her get home for her father’s funeral.

Support from her coaches, teammates, and professors following both deaths helped a lot, she says, with her teammates especially helping smooth her transition back to campus.

And her sport provided Jonathan with a much-needed physical outlet. “I love having time to run every day,” she says. “Sometimes it’s the one thing in your day that you can control. When you’re upset, there’s nothing better than a hard workout.”

November 1 2016

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