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Sean McGorty’s Olympic Trials Outlook After The Fastest Steeplechase Debut In American History

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Sean McGorty is a member of the Bowerman Track Club. Way before that he was a standout runner out of Virginia who went on to become an NCAA champion at Stanford. Since graduating in 2018, he’s run personal bests of 3:36.61 for 1,500m, 3:55.21 for the mile, 13:06.45 for the 5K and most recently 8:20.77 for the 3,000m steeplechase. His win in his steeplechase debut at the USATF Golden Games gave him the Olympic standard and now an option to possibly make that team for Tokyo this summer. However, maybe two years ago all of that would’ve seemed distant since he was facing a mysterious infection that required multiple surgeries to alleviate. He made a comeback from that last summer and hasn’t looked back since. You’ll hear more about that mystery and why he still has no answers behind it. Plus his outlook on the 5K and steeplechase scene ahead of the U.S. Olympic Trials.

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SHOW NOTES AND QUOTES

What grade would he give himself after his first steeplechase race

“I am happy. Especially with the race plan Jerry (Schumacher) gave me of just trying to learn the event, stay relaxed and just compete and put yourself in the position to win. I’m definitely pleased with that so I feel like I was able to execute the way we wanted. I’d give it an A-. I don’t think it was perfect but I’m definitely happy with it.”

When Schumacher first came up with the idea for McGorty to steeple

“If you want to go back to the first time Jerry mentioned the steeplechase, it was 2018 before I was even on the team. We met before Payton Jordan. He had some guys and women racing at Payton Jordan and this is when I was beginning to talk to him about potentially joining the team. We sat down and his big thing was that he thinks everyone kind of has their ideal race distance. For some people, it’s the 1,500m. For some people, it’s the 5K. For some people, it’s the 3K so if you’re going to run the 3K at the professional level, you also need to be able to hurdle. He was saying he didn’t really know what that was going to be for me, but he thought the steeplechase could be something that I’d be potentially good at and would maybe want to experiment with if I join the team. I kind of knew where his head was at before I joined the team. 

That first year, I did my first steeple workout and did another steeple workout up at altitude. I was actually planning on racing the steeple at the Sunset Tour. It was right when Sound Running was beginning to put on their races. A bunch of my teammates ran like the 5K, 800m and 1,500m. I think it was in July. I was planning on making my steeple debut in 2019 but ended up getting an infection in my foot, which kind of derailed things for the next couple of months. That put the steepling on pause. Then in 2020, we’re beginning to hurdle again during the winter but I think once COVID canceled the Olympics and I had a hamstring strain that I was kind of dealing with in March and April, that kind of limited hurdling for a bit until we did our two-week steeple boot camp and our mini racing series at Jesuit High School. That was when I did two workouts in the same week. Then the next week, we did a 2K steeple time trial, followed by a 3K steeple time trial on a Friday. I think that was when we’re like, ‘OK, this is something we feel good about doing in 2021.’ I think we always knew we’re going to race one this year. It was just a matter of how the schedule lined up.”

The Mystery Infection That Nearly Derailed His Career

“So in June, I started to have some pain down at the bottom of my heel.  I’d had a stress fracture in my calcaneus before so it was in the same area. kind of just thought it was that. I was super confused as to how I would have gotten a stress fracture in my calcaneus again. We got an MRI and there’s edema in the area, so we just kind of assumed it was that. But my foot started to get pretty swollen, pretty red in the area. 

