The numbers don't lie.
In the spring of 2014, Emily Richards was an up-and-coming 400-meter runner for Delaware Hayes High School, moving up the MileSplit Ohio rankings to No. 23 in the Buckeye state with a series of late-season PRs and a best of 56.86 seconds.
Fast forward to late summer 2017, and Richards was back at Ohio Northern University to start preparations for her final cross country season with the Polar Bears. The chemistry major doubled the distance of her track and field specialty not long after landing on the Ada campus and became one of the top stories of 2017 and a rising star in the U.S. ... on the highest level.
With a newly minted PR of 2:00.62 that put her No. 10 in the U.S. in the 800 and the second-fastest collegian in 2017, Richards is running with confidence in an event that she was not sure was the best fit for her not long ago. After winning a pair of NCAA titles in the middle distance races both indoors and out this year, she wrapped up a whirlwind year by qualifying for the USATF 800 final and finishing eighth.
Richards took time out of her running and academic schedule - she is a five-time Division 3 national champion AND an Academic All-American as well - for a Q&A with MileSplit Ohio's Phil Grove. She made her XC season debut Saturday at the Cowbell Classic (Pre-Nationals) at Principia College in Elsah, Ill.
QUESTION: You were a 400-meter runner (at Delaware Hayes), no doubt about it. You ran lots of 100s and 400s, 56.86 No. 23 in Ohio in 2014. What were you hoping to do athletically in college? Was running track and XC important to you at that time?
ANSWER: I kind of caught on at being successful near the end of my career in high school. I didn't break 60 until my sophomore year, and I hadn't ran 57s until a couple of weeks before my track season ended senior year. I started knocking off a second every meet at the very end of my season, so I kind of figured there was more in the tank and I just wanted to see what more I could do in college. I thought the 400 was going to be my event, and I was wrong. I just felt that I experienced a lot of success late in my career in high school, and I thought that could translate really well into college and I wanted to see what else I could do.
Q: Why Ohio Northern?
A: I found out about Ohio Northern because my grandfather graduated from here with a degree in electrical engineering. And I was interested because this is where my grandfather went. I found the campus cool and I found out that it had a really good chemistry program, which is what I wanted to study and that is my major now and it also had a really good athletic record. That was something that was important to me, finding a place where I could have a good athletic experience as well as an academic experience. Ohio Northern seemed to fit that, and when I visited, it really felt like home.
Q: At the Division 3 level as a non-scholarship athlete, you are a student first and athlete second. How difficult has it been to balance the student with the athlete, which you have done extremely well?
A: I love to stay busy. I am a big planner. I think the busier I am, the more productive I am. When I don't really have a lot of things to do during the day, I'll just sit around and probably not get anything done. It's really nice for me to have a pretty rigorous academic schedule and then the athletics on top of that. It keeps me really busy, it keeps me organized. My days are very structured and I think that really helps me a lot in terms of being productive and succeeding in both academics and athletics. In terms of balance, I think I have done a pretty good job up until this point and I kind of learned the ropes and figured out how to succeed in both of those at the same time.
Q: Take us back to the conversation that your coach, Jason Maus, had with you when he broke the news that you were entered in the 800 indoors as a freshman.
A: That was a huge decision for me to make because it was a training decision. If I would have stuck with the 400, I probably wouldn't be running cross country. I would be training with the sprinters. My training would be completely different. Going with the 800 meant that I would be doing a lot more distance, I would be running cross country, I would be running year round and that was something that I wasn't necessarily used to. So this was a really big decision and I talked to a lot of people. I talked to my high school coaches, I talked to my parents, I talked with Coach Maus. He was just honest with me. He thought that if I kept doing the 400, I can still be successful. But if I moved up to the 800, he thought that I could be a lot more successful. Although I was pretty attached to the 400 and I had some success in high school, I did feel kind of like I had done all that I could. And I was always wanting a challenge so I decided to go with the 800 and it definitely has proven to be the right decision.
Q: When did this happen?
A: In between cross and indoor freshman year. I guess Coach Maus's thought process there was if I had the speed of a sprinter and the endurance of a cross country runner - I did both sports in high school - I would probably make a good 800 runner.
