At this time last year, Cal’s Deborah Maier was just getting back into full training mode after being sidelined for nearly three months with a stress fracture in her lower back. As she fought to get back in to shape, Maier had no idea she was about to put together the most decorated year of women’s long-distance running in Cal’s history.
This Friday, Maier will try to cap off her comeback by qualifying for the 2012 London Games in the women’s 10,000-meter race at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore. She’ll also compete in the 5,000 on June 28.
"It was really hard the first few weeks accepting that I was going to be out for two or three months with no running, especially since I felt like I was in the best shape of my life," Maier said. "In the back of mind, I was just trying to remind myself that there’s an upcoming cross country season."
Maier didn’t start running cross country until her junior year at Ponderosa High School in Cameron Park when she decided she needed a fall sport to keep herself in shape for soccer season. A year later, she finished fifth overall at the CIF State Cross Country Championships.
"I came into college realizing that I had a lot of untapped potential," Maier said.
Maier’s talent blossomed on the national stage during her junior year in fall 2010. She was named an All-American after finishing 30th at the NCAA Championships and was gearing up for a promising indoor track season. Then, the day before she was supposed to depart for her first meet, her back muscles locked up 15 minutes into a morning run. She had a stress fracture in her sacrum and was put on crutches for six weeks.
But by the time cross country resumed in the fall, Maier was back to full speed. She won her first race of the season, took second at the NCAA West Regionals and finished 11th at the NCAA Championships, tying the best performance in school history.
She burned up the track during the indoor season, too, finishing as the national runner-up in the 3,000 and 5,000-meter races.
In April, she had to shut things down for about three weeks to heal a gluteal muscle strain and returned to run her first-ever 10,000-meter race at Stanford’s Payton Jordan Invitational. Despite her injury and inexperience, she broke Cal’s school record by 27 seconds and finished with the third-fastest time in women’s NCAA history. Maier eventually took third in that event at the NCAA Championships while earning first-team All-America honors.
Tony Sandoval, Cal’s director of track and field, said Maier’s ability to rebound from injury is a reflection of her innate maturity.
"If I looked at the 30 years I’ve been at Cal, I’ve maybe had two or three athletes who’ve had that same kind of poise — it is rare," he said.
Maier hopes to continue her trajectory in the 10,000 with a trip to the Olympics this summer, but she recognizes that it would be a rare achievement for a collegiate runner.
"I think it will be a great experience to just go out there and compete with the fastest ladies in the U.S.," she said.