When Princeton women’s cross country head coach Brad Hunt met Maddie Offstein ’19, she was coming off of a gap year she took after experiencing burnout in her freshman year. He still remembers how nervous she was, thinking she might get dropped by the new coach after her year off. Her goal, she said, was to become a faster 800-meter runner. He thought she could do more.
“She went on to be All-Ivy at 3,000 meters and was an Ivy League champion in the distance medley relay. She made the NCAA first round in 1,500 meters and ended up helping our team qualify in the national meet in cross country. So, she just truly did have this capacity to do more than a half-miler,” he said.
Hunt continues to be right in his prediction. On Feb. 3, the 27-year-old will compete in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Orlando among the fastest women in the country running 26.2 miles.
Offstein’s Olympic marathon dreams came into view shortly after graduating from Princeton. Though more than the Games themselves, Offstein was motivated by the city where the 2020 trials were to be held: Atlanta.
When she was just an infant, Offstein’s mom brought her to Atlanta to watch a portion of the 1996 Olympic Games. Atlanta is also where her sister, Molly, was cared for after a traumatic accident in 2017. Molly, a freshman athlete at North Carolina’s Elon University at the time, was out on a run when she was struck by a car. Among the injuries sustained was a traumatic brain injury that continues to impact her short-term memory.
“It would have meant a lot to qualify and compete in Atlanta,” Offstein said, though she didn’t ultimately make it to the trials that year. The longer distance was still new to her when she attempted to qualify at the 2020 Houston Marathon. Her 2:48:39 debut fell short of the 2:45 qualifying standard.
But Offstein didn’t give up and has only gotten faster in the years since. After signing as a pro with the Hansons-Brooks Original Distance Project in 2022, she has honed her racing skills. In June 2023 she qualified for the 2024 trials by running a 2:35:51 at Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota. The qualifying time for the 2024 marathon trials is eight minutes faster than it was four years ago.
Offstein draws on inspiration from her sister in thinking about her own capabilities. “[Molly is] a really good reminder that progress is always possible,” she said. After the accident, Molly spent five months in the hospital, much of that time in a minimally conscious state. In the years since she has worked to regain the ability stand, use her hands, speak, and walk. Today, Molly is active in creating art and helping at Runner’s Wings, a running store that their mother and stepfather opened in their hometown, Frostburg, Maryland, in early 2023.
Molly’s experience has also inspired Offstein’s career in public health as a research associate at the University of Illinois, Chicago, studying school health and wellness policy implementation within Chicago Public Schools, and working as a consultant with Sinai Community Institute on a maternal child health project.
“I recognize that Molly’s outcome, her positive trajectory and recovery experience were largely a factor of the resources available to my family. And I think that when it comes to health inequities and disparities in the U.S., those are things that need to be addressed from the community level and with better evaluations of initiatives,” she said.
With her vision of helping underserved communities as her true north star, Offstein is less concerned about the outcome at the trials. It’s one race of many, as she hopes to continue to compete and persist in the sport for at least another decade.
Though lately Molly has been razzing Offstein about their once shared pursuit. “She’s funny,” Offstein said of her sister. “This is newer, but she’ll say to me, ‘You’ve gotten so much more serious about running since my accident, it’s like I’m running through you.’” Offstein laughs while also shedding a tear. “No pressure, right?”