Q: You ran a 2:35 indoor 800 and the 4x800 relay in high school. How did that prepare you for the switch?
A: I don't remember a lot about the indoor 800 in high school. I do remember the idea wasn't to see what I could do in the 800. It was more of a training decision. It was early in the season. I was fortunate enough to have an indoor team in high school, so I could get in some longer races indoors. The 800 was mostly to help me train for my 400 in high school. I never really thought it would amount to being my main focus on the track. After I made the decision to start focusing on the 800, it was definitely strange crossing the finish line after 400 and knowing that I was only halfway done.
My first 800 in college was a 2:20. I think it disappointed a lot of people. I think a lot of people were thinking I was going to go under 2:20. I think it was a good starting point. It allowed me to know what I was capable of. That's a competitive mark in the Division 3 level at the conference meet, so I know I could be competitive if I kept working on it. Then I could get that time down a lot lower.
Q: Open 400 vs. open 800: Which race is more difficult?
A: They are definitely different. They are both difficult but for different reasons. The 400, although I specialized in it for so long, I still don't think I know how to run it. Strategically it can be hard to know exactly how hard you need to get out so that you still have enough to finish with. But the 800 is really hard because you are going basically most people's 400 all-out pace at the Division 3 level for two laps and that takes a lot of guts and that is really tough to do.
Q: I counted 35 open 800s - either prelims or finals - for you since you've been at Ohio Northern. How stunned or amazed are you at how you have progressed from that first 2:20 at your school's indoor facility to almost going sub-2:00 in Nashville this year?
A: There was definitely a transition last year. My freshman year, I expected to get down to about 2:10, that was kind of my goal. Obviously, I wanted to do better my sophomore year, but I wasn't expecting to improve as much as I did. Getting down to 2:05 was huge, and that was something I wasn't expecting. Even running 2:07 was a huge PR for me and something that I was a little taken aback by. Once I realized that I had broken that barrier, I knew that there was a lot more left. I knew that 2:00 was a little more realistic. You start realizing your capability, and you make those goals to keep improving and that's just what I have been doing. I'm going to keep working on it for this coming year as well.
Q: Is there one race where had to reset your goals because of either your time or how you felt during that race?
A: Nashville this summer was where I ran my PR of 2:00.62. My first lap was 60 seconds, which was way too slow, and then my second lap was also 60 seconds. When I finished that race, I looked at my coach and said, "Darn it." I was so upset because I knew that if I would have gotten out a lot harder, I could have gone under 2:00. It was just really cool to see that not only was I capable of running 2:00 but even-splitting that race means I can run a lot faster than that. It's just a matter of getting out hard enough and being in the race and running with the race competitors. That's definitely something that I will look to do this coming season.
Q: At Mt. SAC this year when you set the D3 record, you moved during the third 200 from fifth or sixth up into the lead. Is that your typical race strategy when you are in an event with someone of equal ability?
A: My favorite place to move is at the 300 to go mark. That's the place where I feel like I can get enough momentum by building up my stride on the straightaway and by the time I get to the curve, I've built up enough momentum to hammer home that last 200. A lot of people might wait to the last 200, but I think if you start building up at the 300, you are in a lot better position to win that race. That's always been my favorite move.
Q: You had a great California double last year, running 2:02 at Mt. SAC and the next day at Long Beach with a 4:21 1,500. Tell us about that double.
A: The 1,500 is something that we are probably going to try to focus on more this year, something that was kind of just an afterthought last year. I ran the 8-15 double at Raleigh as well. It was kind of a spur of the moment decision (in California). I ran the 800 (at Mt. SAC) and was really excited about how fast I ran and said, "Coach, I think I am going to try the 1,500 tomorrow. I basically made that decision the night before the race. It was an early morning race. I think I felt a little bit of the aftermath from my 800. Ideally I would have liked to have gone under 4:20 in that race. But it was really cool to see that I could not only run a fast 800 but also a 1,500. I think that was really great practice for the NCAA meet and also going through the rounds at (USATF), racing back to back is really great experience for accustoming your body to racing multiple days in a row.
* Part 2 of Phil Grove's interview with Emily Richards will be posted to MileSplit Ohio tomorrow.