'Something to keep reaching for': Amid breakout season, Duke track and field's Megan McGinnis sets sights on ACC gold

Sophomore Megan McGinnis took home two gold medals at the ACC Indoor Championships.
Sophomore Megan McGinnis took home two gold medals at the ACC Indoor Championships.

In late February, the world of collegiate track went wild. Runner’s World subscribers from all over the country spammed online chat forums and message boards, swapping theories and opinions about the one event that had grabbed the attention of everyone with the shared interest of collegiate indoor track.

It was the baton drop heard ‘round the world, and all eyes fell upon the sophomore who was carrying it: Megan McGinnis.

Losing the 4x400m relay at the ACC Indoor Championships in February meant a few things for Duke: Second place in the conference instead of first and a lost shot at qualifying the event for the national meet. It meant missing out on school-wide recognition and, perhaps worst of all, a spotlight of scrutiny on the runner at the center of it all.

In the final moments, a gold medal-bound Duke quartet consisting of Lauren Tolbert, Halle Bieber, Julia Jackson and McGinnis found itself disqualified from the women’s 4x400m. McGinnis, anchoring the race for the Blue Devil squad, lost the baton before crossing the finish line thanks to contact with the Miami runner trailing just a fraction of a second behind her. 

Despite the fact that Duke was set to win the race — and, consequently, the meet — the school’s name sat at the bottom of the event rankings.

McGinnis had run a phenomenal meet leading up to her last event: She won the women’s 400m dash and joined the women’s distance medley relay in snagging gold for that event, too. In the process, the DMR team smashed the facility, school and conference records. However, Duke’s achievements over the three-day stretch of competition faded to mere background noise when the women lost their conference title. Focus clustered upon the dramatics of the final day, leaving McGinnis and her teammates with a sense of failure when, really, their performance had been something closer to stellar.

Funny thing about the girl who became the face of Duke’s lost conference title — she was never meant to be on the track. No, Megan McGinnis did not plan to run in college, to headline Duke’s sprints team or to be amongst the fastest woman runners in the nation. It just sort of worked out that way.

How it happened

McGinnis’ mother always thought her daughter would find footing in track. But until eighth grade, McGinnis wouldn’t try it, instead focusing on the sport she thought would carry her to college: Lacrosse. Finally, though, a 13-year-old McGinnis caved to an offer she could not refuse and joined her middle school’s cross country team.

“[My mom] told me that if I won our city meet, she would get me a pair of shoes that I really wanted. So I won our city meet, and I got the shoes,” McGinnis told The Chronicle.

Realizing that she was quite fleet-footed, McGinnis stuck with running as a sort of side gig to her persistent lacrosse focus, soon discovering that shorter sprints were more her speed than long distance.

“I joined the indoor track team. I found out that there were eight laps in an indoor mile and I was like, ‘Absolutely not. I'm not doing this.’ So I asked my coach if I could try some of the shorter distances,” she said.

Living in Roanoke, Va., McGinnis had the chance to try out certain races unique to indoor track. This was unusual; most high schools do not have indoor track facilities, which means that runners do not train for distances like the 300m or the 500m. McGinnis, however, took advantage of her opportunities and started to acquaint herself more with the asphalt. She carried her running career through to the outdoor season. 

Still, though, her heart belonged to the lacrosse field.

“I actually qualified for one of the lower levels of the national meet, but I didn't go because I was like, ‘I don't really run, this is just kind of my side gig,’” said McGinnis. “And so I skipped it. I can't believe I did that because I could have gotten a really cool backpack.”

In her sophomore spring, disaster struck. In the semifinals of her state lacrosse playoffs, McGinnis tore her ACL. For nine months, she was completely out of commission, unable to run and unable to play lacrosse; she missed her junior cross country and indoor track seasons entirely. At this point, though, those still meant little to McGinnis.

“Running was so on the back burner,” she said. “I was really focused on coming back and getting cleared to play lacrosse. That's what I thought I wanted to do in college … So running wasn’t really on the radar.”

When she was cleared in early March 2020 and finally allowed to return to the track and to the lacrosse field, COVID-19 shut down the world. McGinnis missed out on sports during her entire junior year and the summer leading up to it, meaning she missed peak recruiting time for lacrosse. 

So when the time came for her to make a decision about college, McGinnis was not sure what to do — until she sent recruitment forms out to various track and field coaches and realized that was where her future might be. Just a couple of days before national signing day, McGinnis accepted an offer to run track and field at Duke. She hung up her lacrosse stick and laced up her running shoes instead.

