by James Stitt

patriotsports@apgecm.com

Heading into the spring of 2020, Molly Reighard felt like it was her year. After a stellar high school career at Waconia that saw her win two state championships, Reighard’s transition to Division I college track and field was rough. But after switching to a new event and getting through fall training healthy for the first time in 2 years, Reighard had her eyes on a conference championship in the 400 meter hurdles.

“It was the first year that I got through fall training uninjured, and I had my first [personal record] since high school,” Reighard said. “I finally felt like I had a breakthrough.”

So when Reighard finally got her chance to do a big hurdle workout this past spring, the moment felt like a setup for triumph. Being the only 400 hurdler on the Loyola girls track and field team, Reighard’s first big run at the hurdles came after the rest of the team was done with practice. They all gathered around the track to cheer her on.

“I was smiling before the coach said go,” Reighard said. “I remember being pumped. This year was super exciting, I thought maybe I would win the conference.”

Everything was pointing to a moment that Reighard had been working towards for years, overcoming injuries to not only return to the track, but get back to racing past all other competitors, something that eluded her since leaving Waconia. Yet the moment was fleeting, replaced with the heartbreak that so many students and athletes experienced this past spring. As soon as she finished her run, she learned the season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I hadn’t even had caught my breath and I instantly broke out in tears,” Reighard said. “It felt very crushing. It was such a high moment, then to be swatted down.”

Making the moment difficult for Reighard was how hard she had worked to get back to a high level, her excitement for a promising season and a new coach that helped elevate her performance in a tough new event.

“Losing the outdoor season because of COVID-19 was pretty devastating for my girls,” said Amani Bryant, Loyola assistant track and field coach. “I think for Molly specifically, she was in a unique position because she finally had a healthy indoor season under her belt, had lots of hurdle training in, and was pretty successful in the 600. We were looking forward to seeing her hard work pay off because she had all of the pieces and just needed an opportunity to put it together. But she’ll have next season, she’ll be even more determined and she’ll be ready. Delayed, not denied.”

While the loss of the 2020 track and field season was devastating, her time in track and field has prepared Reighard to bounce back from moments like this.

“No matter what, I have never pushed myself harder mentally then in track,” Reighard said. “I learned to be mentally strong. Every race is definite - you know how much you stack up against every girl every time.”

From being thrown to the wolves to becoming a state champion

Reighard had no interest in joining the track and field team in middle school, but a chance encounter would lead to big things for Reighard and the Waconia track and field program. The gym teachers needed to combine two classes into one, so they played a game of big base, a kickball game with bigger bases and lots of runners on the basepaths.

“Oh boy, I still remember that day,” Waconia track and field coach Tom McDonald said. “What I saw was crazy. Molly was on a base next to one of my faster male athletes. Both of them took off running to the next base, and Molly pulled away from him like he was standing still. That caught my eye right away. I continued to watch her as she ran around the bases each time. Each time, she out-sprinted almost every boy that she was playing with. I had only seen one other girl do that before, and that girl, Miranda Schultz, was now a varsity track athlete and on her way to an amazing career. I knew that Molly could be something very special.”

McDonald tried to get Reighard to join the track and field team, but she initially rejected the offer.

“Why would I run for fun?” Reighard said.

But eventually she relented, and the same day she signed up for track as an eighth grader, she was on a bus to compete in a varsity event.

“The poor girl, I threw her to the wolves right away,” McDonald said. “And she answered the call. She had barely any training or technique. I told her not to worry about how she did or what her time was going to be, I just wanted her to run, and not think about anything. If I remember correctly, she didn’t have a uniform, didn’t use blocks, and I am pretty sure she didn’t even wear any track spikes that day. Still, she ran one of the fastest times that day. I knew she was ready when she came up to me all giddy and happy, talking about how much fun that was. I knew then that it was the right choice, pulling her up.”

That was the first in many moments on the track that taught Reighard how to be mentally tough.

“I remember being terrified, sitting alone on the bleachers, not knowing anyone,” Reighard said. “I look back and laugh - I was this scrawny little eighth grader who didn’t know much and I was out of breath.”

Reighard went on to finish the season by competing at the state tournament, qualifying with the Waconia 4x200 meter relay team. Just earning a spot on the relay was a remarkable accomplishment, but Reighard went from a terrified eighth grader to the leader of the back-to-back state champions.