In hindsight, I’m like, ‘I don’t know why I didn’t go to the hospital earlier’ because I started having night sweats, random bouts of chills. It was probably the most miserable week of my life. I was constantly taking Advil trying to keep all of it under control. My foot continued to get bigger and bigger. It was so swollen I couldn’t actually walk on it because I couldn’t put my foot at a 90-degree angle. Eventually, I went to the hospital up in Park City. They thought it was cellulitis, which is just a skin infection on the outside of the skin. I was getting IV antibiotics for two to three hours, twice a day. I did that for Thursday, Friday and Saturday. And then Elise Cranny, who is on the Bowerman team and also my girlfriend, came back from a long run on Sunday. She was like, ‘Shalane, thinks we need to go to the University of Utah hospital. They have their own infectious disease department.’ I was hesitant to go, but she convinced me. I checked into the hospital that night. We spent that afternoon watching the Pre Classic on TV and in the hospital room. They did a CT scan and we’re like, ‘Oh yeah. You have an infection in your heel bone, basically.’ I got an MRI that night as well. That was the most painful 30 minutes of my entire life because my foot had to be at 30 degrees. It was making me cry during the MRI. They were going to give me morphine. Every single minute I was asking them, ‘Are we done?’ I had surgery the next day on July 1st to clean out the infection. 

Alistair Cragg, my agent, was able to fly out the morning of. I didn’t know this, but he had a conversation with the surgeon saying, ‘Please don’t take more of the heel than you need to. Just clean it out. He needs his foot to run.’ I thought that was kind of going to be the end of it. I think I stayed another day or two. I flew back with my dad to Virginia. I think it was like July 4th. I was in a splint and non-weight bearing for a few weeks but then was able to thankfully go out to USAs to cheer on my teammates. I started to try and build back into running but the incision site really didn’t heal. There was still some swelling in the area and it just didn’t feel right. My foot still didn’t fit comfortably into my shoe. I was seeing Colleen Little (who was Nike’s physical therapist and now works with the Bowerman team) and I really think she helped keep it manageable. By the time I went back home, just for a little break in September, my foot got re-swollen again. It wasn’t like I didn’t have the chills or the night sweats, but it got to the point that I couldn’t move it again. I actually remember I was FaceTimeing Elise because she was in Europe and I was telling her I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, like, it doesn’t seem great again.’ As soon as I got off the phone and went back upstairs, my parents were like, ‘We’re taking you to the E.R. You need to go get this looked at again.’ 

I don’t know what it was every time I checked into the E.R., my teammates seemed to have an important race because the night I checked in was the night of The Hunt in Oregon. I was able to watch that from my hospital bed. I had surgery the next night on the 12th and then had surgery again two days later. I ended up being in the hospital for a week. That was when it was confirmed that I had osteomyelitis, so the infection had gotten into the bone. However, my surgeon in Virginia was fantastic. Dr. Shabaz. He really made me feel comfortable and confident with everything he was doing. He was just such a positive light and positive energy through it. It was definitely hard going through it again and just thinking that it had been gone on and then having to go through it again. Coming out of that, the day I left the hospital, they put a PICC line in my right arm and that was so I could administer IV antibiotics every single day for the next six weeks. It was something I was hesitant to do but was a game-changer. I didn’t do that the first time. I just tried to do antibiotic pills twice a day. The IV antibiotics are much stronger and I think that in addition to Dr. Shabaz and his work really just helped kick the infection. It was basically three surgeries in the span of a couple. I have a nice scar down the right side of my heel but thankfully, I think all of it is now behind me.”

Did he ever think his career was over?

“I think I can be pretty stubborn. I don’t know if it’s like a coping mechanism but I kind of went through a similar process in college when I had Haglund’s surgery for my Achilles in 2017. I don’t let myself lose grasp of the dream of continuing to be able to do this and the goals that I have. I think that stubbornness tried to fight the idea that it could be over. It was hard. I really appreciate the infectious disease doctors because they were very patient with me. Every single time they walked in the door, it usually wasn’t great news. I just never really wanted to see them. I would try my best to keep it under wraps but there are just some moments where it would boil over. My parents and one of my brothers were out there and they were incredible visiting every day. My emotions were high and I was getting frustrated and there were times where I knew my mom would have to step out. She would go to the bathroom just so she could cry and not do that in front of me. I think it was incredibly stressful. There probably were moments where I was like, ‘I really hope this isn’t the end.’ I don’t know if it’s compartmentalizing or just being stubborn and holding on to those dreams and goals that I have but I think I just tried to just hold on to every ounce of positivity throughout that entire process.”


For more on Sean’s thoughts on his preparation for the Olympic Trials, training in Park City and more. Listen to the full episode now.


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