This story originally appeared in the summer 2017 issue of the Alumni Journal magazine. Today Emily Richards, BS '18, is running professionally for HOKA New York-New Jersey Track Club.
One minute and 46 seconds into the women’s NCAA Division III 1,500-meter final, Bryn McKillop, a runner for Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, does something that very few human beings have done: She takes the lead from Ohio Northern’s Emily Richards in a race.
Since bursting onto the track and field scene at the 2016 outdoor finals, where she won her first national championship in the 800-meter run, Emily Richards, a senior chemistry student from Delaware, Ohio, has become the most dominant runner in NCAA Division III. She is the reigning indoor mile and outdoor 1,500-meter national champion and absolutely owns the 800-meter, holding the past two outdoor, as well as the 2016 indoor, national titles. She also holds the NCAA championship meet record time and the overall fastest time ever recorded in Division III. It would be quite a résumé for any runner, let alone one whose parents didn’t think would ever run again.
The Richardses are an active family. Both mom Laura and father Troy were athletes. Laura was a runner, a “sub-60-quarter-miler,” which in running parlance means she was pretty good. She was also a pioneer, co-founding a women’s cross-country team at Medina High School after running on the boys’ team her junior year. Troy was, and still is, an expert snow- and water-skier. Younger brothers Erik and Luke excelled in diving and running. Emily was a promising soccer player, playing for 11 years before fully committing to running.
“Soccer is hard on your body. It beats you up a lot. Once she was injured, that was the end of it,” says Laura. “She didn’t want anything to do with distance running to begin with, but she finally realized that’s where she needs to be. Then she discovered that she had a gift.”
Laura is referring to an injury to Emily’s left hip she suffered in a junior high school track and field race in 2009. She was diagnosed with an avulsion fracture of a growth plate with chronic inflammation.
For three years Emily underwent physical therapy, yet her condition never improved. To make matters worse, she developed a knee injury as a result of the dysfunction in her hip while running cross country her junior year that prevented her from running track that following spring, and held her out of cross country in the fall of her senior year. Unable to compete, Emily became her teammates’ biggest supporter, attending every meet and never missing a practice.
“We thought for a very long time that Emily would never run again,” says Laura. “In the end, her hip wasn’t actually fractured at all. It was just twisted and misaligned. After a car accident in 2013, a chiropractor who was treating Emily for whiplash identified the problem and worked to get everything put back into position. But, I’m a woman of strong faith, and I truly believe that she’s where she is today because of miracle healing.”
Having recovered from the injury that held her back for so long, Emily finally got the chance to compete as a member of the Rutherford B. Hayes High School track and field team. She made the most of her time, too, running the 100- and 400-meter races and the 4-x-100, 4-x-200 and 4-x-400 relays. She culminated her high school career with a berth in the OHSAA Division 1 state championship meet in the 400-meter race. That race put her on the radar of ONU track and field coach Jason Maus, who saw all the makings of an elite middle-distance runner.
“While I recruited her, we talked about bumping up to the 800 because we felt she could do it. She’s a special kid for sure. She works hard. She earns everything she gets,” he says.
Emily still has many sprinter tendencies. Her pre-race warmup is more akin to what sprinters do than distance runners, and she still has the natural talent to run fast. But in her three years at ONU, she’s learned how to run longer races and has committed to perfecting her craft.
“Coach Maus is an amazing coach, and she listens to him. She doesn’t go out there and do what Emily wants to do; she goes out there and takes the advice of her coach,” says Laura. “Emily runs with her mind. She’s not only athletic; she’s also smart.”
Emily has always been both. Just weeks after competing in the 400-meter at state, she gave the valedictorian address at her high school graduation. Laura recalls how the only call she’s ever received from any principal about Emily was to discuss a letter her daughter had written to her first-grade teacher. Apparently, at 6 years old, Emily was able to recognize that her classmates weren’t learning the classroom material as well as they might and so she offered some unsolicited constructive criticism. Laura laughs when retelling the story because to this day it’s just so Emily – always analyzing every situation, always looking out for others, always out front.
