By Anna Laman
There was something unique about the brown-eyed 22-year-old girl named Justine whom I met on my very first day visiting Stanford University three years ago. I watched her complete a workout on the bright red-colored track that made her speed look effortless.
She bounced around the track with two other distance athletes, lopey strides, toned calves and sculpted arms. Her face told a story of pure determination and belief that resonated within me. I never forgot her countenance. What it portrayed in hindsight was a woman who would eventually go on to represent her country at the Rio Olympic Games, despite dozens of career-threatening injuries.
Justine Fedronic signed a Nike contract and agent, Ray Flynn, straight out of college. Despite her incredibly unique formation of extreme highs and lows, she forged on to tell the story of a young, talented running star that struggled her way to keep her body, literally, in one piece through college to become the experienced, strong and competitive Olympic athlete she is today.
There are two things that define Justine Fedronic, the former Stanford runner: speed and injuries. But the latter she spends every day of her life working to eliminate: “We do strength and skill based training every day. I spend hours before workouts each day doing rehab exercises and recovery after workouts to eliminate injury.”
Justine’s progression as an elite track star evolved from learning how to be a happier and healthier person. “I learnt to gain a positive perspective and a grateful heart,” she said via Skype.
Overcoming obstacles is a common life lesson many Olympic athletes have in common, yet not many have experienced the bewilderment of some of Justine’s very obscure injuries.
Fedronic fractured a rib during an indoor track meet her senior year in college from coughing. It was her final year and season representing Stanford University, where she competed in the prestigious distance medley relay. Despite hours of coughing and splattering after the team event, she remained persistent to make it through the whole NCAA National meet in all of her three events, despite continually re-opening the fracture.
She went on to race the international track circuit that year and represented France at the World Relays and the European Championships in Zurich. “It was an incredible year despite my injury upsets,” she said. “Nothing ever quite healed completely but I raced fast, thankfully.”
Within a few months, she was back on the injury wagon again, with a tear in her hamstring in two places. Her mind waffled with confusion of what to do, where to go, where to take her future with running. She realized she needed a new place, a new environment.
A world away from Stanford University, she chose to pursue training with the professional Bowerman Track Club, based in Eugene, Oregon, home of Nike — home of anything to do with track, really. The iconic athletics track in Oregon is named Hayward Field, where Pre-Profontaine created a new running culture in the seventies after winning 120 of the 153 races he ran in college. Bowerman never lost a collegiate national NCAA track race longer than one mile at the University of Oregon.
Despite the attempt to start fresh in Eugene in 2015, she continued to experience immense problems with the onset of more obscure injuries, heightening to the point where she was even unable to walk at one point, which left most physiotherapists in total bewilderment.
That’s when she met John Pierce, who would soon change her life. He is known today as a miracle worker in Justine’s eyes. Pierce gradually helped blood flow back to the left side of Justine’s body as she experienced her own blood having a platelet concentration above baseline. Platelet-rich plasma, PRP for short, helped promote healing of her various musculoskeletal, biomechanical issues.
She was taken through months of rehabilitation processes to fix the biomechanics faults she lived with due to the multitude of her “bandaged college injuries,” as Justine called it.
“2015 was a year of focus on running mechanics — literally nothing else” Justine said. “Financially, I wasn’t paid a cent, but long-term it helped me more than anything else would’ve.”
In hindsight she looked positively on the experience of chasing doctors down, but in the moment she just wanted a normal 20-year-old woman’s life.
Daniel Mackey shortly afterwards became her coach. Green Lake became her favorite running destination; only a few-minutes jog from her front doorstep. Based in Seattle, she then began her focus towards the French Olympic trials.
“Everything felt like a bargain for survival. Even at the French Olympic Trials, my knee blew up in the final, and I was lucky to scrape through the Games; adrenalin got me through,” she said.
She then spent the next six weeks struggling with bursitis and patella tendinitis leading up the Olympic Games. “I surrounded myself with the right people. Luckily, they got me through the Games.”
Before Justine’s Olympic debut in the 800-meter, her coach wasn’t sure whether she’d run faster than two minutes and 15 seconds over the distance. Justine finished with an astounding two minutes and two seconds, extremely close to her all-time best of two minutes flat.
Despite her goal to run one minute 58 seconds, she realized living through the Olympic Games was something she’ll never forget. “It was a great memory moving forward; I learnt a lot from it. I was lucky to have an incredible medical team by my side,” she said.
Despite her uplifting spirit regarding the Olympic Games driving through the interview I had with her, I couldn’t help but question her about the conflict I’d heard from Stanford athletes concerning her loss of a Nike contract post-Olympic Games.
“The strict guidelines a contract requires of professional athletes are highly unreasonable,” she said. “Being on a Nike Europe contract is extremely difficult for any Track athlete, with strict reduction clauses, which include faulty performances resulting in a reduction of salary.”
Losing her top-30 place in the world cost her 20 percent of her small salary. Twenty-five percent of her salary was reduced as a result for not reaching Nike’s requirements. It’s a business investment for them.
Medical appointments, healthy food, housing, electricity, running shoes, training attire, travel and entry costs — it’s an expensive job. Unless you’re Usain Bolt, the financial side of things isn’t your first priority as an athlete.
“You do it because you love it and hope theoretical prize money follows through every now and again — sometimes it doesn’t,” Justine said.
The fall of 2017 was a period where Justine experienced depression. After all the blood, sweat and tears she’d experienced, all she got was a loss of financial support when she needed it the most. “I questioned whether it was all worth it — all the heartache and pain I went through to compete at the Olympic Games.”
But here she is a year later, a strong, wiser and more determined woman than ever. “2017 is going to be an incredible year. I’m finally completely injury free, and the world is truly my oyster. I’m free at last.”
Justine is currently training in altitude in Albuquerque alongside Claudia Saunders, another former Stanford University track athlete, and they together dream of representing their country at the Olympic Games.
“Justine is an incredible teammate. I cannot wait to see what this year brings for both of us. We work together just like we did three years ago at Stanford. It’s so fun,” Saunders said.
Contact Anna Laman at alaman ‘at’ stanford.edu.