Meredith Rainey Valmon
Walkons usually don't even dream of winning individual national titles, but Meredith Rainey Valmon was hardly the usual walk-on. Her track career at Harvard took her even further than two NCAA Championships
When Meredith Rainey Valmon met with Harvard Track & Field Coach Frank Haggerty in his office in November of 1986, he was a skeptic.
"I was nervous about going down to meet with him and procrastinated for weeks before finally meeting him shortly before Thanksgiving break," she recalled. Rainey Valmon, a superb age-group runner in New York, had abandoned the sport at St. Ann's School in Brooklyn to pursue a number of activities, including volleyball and basketball.
So at that meeting with Haggerty -- who recently retired after more than two decades with the Crimson -- when she told him that she had run before high school, he asked, "Do you happen to remember how fast you ran?" She answered, "Oh yeah, I ran 60 flat (in the 400 meters)."
"At that time, I think that 59.3 was our school record," Haggerty said. "I thought if this girl at 12 years old can run 60 flat, hmm."
"He agreed to let me come out for the team but warned me that he wouldn't be able to pay much attention to me at first because I would be way behind the rest of the team," Rainey Valmon said.
Athletics had played no role in her matriculation at Harvard, but her parents certainly had. Her mother was an educator at a Brooklyn public school and her father was a New York police officer. They had instilled in a young Meredith that college was not an option -- she was definitely going.
"I was always encouraged by my parents, my grandparents and people at my school to aim high," she said. "They always told me that Harvard is something I could shoot for and I had an older sister who had gone to Yale, so I felt that going to an Ivy League school was possible."
Yet she had no idea how far track and field would take her. It was unthinkable that this walk-on freshman would not only eventually lead the Crimson to its first Heptagonal Championships, but that she would win two NCAA crowns before becoming America's top-ranked 800-meter runner for the better part of the 1990s, advancing all the way to the Olympic semifinals in the event.
"The night I won the NCAA Outdoor 800 meter title, Frank and I talked about that first meeting," Rainey Valmon remembered. "He said, 'When you told me your times, I was skeptical but as soon as I saw you jog I knew you would be great.' I joked, 'Likely story, Frank.' I think it took a bit longer for him to see that I could contribute."
Contribute wasn't the appropriate word. She dominated. Rainey Valmon put on a show at her final Heps Championship, scoring 38 points by herself at Franklin Field in 1990. She defeated two teams herself (and nearly a third) as the Crimson claimed its first-ever outdoor League title.
"The greatest thing was that we won the meet," she said. "And I was really happy that my contribution, scoring in six events, helped us accomplish that. My 400 final will always be one of my favorite races of my career in terms of a race when I really felt that I put it all together and ran just about the most perfect race I could have run. I never surpassed my time of 51.56 so that race is really special to me."
No Ivy Leaguer has been within two seconds of that time since. "That was perhaps my most perfect race ever in terms of my body doing exactly what I wanted it to do," she recalled. "The feeling when I finished was one of pure joy, and a rare moment in life when I felt complete satisfaction. It's difficult to describe how great that race felt, but anyone who has ever experienced a perfect race or performance of his or her own understands what I'm saying."
After graduating cum laude from Harvard that spring, Rainey Valmon became a widely-recognizable athlete on the track circuit. She twice represented the United States at the Olympic Games and once ran 800 meters in 1:57.04. Only three Americans have ever run faster -- Jearl Miles Clark, Mary Slaney and Kim Gallagher.
As high as her career took her in the 1990s, she began the important work of raising a family with her husband Andrew Valmon, himself an Olympic Gold medalist, as the new century approached. She trained for the 2000 Sydney Games after having their first child in 1997. The couple since has had two more children.
She served as the Vice President for the Chesapeake Region 2012 Coalition, a not-for-profit organization formed to bring the 2012 Olympics to the Baltimore-Washington region. That bid would eventually go to London.
The Valmons also started a not-for-profit organization in 1993 called the Avenue Program, which uses track & field to encourage young people to make good choices in life, set goals, and be disciplined in trying to accomplish those goals.
"We donate track equipment to help kids stay in the sport and enjoy it, and we bring them together with positive role models at track clinics where they learn something more about track & field, and hopefully something about life as well," she said.
Several former Ivy League athletes who work with the Avenue Program, including former Columbia fencing All-American Bob Cottingham, former Penn Olympian Randy Cox and former Brown runner Julia Stevenson.
Andrew is now the head coach at the University of Maryland while Meredith works from home and raises their children in suburban D.C. Motherhood has also turned her into an aspiring clothing manufacturer of sportswear for girls and babies. The idea came from her search for clothes for her own young girls.
"There are a bunch of things for boys that say things like 'Little All-Star,' but for girls there is nothing on the market that inspires them to be an athlete or play sports," Meredith said.
Sounds like that is about to change.
— Brett Hoover