“I would be doing a disservice to those 4x200 teams that Molly was a part of, if I didn’t tell you that we had an amazing, once in a generation group of kids,” McDonald said. “We didn’t have to rebuild, we just reloaded. Over those 5 years, girls like Miranda Schultz, Kaitlyn Shuler, Allie Marrs, and Maddie Voigt would step in, and we didn’t miss a beat. Molly, along with Danielle Pioske, was the heart of the 4x200, but the others were the soul of the relay team. Everyone of them became good friends, teammates, and they competed with everything they had.”

Waconia became a powerhouse in the girls sprinting and relay events thanks in part to those girls, and while Reighard would eventually be at the top of the podium with her fellow Wildcats, the start was shaky. In her first year, she dropped the baton on the handoff at state. Once again, it was not the struggle that would define her, but her insistence on overcoming it.

“As an eighth grader and not knowing the seriousness of the moment, most would have blown it off, and gone on to whatever was next,” McDonald said. “Not Molly, she was devastated. Devastated just as much, if not more, than my seniors on that team. After talking to her for quite some time, she told me that we would be back, and this wouldn’t happen again. And, it didn’t. She was determined not to let that happen again. There were going to be only great years to come.”

Reighard would go on to win back-to-back state championships in the 4x200 relay, while earning numerous medals in the 100, 200, 4x100, 4x200, 4x400 and the long jump. In his 19 years as a Waconia track and field coach, McDonald has seen a lot of great female athletes like Melanie Grangaard, Hallie Miller, Miranda Schultz, Stephanie Frompong-Longdon, Maddie Voigt and Danielle Pioske - all who have run or could have run, at the college level. Molly has beaten them all in either times or distances.

“Now, I can only speak from a track perspective, but I have to say that she is probably one of the best, if not the best, track athlete in Waconia history,” McDonald said. “She holds all of the sprint records at Waconia High School. The only other one that has done that before is my neighbor, Jamie Lubitz. Jamie’s not going to be happy with me, but Molly’s broken all of her records. (Sorry Jamie!).”

Struggles hinder collegiate career

Reighard’s historic career at Waconia was mostly unimpeded by injuries, yet her start at Loyola was thwarted by them. Injuries derailed her first 2 years as a Rambler.

“It has been really hard,” Reighard said. “The hardest part about it is working so hard to get where you got, then having to stop and know you have to work harder to get back.”

Not only was she injured, but Reighard was now competing at the Division I level, racing side-by-side with talented athletes with high school accolades similar to hers.

“It’s a difficult transition - everyone is the best, everyone went to state and everyone was a state champ,” Reighard said.

And while the first few years were rough, Reighard kept her head up and made an unusual change, switching from the sprinting events, to the 400 hurdles.

“Most people think I’m crazy, since the 400 hurdles and the 800 are the hardest events in track because of the mix of aerobic and anaerobic,” she said. “But the coach saw potential and I was looking for something new. A reset for positivity.”

Prior to the switch, Reighard had only gone over three hurdles consecutively one or two times. But she put it in her mind that she would thrive in this new event.

“I think I ran it in like 1 minute, 8 seconds, but that’s all I needed to prove, that I could get over the hurdles and finish,” Reighard said.

And before long, Reighard was back to a high level of competition, making the finals in her fourth race in that event. Making a switch in events like this is rare, but Reighard has what it takes. The 400 hurdles is a mixture between speed and endurance, and Loyola track and field assistant coach Amani Bryant said Reighard’s background in short sprints combined with her embrace of endurance training has given her the edge in the event.

“I wouldn’t say it’s an extremely common switch, but every now and then you’ll have an athlete with many weapons, like Molly,” said Bryant. “She’s got grit - and the mindset to put it together . . . Her work ethic is what kept her going, fighting through the injuries and making a big change. Molly has an incredible work ethic. She’s a perfectionist, and she’s always looking for opportunities to learn and grow. Injuries are always tough to overcome - but she’s resilient and her attitude is the reason she’s been able to rise above the difficulties of the past, to focus on a new event.”

And Reighard is looking to use her experiences to help the next generation of athletes, pursuing a career in the medical field. She hopes to help athletes recover from injuries when she graduates, having fought through the same injuries herself.

“[I’m] able to relate to a patient - I know you want to come back, you want to push, but it can set you back,” said Reighard. “I want to develop relationships and take care of people when they need it.”

But before that, she still has a chance to return to the track. Reighard left her struggles behind when training at Loyola her junior year, and had the goal of winning a conference championship in the 400 hurdles and a possible spot at regionals. And while her dream season was taken away, the mental toughness she gained in track has her poised to rebound.

“I’m already antsy about [next season],” Reighard said. “I just feel like I have something to prove.”

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