Before Stanford’s Justine Fedronic could think about taking the starting line in Paris on Saturday, she had to take her first steps.
Before she could smash her school record in the 800 meters with a bold dash to third place at the NCAA Championships, she had to learn how to slow down before she could speed up.
And before she could declare, “I would absolutely love to keep running for as long as I can,” she had to find something to love about it in the first place.
The Stade de France in Saint-Denis isn’t far from the Paris suburb where Fedronic spent the first five years of her life. Her fondest memory: stepping into a backyard garden and through a secret door that led to her best friend.
Now, it seems, the door has opened once more.
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To explain how Fedronic re-tugged on her French roots is to consider her multicultural history. She was born in Germany to a father, Dominique, who moved to France from the Caribbean island of Martinique when he was a baby. Her mother, Katalin, is from rural Hungary and, together, they have lived in the Bay Area since 1997.
Justine speaks three languages fluently – English, French, and Hungarian – and can hold her own in Germany and Spanish. She is a dual citizen of France and Hungary and has a U.S. green card.
Dominique was a figure skater in his younger days, competing in the 1978 world junior championships against the likes of Brian Boitano. His brother, Fernand, was even better, winning the 1985 French national championship and continues to be involved in the sport as a judge and in costume designs.
Described affectionately as a “huge nerd” by his daughter, Dominique always encouraged science and math in a household that includes three younger boys. A typical Christmas present from dad was a solar panel-making kit. As a software engineer servicing overseas markets, Dominique took a Silicon Valley position with the intention of staying three months. It’s been 16 years.
Justine spoke no English when they arrived, spending her first two school years in English as a Second Language programs.
“It was difficult to learn English when my mom didn’t know how to speak English,” Justine said. “I remember trying to read a book and looking up every single word in the dictionary, including ‘the.’ I used to read Dr. Seuss, and a lot of those words are not in the dictionary.”
Much of Katalin’s influence came in the form of exploration. Sometimes, the family would hop in the car for a family vacation with only the vaguest idea of where they were going. They stayed in Arnold, in the Sierra foothills, because as they passed through Katalin noticed a Shakespeare festival taking place. They found their way to places like Oregon, Lake Tahoe, San Diego, and the Mojave Desert.
And their trips to Europe always weaved their way to museums, castles, and architectural tours.
Their influence is strong in Justine, who will graduate next spring with a bachelor’s in earth systems and a minor in mechanical design, with a goal of creating products that will allow for sustainable living while using fewer resources.
A product of Carlmont High School in nearby Belmont, Fedronic was assumed to be an American and her name has appeared on lists of the top U.S. track and field times for the past two years.
But, coming off her finest collegiate season, Fedronic could not compete in the U.S. Championships and began to look at the possibility of running for France and Hungary. By registering for a club in the French territory of Martinique, she received French eligibility and, two weeks ago, was accepted to the French national team team. She will run in the IAAF Diamond League meet in Paris as well as the European under-23 championships July 11-14 in Tampere, Finland.
Fedronic, who was the Pac-12 runner-up and a first-team All-American, will attempt to achieve the world ‘A’ standard of 2:00.00, and earn passage to the IAAF World Championships in Moscow, Russia, in August. Her best of 2:01.67 was earned in her most recent race, in the NCAA final in Eugene, Ore.
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To consider a world championship berth would have been unthinkable a few years ago when Fedronic battled injuries to the point where Stanford coaches had to shut her down and start from scratch.
Fedronic can count eight stress injuries in her lower body, as well as numerous sprained ankles and even a broken toe. A structural abnormality in her foot didn’t help either. And by the end of her high school career, she was too beaten up to run in the championship meets. It was more of the same at Stanford.
“I always thought I would come to college and I wouldn’t be that runner who had a terrible freshman year, because I would be smarter about it,” Fedronic said. “But adjusting to college is a huge deal, it turns out. You’re dealing with all these things that wear down your body.”
Fedronic never was one to take things easy. Her highly competitive nature made sure of that. If a coach gave her splits to aim for during an interval workout, Justine viewed them as “suggestions,” and treated the times as barriers to break rather than paces to meet.
That competitive drive and overzealous work ethic put Fedronic on a frustrating cycle of hard training followed by injury, essentially wasting her first two collegiate seasons. Her training chart was remarkably inconsistent, so full of peaks and valleys that she picked up the nickname, “China Doll,” because she was so fragile.
