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There is no denying the special spark between Maddie and Molly Offstein when they sing karaoke together. Holding a microphone and looking to her older sister for reassurance, Molly fights to form the words to Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song,” a defiant anthem about never giving up. Maddie belts out the lyrics, but leaves the song’s powerful punch to Molly.
“‘Cause I still have a lot of fight left in me,” she sings softly as the sisters look to the camera and smile.
Since March 6, 2017, every day has been a heart-wrenching fight for Molly’s life, a journey marked by devastation and despair, but also hope and healing. A journey that has tested Molly and Maddie’s bond in unimaginable ways.
“I have trouble fully capturing how special the bond that we formed over this year is, but can best describe it as ‘sister power’ or ‘sister magic,’” Maddie, 24, recently told Women’s Running in series of interviews by phone and email.
Four years ago, she almost lost her sister forever. On that morning in 2017, Molly, then a freshman distance runner at Elon University in North Carolina, was out training on campus. As she tried to cross a road, she was struck by a car at 55 miles per hour and thrown across the pavement. (The driver was not charged in the accident.)
When medics arrived, she was clinging to life, breathing but unresponsive. At the hospital, doctors raced to treat her devastating injuries, including severe trauma to her brain, internal organ damage, spinal fractures, and a shattered left pelvis.
“The odds weren’t in her favor other than that she was super strong,” says Laura Byrnes, her mother. Over the phone, she identified Molly by her red, white, and blue Brooks running shoes, size 6.5. Meanwhile, Maddie, a sophomore and distance runner at Princeton University, was in class when her coach summoned her to his office.
“It was a drop in the pit of my stomach when he said ‘Molly’s been in an accident,’” she says.
When Maddie first saw her sister in the hospital, her body was covered in skid abrasions, and her head was shaved from emergency brain surgery.
“Her whole left side had to be put back together. She wasn’t awake,” Maddie says. “At that point we are like, ‘Will she wake up? What will be she be like when she wakes up?'”
While Maddie traveled back and forth between Princeton and the hospital, their mother rarely left Molly’s bedside, taking on the monumental role of managing her complex care.
“My mom, living her worst nightmare, exhibited what I—and most others—would call ‘superwoman’ strength,” Maddie says.
Though Molly eventually opened her eyes, she remained in a minimally conscious state for months, unable to speak and mostly unaware of her surroundings. In the early days of her sister’s recovery, Maddie turned to running to “feel close to Molly at a time when I couldn’t communicate with her and she couldn’t communicate with us,” she says. “I remember in races and workouts, I kind of imagined Molly on my shoulder. That’s the way we ran in high school together.”
The “sister magic” between Maddie and Molly formed when they were little girls; they were born just a year and a half apart and were always on the move with their parents, who were military intelligence officers.
By the time the family settled in Maryland, the sisters rarely did anything without each other. Living in a rural area, the girls would spend hours exploring the outdoors together, playing and drawing maps of imaginary worlds.
As teenagers, they brought their sister magic to cross country and track at Mountain Ridge High School in Frostburg, Maryland, where they trained and raced side-by-side, becoming state track champions.
“We could laugh so hard we almost had to stop running some days and had the ability to push each other harder than anyone else,” says Maddie. They both loved running, but maintained distinct personalities.
“Molly was the artistic and naturally athletic one,” Maddie says. “I was the academic, nerdy one, and I was only good at running because I tried really hard.”
On tough cross-country courses, Molly seemed to glide with effortless speed and strength as Maddie struggled to keep up. On the track, however, they both soared, dominating the middle and long distances. Maddie’s senior year and Molly’s sophomore year, they both won state indoor track titles at the same meet in 2014. Molly went first in the 3200 meters.
“I remember watching Molly go—Molly was a beautiful runner and that is one thing I haven’t been able to emulate,” Maddie says. “With a lap to go, she took off and easily won. I was like, ‘Oh shoot, now it’s my turn.’”
But she, too, delivered, capturing the state title in the 800 meters. Afterward, the sisters celebrated with a trip to Panera.
“We were just over the moon,” she recalls. “It was everything we worked for and it was only because of each other.”
That joy wouldn’t last for Maddie. While her sister continued her illustrious high school running career, Maddie felt overwhelmed at Princeton University, and after her freshman year, she decided to take a year off from school and running and go home to Frostburg. Molly would slow her runs to allow her sister to keep up, offering quiet encouragement as Maddie worked to regain her focus and energy.
“Being home for that year and during Molly’s senior year [of high school] before her accident, I value that so much,” Maddie says. In addition to her athletic success, Molly was her class valedictorian and gave a speech at her graduation.
Maddie has since become the keeper of those treasured memories for Molly, who has trouble recalling experiences in her past. The last time Molly and Maddie ran together was Christmas Day 2016. Life was good. Maddie was finally hitting her stride at Princeton, and Molly was enjoying college.
“We laughed so hard that first 10 minutes of the run. Molly was telling me about her freshman year and we were reminiscing about high school,” Maddie says. “That was our last run together, and I hold that very close to my heart.”
As she watched her sister struggle to regain abilities—standing up, using her hands, speaking—and witnessed their mother’s tireless commitment, Maddie was determined to make the most of her opportunities. With tremendous support from her college teammates and coaches following Molly’s accident, Maddie blossomed as a runner.
In 2018, Maddie spent the summer running in Boulder, Colorado (something she and Molly always talked about doing together), and worked at a nonprofit organization for people with disabilities. Back at Princeton that fall, she helped her cross-country team finish second at the NCAA Division I Northeast Cross Country Championships and earn spot at the national championships.
“In terms of racing memories, it sits second behind the one where my sister and I won our state championships together,” Maddie says. “The together aspect of these memories are what make them special.”
The following year, Maddie ran the fastest track times of her collegiate career, including a 4:50 indoor mile and 4:22 for the 1500 meters outdoors. With her own success, Maddie wonders what Molly would have achieved as a college runner.
“Molly was that good,” she says. “I wasn’t necessarily on the trajectory to be that good.”
After graduating from Princeton in 2019, Maddie is now chasing running goals she never thought were possible. In addition to pursing a master’s degree in public health from the University of Illinois-Chicago, she is currently training and hoping to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Track Trials in June in the 10,000 meters.
Now coached by Dena Evans, former coach at Stanford University, Maddie ran 15:57 in the 5,000 meters (a 45-second personal best) in December at the Sound Running Track meet. Molly and their mom have taught her to find joy in the process of progress, rather than constantly searching for the finish line.
“Today, running acts as the greatest reminder that progress is always possible and that it is important to move forward in both running and in life,” she says.
Molly, now 23, continues to move forward in her recovery. She is working to walk independently and speak more clearly. She’s also regained her ability to write. Happy and witty, Molly likes to draw funny pictures, like a recent one of a honeybee that reads: “She might be a bee-otch but she is still sweet!”
Maddie acknowledges that her sister’s progress after a severe brain injury is the result of her family’s access to the best medical teams and facilities and her mother’s relentless advocacy. Recognizing the inequalities in the healthcare system, Maddie plans to pursue a career in public health.
“I couldn’t be more proud of my girls,” Byrnes says. “They will continue to do great things in this life.”
Fueled by that sister magic, the pair remains unstoppable.
“Just being around [Maddie], I’m inspired to work hard,” Molly writes in an email, with the help of her sister and mother, adding that she loves her sister’s “dedication, toughness, and her personality. I also learn so much from her. Even her mistakes, which are very few.”