Sprinter Marybeth Sant and CSU assistant coach Ryan Baily. Photo by Matthew Begeman.
Injuries derailed Marybeth Sant’s career, but she’s back and breaking records at CSU
Written by Tony Phifer
Published Feb. 18, 2019
As the final moments prior to the women’s 60-meter run at the Feb. 9 Millrose Games in New York City were counting down, Marybeth Sant had to smile.
The graduate student from Colorado State University had long dreamed of competing at Millrose, the most storied indoor track meet in the country – perhaps the world. Only the very best are invited to compete at Millrose, and here was Sant, the only collegiate runner in a field stacked with some of the best professional sprinters anywhere.
Seconds later, as the runners hit the 40-meter mark, Sant was on the doorstep of something incredible – she led! But two seconds and 20 meters later, she was mad – at herself.
“I got off to a really good start and I was feeling great, but once English (Gardner) came up alongside me I tensed up and didn’t focus on what I know to do,” Sant said. “You can see it in the video of the race – it’s so obvious! I wanted to win so bad that I tensed up, and that cost me a chance to win.”
Gardner, a 2016 Olympian and two-time NCAA sprint champion, beat the seven-runner field in 7.10 seconds – the fastest time in the world this year. Sant faded to finish fifth in 7.23 seconds – a respectable time just .05 off her lifetime best.
Sant and Baily have formed an unlikely but successful partnership. Photo by William A. Cotton, CSU Photography.
Sant’s disappointment didn’t last long, though, for a very simple reason.
“I definitely walked away from that race feeling like I belonged, that I could compete with the best in the world,” she said, smiling.
That’s quite a statement from a runner who, just two years ago, believed her once-promising career was over. Ravaged by leg injuries and disappointment during her first two-plus seasons at the University of Oregon, she became so frustrated that she walked away from the sport that had defined her since she first discovered her gift of speed at age 10.
But the invitation to Millrose was part of an amazing rebirth for Sant, who has rediscovered her gift while celebrating the simple joy of competition. She has exploded onto the national scene this winter, twice breaking the 60-meter school record held by Janay DeLoach.
Yes, that’s 2012 Olympic long jump bronze medalist Janay DeLoach, one of CSU’s greatest athletes.
For several weeks Sant not only had the fastest time among collegiate runners, she was No. 2 in the world.
“I’ve witnessed a lot of comebacks by athletes in our program,” CSU track coach Brian Bedard said. “I’m not sure I’ve seen a better one.”
Legendary Colorado sprinter
Colorado is not known as a state that produces great sprinters, and it’s safe to say there’s never been one quite like Sant. Her career at Valor Christian High School, a Class 5A private school in Highlands Ranch, was all but unprecedented. As a sophomore she was second in both the 100 and 200 meters at the state meet; as a junior and a senior, she won both titles. Her winning time in the 100 as a senior in 2013 – 11.25 seconds – broke the state record.
After earning prep All-America honors, she was one of the best sprinting prospects in the country. Top track schools – Florida State, TCU, Arizona State, Central Florida, and CSU among them – wanted her, but she eventually chose Oregon, the most storied track program in the country.
“Oregon had it all, and I wanted to be part of the program,” she said. “It was a pretty easy choice.”
Things were going well for her as a freshman – she placed fifth at the Pac-12 Championships in the 100 and helped the Ducks finish second in the 4×100 relay – but her season ended when nagging pain was diagnosed as a stress fracture in her right foot.
As a sophomore in 2015, Sant helped the Ducks earn a berth in the NCAA Championships in the 4×100 relay (the team was disqualified due to a botched baton exchange). But once again, she was diagnosed with a stress fracture – this time in her left shin – and doctors recommended a long break from training and competition.
“My third year, I went to school and took a lot of vitamins,” she said. “It was very hard because I was a long way from home. I was around my teammates, but it’s hard to be around the sport when you can’t participate. I went to Oregon to compete, not sit out.”
Sant dominated the sprints at Colorado’s Class 5A state track meet for Valor Christian. Photo courtesy Marybeth Sant.
Reaching a crossroads
She made one final attempt to come back but was again felled by leg pain. Coaches at Oregon decided to put her on what’s known as a “medical” – an injured athlete remains on scholarship and can get treatment for injuries but is done competing.
“I finally decided to come home before the last quarter of my senior year,” Sant said. “I needed time to recover both physically and mentally, and I needed to be home. I had lost myself.”
But not her desire to run.
“That summer I talked to my parents and decided I wasn’t done,” Sant said. “There was a competitive fire in my heart and I wanted to race again.”
Sant called Karim Abdel Wahab, the sprints coach at CSU who had recruited her when she was at Valor Christian. Both of her sisters – Kristen and Emily – had graduated from CSU, and Wahab was ready to welcome Sant with open arms.
Bedard wasn’t quite as enthusiastic. Sant hadn’t raced in more than two years, and there was no way to know if she could still compete at the Division I level. Besides, getting her eligible for the 2017-18 season would require a sometimes-challenging appeal to the NCAA.