“I know that once I get on the starting line, I’ll be OK,” she said. “But my issue has always been getting to the starting line.”
Chris Miltenberg, Stanford’s first-year Franklin P. Johnson Director of Track and Field, had recruited Fedronic when he was coaching at Georgetown and continued to follow her career when she came to Stanford.
“You could see the big-time potential,” he said. “But what she hadn’t had was that consistency in training, or the strength that comes from consistency in training.”
Finally, volunteer assistant coach Hakon DeVries, now an assistant at the University of Kentucky, was given a project. His responsibility was to salvage Fedronic’s career.
“The only goal was to keep me healthy,” Fedronic said. “Instead of running certain times at the end of the year, it was ‘let’s stay healthy and see what happens.’”
Fedronic’s mileage was cut way back, and DeVries was not shy about sending her home if he sensed her well-being could be compromised. By keeping her stress levels low and her running easy, Fedronic was able to train more consistently and, by the end of the 2012 season, she got the breakthrough she was looking for. Her time of 2:03.54 in the first round of the NCAA Championships didn’t get her to the final, but it was a school record and gave Fedronic the distinction of running the fastest nonqualifying time in NCAA meet history.
When Miltenberg arrived this season, he continued the low-impact approach.
“I knew we had somebody who was a great racer,” he said. “She’s super tough and has great racing instincts. Any time you ask her to do something really hard in practice, she’s going to give you 110 percent. So, be careful how often you ask her that, because she’s going to give you a big-time effort all time.”
The key was to minimize those efforts and their destructive potential.
“I was very resistant to that type of training for many years because I love running fast,” Fedronic said. “And I love beating people.”
Well, guess what? She’s beating people anyway. The months of consistent training have given her strength.
“Steady and patient,” said Miltenberg of Fedronic’s training approach. “I want her to walk away from 85 percent of her workouts thinking, ‘I could have done one more.’”
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The now durable Fedronic joined the cross country team last fall, for the first time at Stanford, and ran a full outdoor track schedule, including a regular spot on the 4x400 relay. She also recorded a 4:14.69 in the 1,500, the No. 7 time in school history, and was reborn with the energy and friendship of freshman standouts Amy Weissenbach and Claudia Saunders in the same event.
Their subgroup has been called, "The Stallions," by teammates, with the old and wise Fedronic regarded as "Momma Stallion."
"I've never had as much fun running track," she said. "That's so important, wanting to come to practice and not having it be a chore."
When she got to the NCAA final, Fedronic was confident in a way that only months of injury-free training can provide. In sixth place rounding the final turn, Fedronic was gaining momentum.
“One of my best strengths as a racer is my kick,” she said. “I don’t really like running from the front, because I know if I’m behind, I’m pretty good at chasing people down in the last 100.”
But what if her path is blocked? A kick won’t help if there’s no room.
“The thing with the 800 is that everything happens so quickly, and there’s so much positioning that you have to make quick decisions,” Fedronic said. “My favorite part of the 800 is coming around the turn and taking a lay of the land and charting your path to the finish line, seeing where you’re going to find places to wiggle through. It’s kind of like a video game.”
Instead, Fedronic saw a sliver of daylight on the inside of LSU’s Charlene Lipsey, who kept her ground firmly in the middle of lane one.
“It was really scary because passing people on the inside is usually not a good idea,” Fedronic said. “If she moved an inch to the left, I would have been smashed into the rail. But I took a deep breath and went.”
The surprised Lipsey never saw her coming until they were stride for stride down the stretch. Fedronic outleaned the 2012 NCAA runner-up to capture third in the highest finish ever for a Stanford woman in that event. It was her final collegiate outdoor track race, but she still has a season left in cross country and indoor track.
Meanwhile, with Fedronic in France, Miltenberg is concerned about her training while out of his control.
“We talked about that,” Miltenberg said. “The biggest thing is ‘stick to our plan.’ Don’t get caught up in doing what other people say you should be doing. Just keep doing your thing.”
The plan has worked so far. It’s gotten her to this scenario: A race against an international field in an 80,000-seat stadium under the glare of live worldwide television. The African champion’s to her left, the American champion’s to her right. And there’s plenty of talent in between.
No need to hold back any longer. It’s time to run fast.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics