March 12, 2009
By Larry Watts
Molly Beckwith thought she was destined for an outstanding soccer career at Indiana University. Playing in 17 of the Hoosiers' 19 games as a freshman, the forward stood fourth on her team's scoring list with a pair of goals and two assists.
But patella surgery followed her freshman season. It was the fourth surgery, including both ACLs, in four years for the Worthington, Ohio native and her surgeon was very blunt in his analysis.
"He looked at me and said if I hurt myself again, I'd probably wind up in a wheelchair in a few years, so it would be a good idea if I tried something else," Beckwith says.
"I had a pretty good season, but I wasn't happy with what I was doing because I had been in so much pain. I sat down with my parents and we decided the best way for me to go was to quit."
Making the decision to quit soccer was not an easy one. She had turned down offers from Ohio State, where her former club coach was now an assistant, Kentucky, Georgia and Northwestern. Because of her ties to her former club coach and the fact Ohio State was right in her backyard, rejecting the Buckeyes was her toughest decision.
"Ohio State has such a huge athletic department and I really wanted to go to the football games," she says. "Any game there is a pretty cool experience. But everything at Indiana was a perfect fit and I knew I had to get out of my comfort zone."
However, Beckwith's comfort zone had always included soccer. And now she was risking the possibility of lifelong damage with one more change of direction or hard tackle.
"I am the most competitive person ever, so for me to not be playing a sport and competing for a few more years was out of the question," she says. "So I talked to the track coach (Randy Heisler) about joining the team as a walk-on in my sophomore year."
Beckwith last ran track as a freshman at Worthington High School, where she set the school records in the 200 (24.70) and 400 (55.60). Because of her involvement in club soccer, she thought her days of running the oval were over.
The transition to track also carried an added financial burden to the Beckwith household.
"Once I made my decision to start running, I lost my half-scholarship (from soccer)," she says.
But the loss of financial assistance didn't last long. Beckwith immediately made an impact for the Hoosiers in the 400, 600 and 800 during the 2007 indoor campaign. And Heisler dangled a carrot in front of her nose.
"He told me if I got fifth at the Big Ten Indoor Championships, he would get me that half-scholarship back," she says. "I worked my (butt) off for that scholarship."
The work paid off with a fifth-place time of 1:32.69 in the 600. On the outdoor track, she posted a personal-best of 2:14.7 in the 800 at the Big Ten Championships.
That first year back on the track was a taste of bigger things to come. Now confident her knees would hold up under the sharper turns of the indoor track, Beckwith repeated her fifth place in the 600 at the Big Ten Indoor Championships, but her real breakthrough came in the 800 at the Alex Wilson Invitational, where her time of 2:06.67 not only broke the Indiana indoor record but also qualified her for the National Indoor Championships.
"That was the biggest shocker of my life," she says. "My best time before that was 2:10 and I beat that by four seconds. I was absolutely stunned when I crossed the finish line. I had no idea I was running that fast and it was such a rush to make it (to Nationals)."
Finishing 15th with a time of 2:12.29 in her first experience on the national stage, Beckwith admits to being overwhelmed with the experience.
"I was unprepared for the Nationals last year," she says. "I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But the experience was valuable though."
Beckwith would get a second chance in the national spotlight, but this time it would be on the outdoor track. She took the bronze medal in the 800 at the Big Ten Championships and her time of 2:06.46 at the Jesse Owens Classic earned her an at-large bid to the National Championships. But again her time went up (2:09.20) and she failed to make it out of the prelims.
"I got really uptight or 'choked' to use my father's words," she says. "He told me not to do that again this year because he doesn't want to waste his money on the trip.
"Dad has always been blunt and honest with me, but it's done me well. He doesn't tell me what I want to hear; my mom is the one who will do that, so they kind of balance each other out. He's definitely a motivational person; I think that's where I get most of my drive from."
But the Beckwith money spent on the trip has been saved in tuition. Her success last year gained her a full scholarship for her final two years of eligibility.
And Indiana is receiving big dividends from that investment this season. She took second in the 600 (school record 1:27.96) and 400 as well as running the lead leg on the third-place 4x400 relay squad at the Big Ten Indoor Championships. In both of her runner-up finishes, Beckwith was tops in the fast heat but was beaten by a runner from the slower heat.
"That's the problem with indoor meets," she says. "You're running on shorter tracks, so they have to run heats for the finals. When you go outdoors, you face the best in the finals and you're all in lanes, so you don't have to deal with fighting through all that traffic and all those mind games. My strategy indoors has always been to go out fast so I don't have to deal with all that mess."
And Beckwith will be getting her second chance at the national indoor meet this weekend in College Station, Texas, thanks to her school record time of 2:05.55 in the 800 at the Meyo Invitational. She currently ranks ninth among Division I runners.
Beckwith is anxiously waiting for the outdoor season to open at the end of the month. She has her sights set on a return to the NCAA Championships in Fayetteville, Ark. and the USATF Championships in Eugene, Ore.
"The last couple of weeks on the indoor season have given me so much confidence that I do think 2:02 (in the 800) is within my reach this year," she says. "And next year I think I can hit 2:00. I'm a young 800 runner; I've only been doing this for two years, but my coach (Ron Helmer) has given me a lot of confidence just from doubling me in the 400 and 600 with only 25-30 minutes of rest."
When she returns to Indiana as a fifth-year senior next year, Beckwith plans to build endurance during the cross country season. She tried to run cross country last fall, but tendonitis in one of her feet limited her to one meet.
How much the exercise science major progresses will tell her a lot about her future.
"I am starting to think a little about running after college, but that's still too far off in the future," she says. "I know I eventually want to get my doctorate in physical therapy, but that is going to be a three-year commitment, so I'm keeping my options open.
"After all I have gone through, I've known since my freshman year that I wanted to go into physical therapy. I have spent way too much time on crutches and my personal experience is going to help people. I know pretty much every ache and pain you're going to feel from surgery."