To ease his mind, in the summer of 2017 Bedard arranged a test – a timed 100 meters. He told Sant that if she broke 12 seconds she was in.
She ran 12.4.
“I was ready to move on,” Bedard said.
Sant was part of Oregon’s 4×100 relay team that qualified for the NCAA Championships during her sophomore season. Photo courtesy University of Oregon.
Finding a new course
But Wahab was relentless. He convinced his boss that Sant would come around once she was in the program.
“Karim was incredible,” said fellow assistant coach Ryan Baily. “He refused to give up on Marybeth.”
Sant traded the green and gold of Oregon for the green and gold of CSU and competed both indoors and outdoors. She had a respectable year – finishing sixth in the 60 meters and 10th in the 200 indoors, and 10th in the 100. She also helped CSU’s 4×100 relay team finish third in the Mountain West.
“It was OK,” Sant said of her first season as a Ram. “Definitely not up to my standards.”
Sant could have walked away at that point. She had earned her degree in liberal arts, and she could have launched a career in sports media or a new passion for psychology. But she wasn’t ready to quit just yet.
The NCAA gives all student-athletes five years to complete four years of eligibility. Sant was about to enter her sixth year, which meant another NCAA appeal. Being granted a sixth year to complete your eligibility is rare.
“In a lot of ways, Marybeth’s case was pretty straightforward because she had two years at Oregon that were out of her control when she was unable to compete,” said Megan Boone, CSU’s director of compliance. “Now, it doesn’t happen often that an athlete needs two NCAA waivers, but with Marybeth’s help we put together a very good case.”
Still, Bedard once again needed to be convinced. By her own admission, Sant’s first year as a Ram had been pretty lackluster, and Bedard wanted to make sure she was fully committed before renewing her scholarship.
Sant started winning races at an early age while competing for the Colorado Flyers. Photo courtesy Marybeth Sant.
“We had a heart-to-heart, and she looked me in the eye and told me she was all-in,” Bedard said. “And that’s when we started to see a totally different version of Marybeth.”
For Sant, who couldn’t catch a break for four years at Oregon, things suddenly started going her way.
First, she started dating CSU decathlete Hunter Price, whose promising run at an All-America finish ended last spring in a horrific pole vaulting mishap. Price had decided to pursue a professional track career and knew he would have to be completely dedicated to the task. Sant started doing some of the same workouts, and she started to thrive.
“We complement each other with our knowledge, and we’re both driven to succeed,” she said. “He’s been really good for me.”
Next, she changed her entire approach. She changed her diet, started getting more sleep and changed her strength workouts. The transformation was profound: Sant dropped 15 pounds and rediscovered the speed that she hadn’t seen since high school. And her strength was off the charts – she recently squatted 350 pounds, an eye-popping total for someone 5-foot-1 and 98 pounds.
“I really believe she might be the strongest pound-for-pound power athlete in the world right now,” Baily said.
Finally, Wahab’s reputation as an outstanding sprints coach landed him a job at South Carolina. At first, Sant was devastated – especially when she found out that Baily, who coaches CSU’s decathletes and heptathletes, not sprinters, would be her coach. But she and Baily have meshed better than anyone could have imagined.
“Just like Coach Karim, Coach Baily welcomed me with open arms,” she said. “Honestly, I’ve been blessed with perfect coaches for me at CSU.”
Practices leading up to the current indoor season were going so well it was almost expected that Sant would do something special when the Rams traveled to Golden for an early December meet at the Colorado School of Mines. Sant made headlines when she ran the 60 meters in 7.26 seconds, breaking DeLoach’s 13-year-old school record of 7.31.
Sant started her remarkable season by breaking Janay DeLoach’s 60-meter record in the first meet at the Colorado School of Mines. Photo courtesy Colorado School of Mines.
“I was grinning from ear to ear, but not just about the record,” Sant said. “It was just about knowing that I finally was in position to reach my potential, to tap into what I’m capable of. I just knew that race was the start of a very fun season.”
The fun continued in early January when she lowered her own 60-meter record to 7.18 seconds at a meet hosted by the University of Colorado. One week later she broke Leah Fair’s 2016 record in the 200, winning in 23.45 seconds.
The fire is back
She’s now eying conference titles in the 60 and the 200 at the Mountain West Indoor Championships, which begin Feb. 21 in Albuquerque. After that, it’s the NCAA meet in Birmingham, Ala., where she’ll have a chance to become CSU’s first female indoor All-American in the sprints.
Sant likes her chances, but she’s also cautious. She’s never been stronger, or more fit, but the memories of being broken and contemplating the end of her career are fresh.
“I went through some traumatic experiences at Oregon, but I learned who I am, what I value and what I see in myself,” she said. “I was put on this earth to do this – I truly believe that. And now the fire is back. I had it when I was young, and I had it in high school, but I’ve never had it as bad as I have it now. And I’ve never been more excited about the future.”