The interesting thing about the 1-minute, 46-second mark in the 1,500-meter is that it comes right about when there are 900 meters left to run. If you do take the lead from Emily Richards at that point in a race, it better be a big one.
The 2017 NCAA Division III National Championship meet takes place May 25-27 in Geneva, Ohio, at the Spire Institute, a U.S. Olympic and Paralympic team training facility a few miles from the Lake Erie shoreline. It’s the first national meet that Laura and Troy are able to attend together, and if they have any doubt about how big of a deal their daughter is in the world of Division III track and field, they are greeted with the answer. Emily is prominently featured on the graphic panels that cover the venue’s front doors.
It’s a perfect day for running. The Richards family finds seats about 30 yards from the finish line, a nice vantage point to follow Emily around the track and an excellent line of sight to the point where they both know their daughter likes to “kick,” an area on the back straightaway. Troy and Laura have seen Emily race enough to make a little game out of predicting the precise moment they see her switch from a disciplined, rhythmic distance runner to a disciplined, rhythmic sprinter. It’s not an easy thing to spot. Emily’s face doesn’t betray any more exertion than before. She looks exactly the same. The only way a novice spectator would even know she’s doing it is that the distance between her and the pack gets wider and wider.
Laura isn’t used to sitting in a seat during races. She’d rather be pacing somewhere. It’s a track meet after all, and she’s a runner. But she’s not as nervous now as she used to be. When Emily was recovering from her hip injury and races were close, the pacing helped. Now, it takes her a moment to answer a question about the last time she watched Emily run a race that came down to the wire. “You know,” she begins, keenly aware that she can’t remember.
“When we watch Emily, we consider every race to be down to the wire, because we don’t take anything for granted. We really don’t. She’s competing against a lot of really good athletes. The fact that she comes out on top so many times is just absolutely amazing. We’re kind of dumbfounded by it.”
The 1,500-meter starts at the beginning of the back straightaway to account for three and three-quarter laps. There are 12 runners racing in the final. Emily is in lane four. At the starting gun, she pushes out to an early lead. As she passes the grandstand for the first time and the public-address announcer calls her name as the race leader, Laura yells, “That’s my girl!” At 1:46 she’s overtaken by Scripps College’s Bryn McKillop and runs in second place for a full lap. She bides her time for her kick. When she does, her lead reaches 50 meters before the pack charges forward for second place. She wins her fourth national championship with a time of 4:23:87, more than two seconds ahead of the next runner.
Emily will race again in a little over an hour, so there isn’t much celebrating. The Richardses are all smiles though, proud of their firstborn after another comfortable victory. When asked about the last close race he witnessed, Troy is quick to answer. “I thought it was going to be this one!”
The Mt. SAC Relays is a world-famous track and field meet in southern California. It attracts the best runners in the country. Carl Lewis. Marion Jones. Jackie Joyner-Kersey. World records have been set there. In April, Emily Richards sets the Division III record with a time of 2:02:34, beating a field of Division I athletes in the process.
For all of her success, Emily remains genuinely humble, but she doesn’t apologize for being as good as she is. She works extremely hard to perform her best, and she sets her personal goals accordingly. She came to the championships to win both the 1500 and the 800 and wanted to set the meet records.
“The thing about Emily is nobody will ever outwork her,” says Laura. “Emily’s always been a competitor. She’s 110 percent committed. She doesn’t miss a workout. Even when we are on vacation, she gets up and gets her workouts in. And if she’s working through an injury and isn’t able to run, she’s cross training. She’s working on her arms. She’s working on her fingers. She’s working on her neck muscles. She’s always working on something, something that will contribute to what running’s all about.”
The lengths that Emily will go to for training are impressive. She adheres to a strict diet and doesn’t cheat even to have a bite of ice cream at brother Luke’s high school graduation party.