The mental game

There is nothing between an athlete and a track but the mind. Runners do not hold lacrosse sticks; they do not dribble, kick or catch any variation of a ball. They race themselves.

A tough thing to reckon with, for any runner, is the knowledge that every outing is ultimately up to the mind. The mind, and its unlucky tendency towards self-doubt, can become the body’s biggest adversary: Nobody can do what they do not believe they are capable of.

“I feel like a lot of people are held back in this sport more by their mind than by their bodies, because our coach always tells us that our bodies are capable of so much more than we think that they are,” said McGinnis.

The sophomore herself, however, has a mindset rooted in potential. Nearly every time McGinnis has crossed a finish line this year, she has managed to drop her time. As a freshman, she competed in the ACC Outdoor Championships and notched fifth place in the 400m, running the lap in 53.27 seconds. Less than a year passed before McGinnis knocked that time down by more than a second to run 52.25 in the 4x400m at the indoor championships. That time is not technically on her running resume — thanks to that disqualification — but she ran it nonetheless.

For context, that time would make McGinnis competitive with the top 10 women’s 400m runners in the country.

“I had always thought that I had a higher ceiling in track than I might have had playing lacrosse, which was why I decided it might be fun to sort of try it out,” she said.

This is how McGinnis works. Her mindset with track has always been to simply “try it out,” and it has taken her far. The Virginian missed out on the years of training that most Division I collegiate athletes go through to earn their spots on their respective teams; she was too busy playing lacrosse in high school to ever focus much on track. Yet once McGinnis decided that running would be her path to Duke, she made it happen.

“I feel like I've always set high expectations for myself, in every area of things that I'm passionate about,” said McGinnis. “I like the idea of high expectations, because you're not limiting yourself with your own mind.”

Her mind is anything but a source of limitation. On the contrary, McGinnis’ experience with track has taught her how to train her brain to facilitate the best results possible. Through her training at Duke, under head coach Shawn Wilbourn and associate head coach Mark Mueller, who works closely with her on sprints, McGinnis has learned how to master the art of gaining speed. For her, it’s about three things: Failure, trust and ambition.

“It's actually really important to fail in practice,” she shared.

From failing, McGinnis has learned how to make herself a better athlete. “What is also really important when it comes to running,” she said, “is sort of just letting go … and trusting the training … and trusting your body and yourself.”

The Patrick Henry product uses that trust to achieve some lofty goals. 

“It's important to be realistic and have process-oriented goals, but it's also important to put those goals high so that you have something to keep reaching for, and so that you don't get complacent or feel satisfied when there's more that you could maybe achieve,” said McGinnis.

The future

The ambitious Blue Devil has now moved her already lofty goals just about as high as they can go: The Olympics.

“Something that I never thought would be a goal of mine, but is now, is to run at Olympic Trials in 2024,” McGinnis shared.

Like most college sophomores, McGinnis has yet to decide what path she will walk — or maybe run — after graduation. Her future could take many forms. Now, another option has been added to the mix, one that was not there before: keep running.

“It was something that I'd never even thought would be a part of my life after I was done with college; I thought I'd have a good four years and then call it a day,” she said. “But I've improved a lot just in these last few years. And I'm not planning on stopping getting better at any time.”

For now, though, McGinnis’ main focus is still on the college level. She is seeking redemption for the “Great Baton Drop” in the form of ACC gold, which she looks to snag with the rest of her team at the outdoor championship meet May 11. McGinnis’ ambition for this meet is living proof of how far failure — whether it was her fault or not — can push an athlete.

“We were the best team in the ACC indoors. We didn't win the title, but I think a lot of people … would say that we deserved to, based on our performances across the board,” McGinnis said. “I know that makes me fired up and ready to achieve a lot outdoors. I think my teammates feel the same way.”

Dropping the baton marked a moment in McGinnis’ experience in which one small mistake in a sea of successes led to a total loss of recognition for the women’s track program. Nothing about that sits right with the sophomore, who not only performed exceedingly well herself all season, but also watched her teammates do the same. To have her team lose the recognition it would earn from a solo conference championship — recognition that can be hard to come by for track and field athletes — was crushing.

McGinnis looked back on that fateful race. “Something that our coach tells us every time we line up for the 4x400m is ‘leave no doubt.’ And so I was like, ‘I'm gonna go.’ So … I just went for it.”

This is the mindset McGinnis brings to every practice, every meet. It’s the mindset that will give her a shot at a conference title in May and an Olympic appearance down the line: Go for it.

Sophie Levenson profile
Sophie Levenson | Sports features editor

Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and sports features editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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