My name is Melody Fairchild. I’ve been called the “greatest female high school distance runner of all time.” One would think that with a title like that, I would have been a sure thing to achieve the big dreams that such prowess spawns in the heart and mind of a young athlete. That is not my story. But what I’ve come to know now is that it doesn’t matter.
I grew up in a canyon just west of Boulder, Colorado. As a young girl, it was the chance to get a view of the snow capped peaks of the Continental Divide (if I ascended the canyon high enough) that kept me running day after day.
It was the discovery of my inner strength and my pure love of leaving it all on the road; of working up, then flying down, the canyon. The hard work was strengthening, and continually motivating. It also paid off: My efforts as a young runner led to winning my age group in the Bolder Boulder 10K. The thrill and satisfaction of reaching a tangible accomplishment like that fueled me even further.
By the time I reached high school, my motivation became making the varsity cross-country team. But if I’m being honest, it was all fueled by an even more sacred dream: of someday becoming an Olympian.
I can still vividly remember the exact moment I realized that was the accomplishment I wanted most. I was grocery shopping with my mother prior to the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. I was eleven years old, and the image of Mary Decker running on the cover of LIFE magazine grabbed my attention in the checkout line. I knew at that moment: I wanted to be her.
I had quickly become the runner people knew, winning every race I ran at the state level. I’d hear people tell me, “We’ll be seeing you in the Olympics someday.” I wanted it, bad. I had to work really hard at focusing on the present, making every step count, in order to stay true to where I wanted to go. Meanwhile, my coach reminded me to keep the “big picture” in mind―the dream of becoming an Olympian.
This single-minded focus informed every decision that I made, on and off the track. It was the singular thing that kept me running. “Every step I take, is a step closer to my Olympic dream,” I would tell myself.
That mantra kept me running through high school, becoming an eight-time Colorado State champion, setting the course record at the Footlocker National HS Cross-Country Championship and earning bronze at the World Cross-Country Championships as a senior.
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That mantra kept me running into a D-1 scholarship college. During my years as a University of Oregon Duck, I earned an NCAA Championship in the 3000m indoors. I was by every definition a success. But those years of running were also fueled by something else: grief. I had tried to leave behind the pain of my mother dying just a few days after my high school graduation; I had tried to genuinely run away from my past. But the grief kept trying to keep up with me. Some days, grief won, enveloping me and rendering me just parts. It was especially during these times that the original motivation for running, that all-important “why” of my steadfast belief that I could be an Olympian, helped keep me moving forward.
And then it was finally my shot. My chance to become an Olympian. The first two opportunities I had to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials after college, I did―first in the 10K and then in the marathon. The journeys to get to those trials were helping me embody the Olympic motto: “Citius, Altius, Fortius”―faster, higher, stronger. I didn’t make the U.S. Olympic team either time, but I realized then how often the “fails” in life teach us more than the wins.
As I continued to persevere in my Olympic pursuit, I began to realize that what kept me running was no longer just that one, myopic goal. It wasn’t just about me. It was the desire to give back, to share the lessons I’d learned with younger runners, in hopes that doing so would help them manifest their dreams. To know that any goal is worth chasing, but at the end of the day it won’t feel worthwhile if it’s not grounded in a deep love of what you’re doing.
That’s what keeps me running today. It’s the chance to wake up each day and activate my inner Olympian, so I can in turn recognize it’s sparkle in the women and kids I coach. So I can help those young women feel the empowerment and courage that comes from chasing their best. So I can help them navigate the tough moments and chapters of their lives without losing their love of running. So I can help them realize their potential, even if it looks different than they thought it would.
For most of my young life, I wanted more than anything to become an Olympian. That is not my story. But what I’ve come to know now is that it doesn’t matter. I realized that we all can live with the heart of an Olympian, whether we’ve earned that title or not. That living “as if” we are, each day, is what really matters.
It doesn’t matter that I didn’t make it. My inner compass is set to the heart of an Olympian―always striving to become my version of “faster, higher, further.” With each first step of a run, my heart is ignited with the courage to leave it all out there and the effort inspires another day of living with hope, that whatever I am becoming, will leave me satisfied and grateful for the aliveness within me, at the end of the day.