If she gets home late when she’s home in Delaware over the summer, Laura’s been known to jump in the car and follow behind her with the headlights on. She’ll work a double shift at her summer job as a server at the Catawba Island Club, something exhausting in its own right, and get a run in between them. When she had a summer internship at Stone Laboratories on Gibraltar Island, a six-and-half-acre island on Lake Erie, she’d have to row a boat over to South Bass Island every day to literally have enough land to get a good run in.
Her favorite route is a six-mile loop around the family’s country home in Delaware County. Troy says that Emily runs it so much the cows across the road even take notice.
She sets off uphill first, something her father attributes to lessons taught to her by his Polar Bear father Evan Richards, BSEE ’64, who always preached doing the hard part first, so the rest will be easier. Emily was very close to her grandfather, and Laura says that she runs for him. Evan passed away a few years ago, but he got to see Emily run in high school and watched her give her valedictorian speech at graduation. “I know he’s looking down and is so proud of her,” says Laura.
A little more than an hour after winning the 1500, Emily is back out on the track for the 800-meter final. She starts on the near side of the track this time, and as she walks past her parents to the starting line, Troy lets out a mighty war cry. It’s “The Richards Call,” something they came up with on the ski slopes to use when they got separated and needed to find one another.
For the second time today, Troy and Laura get the sense of how big a deal their daughter is – as if being the literal “face” of the meet wasn’t enough. As the PA announcer introduces the 800-meter finalists by name and school, he quips, “And in lane five, the athlete to watch, Emily Richards from Ohio Northern University!” In that moment, a realization – they all know.
Anyone who watches sports knows that anything can happen. Upsets – even historic ones – can, and do, happen all the time. There are clichés built around this idea: “On any given Sunday.” “It’s not over till it’s over.” “A Cinderella story.” These only exist to describe an upset. But in this 800-meter final, there is only certainty. Emily Richards is the greatest runner in NCAA Division III, and she proves it every time she runs.
Her time of 2:03:51 sets the NCAA championship meet record by two seconds, but it is more than a full second slower than her time at the Mt. SAC Relays. She wins this race by 50 meters. The final at Mt. SAC, which her parents did not attend, was down to the wire, yet she pulled it out. An elite field pushed her performance to a career best. Is it a reach to say that maybe Emily doesn’t even know how fast she is?
Perhaps, but according to Laura, Emily is committed to finding out. Asked to elaborate, she says this: “I think the best is yet to come. I really do. I think a lot of doors have been opened for the gift that she’s been given in the world, and I think she’s going for it, whatever that may be. She’d love to go to the Olympics. She really would.”
Emily will enter her senior year as a five-time national champion, a feat unmatched at ONU. Four more are possible, even probable. Beyond that, who knows? If the best is yet to come, as her mother says, it will top what has already been a tremendous journey and thrill for all of those who support her at Ohio Northern University.
More about Emily: In addition to working hard on the track, Emily is taking on a demanding academic load that includes not only her major (chemistry), but also minors in professional writing and multimedia journalism. She is also a member of the ONU Writing Center staff, where she helps her fellow students become better writers. Emily is an ONU Presidential Scholar and a recipient of the Mildred Osmon Smith and Paul P. Smith Award for Chemistry, which is awarded annually to a chemistry student who shows outstanding promise to contribute to the field, and who would otherwise be unable to complete his or her studies at ONU.
UPDATE: As if her incredible performance at the NCAA Division III National Championship meet wasn’t enough, Emily Richards qualified for the United States Track & Field Outdoor Championships at the Music City Distance Carnival meet in Nashville, Tenn., on June 10. Her blistering time of 2:00:62 in the 800-meter run is the fastest time she’s ever run in competition and almost two full seconds faster than her NCAA Division III championship meet record. At the USTF Outdoor Championships in Sacramento, Calif., Emily made the 800-meter final, finishing eighth with a time of 2:01:95.