With a taste for all things pink and leopard print, Sally Meyerhoff was a unique and infectious presence as an athlete, friend and mentor.
The former three-time Duke All-American and nationally ranked marathon runner and triathlete passed away March 8 in a bicycle accident. Meyerhoff, 27, was hit by a pickup truck after failing to yield at an intersection in Maricopa, Ariz. and died instantly, Bloomberg News reported. Meyerhoff’s friends and family celebrated her life at her family home in Tempe, Ariz. this weekend.
“I can’t express enough how the person she was totally eclipsed her athletic performances,” said coach Adam Zucco, who worked full-time with Meyerhoff since November 2010 and had known the athlete for two years. “[Running] was what she did, not who she was... she was just Sally who happened to run. She never stopped being Sally, and I think to me, that’s what I’ll miss the most.”
Meyerhoff, who was also a substitute teacher to special needs students and volunteer coach for a women’s high school running team, won her first marathon, P.F. Chang’s Rock’n’Roll Arizona Marathon, in her hometown Jan. 16. Zucco called the marathon a “turning point’ in Meyerhoff’s career. The victory was followed by a 5K win over the top 5K runner in the country and two triathlon wins in Costa Rica, Zucco added.
“Going into P.F. Chang’s, I wanted her to just enjoy running... not care about time and think about running every mile,” he said. “It just so happened that was the marathon she won. She’d run faster marathons, but it was the first time she had a smile on her face the whole way.”
Starting this June, Meyerhoff, who considered retirement in November after a poor performance in the New York Marathon, was to begin focusing on training for the 2012 Olympic triathlon trials, Zucco said, noting the gratification he felt as a coach in helping Meyerhoff to finally be at peace with her future plans.
“In the last few weeks, Sally was the happiest I’d seen her in a while,” said her younger sister Samantha Meyerhoff, adding that one of her most remarkable traits was her ability to “turn situations around.”
A competitor and compassionate friend
Samantha Meyerhoff credits her “compassionate” sister for helping her plan her own future. In 2008, Sally Meyerhoff advised her younger sister, who is also a runner, to attend community college before pursuing a running scholarship to a four-year university, and then suggested she continue on to a nursing or physicians assistant program.
“Even if she was having issues, she would always say, ‘Be relentlessly positive. With life, no matter the situation you were in make it a good one,’” Samantha Meyerhoff said.
Family members, teammates and coaches also emphasized Meyerhoff’s less serious side. They called her a “ball of life” and “prankster” who loved to speed around in her white Mini Cooper or her pink Beachcomber bike.
“When we would go running together she would say things that made me laugh so hard, I had to stop,” Samantha Meyerhoff said. “She liked to tease people, make people laugh and loved having a good time. You could call her to go out, shopping, groceries—anything in the world, she would try to have the most fun no matter what.”
Meyerhoff’s time at Duke was marked by a similar balance between an outstanding athlete and “fun-loving” friend and teammate.
“She made a lasting impression every moment along the way,” said current associate track and field coach, Kevin Jermyn, who worked with Meyerhoff during her time at Duke and is also the current head women’s cross country coach. “She definitely challenged me how to understand how to coach better. It was a lot of fun coaching her, and she really left a mark in my ability to reach more people and strengthened my ability to develop young women.”
Jermyn added that Meyerhoff is the toughest competitor he has ever seen, noting that her love for extreme challenges brought out her best.
“She was definitely an energy and kind of the heart of the team, a bit of a free spirit,” he said. “Athletically, she became a better athlete in a direct correlation with our team, which grew into one of the best ever. Her growth between sophomore and junior year translated into our team getting to No. 2 in cross country and an ACC Championship.”
Jermyn also recalled his most defining memory of Meyerhoff, which displayed her “mental toughness.” In 2007, Meyerhoff qualified for the NCAA Indoor Championships, but two days before the race she fell ill with food poisoning. Meyerhoff stayed behind as the team went to the championships and was admitted to Duke Hospital. Meyerhoff—who was receiving intravenous fluids until 24 hours prior to the race—later joined the team and placed ninth in the 5,000-meter race, earning herself All-American status.
In preparation for this weekend’s NCAA Indoor Championships, Jermyn mentioned one of Meyerhoff’s more memorable and defining pranks in an e-mail to the women’s track and field team.
“She showed up to pre-season [cross-country] camp as a freshman with a feather boa around her neck on a 95-degree day when everyone else was in running clothes,” he wrote. “That was Sally—she left that boa around my office door when she graduated from Duke in 2007.”
Leaving a legacy
Current senior Kate Van Buskirk ran the same race this weekend, placing second. As a freshman when Meyerhoff was a fifth-year senior, Van Buskirk said Meyerhoff was a significant mentor, adding that she dedicated Saturday’s race to remember and honor her.
“Sally didn’t settle for second best—she waited to be the best she could be and push others around her. She was a fierce competitor, loved Duke running and loved competing,” she said. “She had a really good balance of being her own person and really caring for her teammates and being a good friend.”
Current women’s cross country and track and field assistant coach Liz Wort, a close friend and former teammate of the athlete, said Meyerhoff’s love for Duke and her friends matched her passion for running. Wort added that their recruiting class was remarkably close from freshman year until recent weeks, attending each other’s weddings and going on vacations together. Wort said Meyerhoff was a huge part of keeping the group close, calling her the “ringleader.”
“She was always creating really fun adventures for us,” Wort said. “One summer, she decided the New Jersey River to Sea Relay sounded awesome. She found these leopard print tank tops online and made us wear them—everyone in the race knew exactly who we were and we won.”
Meyerhoff’s mother, Cindi Meyerhoff, said her daughter’s passion and motivation for running came from a desire to excel and prove that the sport deserved notice. Her mother said Meyerhoff began running in third grade when she joined track club and described how she “couldn’t hardly breathe” after running her first mile in sixth grade.
Meyerhoff was also high spirited, her mother said, whether it was starting food fights, dancing on the bar with her friends in Cancun or hiding things throughout her brother’s house.
“We loved that Sally touched so many people,” Cindi Meyerhoff said. “Sally and I had a special bond—people will say to me, ‘I have never seen anything like that in my life.’ She was a very strong willed and a very, very independent girl—I never knew anyone like her.”
The Meyerhoff family has established The Sally Meyerhoff Foundation which will allow racers to donate their prize money to fund running shoes and clothing for the less fortunate, and will sponsor races in her name.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.