Claudia Saunders training at IMG Academy in Florida Credit: Albert Velikonja

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Claudia Saunders did the math in her head. She had reached the three-week mark of rehabbing her second posterior tibial tendon tear in her left foot, and doctors expected that she would be able to start running. The Tokyo Olympics, at that time, were only a few months away. But Saunders still couldn’t run. One day, as she sat in a car with her coach, Tom Brumlik, Saunders broke down in tears. It was March of 2020, and she was nowhere near where she thought she’d be—not with her recovery, and certainly not with her running career. The doubts deepened, and Saunders, a professional middle distance track runner for the Under Armour-sponsored District Track Club, began to question her future in the sport.

“I was bawling for like 10 or 15 minutes, because I could just tell that it wasn’t better,” Saunders says. “I was like, OK, this is March and it’s probably going to be another month before I can actually just do a run and then I have to able to get fit enough to do workouts to go race and I was just like there’s no way I would hit the [Olympic] standard by June … When that kind of all came together in that moment, it just felt like a little bit too much.”

Saunders, 27, did not return to running until that September, and instead spent time biking or cross-training. On March 24, 2020, Olympic organizers postponed the Summer Games for a year due to the global pandemic and professional runners like Saunders had to find ways to stay motivated without official races or sanctioned practices. In those moments, Saunders discovered a clarity that had been missing while she obsessed over the Olympics and struggled with injuries. Now, healthy for the first time in two years, Saunders is back to racing and attempting to qualify in the 800 meters for the Tokyo Olympics, set to run July 23 to Aug. 8, as a member of the French team. (Saunders’ mother is from France and she has a dual France and United States citizenship.) She plans to run a few stateside meets this month before competing in the French championships from June 25 to 27.

“My time away from training and competing and training the way I wanted to just made me appreciate the sport more, just be more sure about what I wanted to do,” says Saunders, who lives on Capitol Hill. “It reassured me that this is what I should be doing right now and this is what I want to be doing. And even if there’s some bumps in the road and some pretty low moments, there’s nothing else I want to be doing as a career right now and with my time, and having that time away from the sport just made that more clear for me.”

Brumlik, the head coach of District Track Club, considers Saunders the first woman with accolades that “would indicate success on the professional level” that joined the team. He had witnessed Saunders’ talent and impressive range years earlier when she became an Ohio state champion in cross country and the 100-meter hurdles while he coached at another high school in the state. Saunders would go on to run at Stanford University, where she graduated as a six-time all-American in 2016. Brumlik says he reached out to her and her coach but did not receive much feedback. It made sense: A small, fledgling club on the other side of the country that did not have a sponsor at the time wasn’t going to entice an athlete with Saunders’ accomplishments.

After Stanford, Saunders signed a one-year contract to run for the Brooks Beast pro team based out of Seattle. By then, the Olympic dream had burrowed in her mind, and with a personal best and 2016 Olympic standard time of 2 minutes 0.63 seconds in the 800 meters, Saunders appeared to be on a path for track stardom. But she never found the right work-life balance in her new city, and her contract was not renewed after subpar performances.

“I loved being in Seattle, but it was not a fit training wise,” Saunders told City Paper in 2019. “I was anemic, vitamin D deficient … My contract got cut, which was kind of a bummer. I thought of staying, but the coach and I couldn’t get on the same page.”

Saunders remained in Seattle, working 30 hours a week as a nanny and paralegal, and figured her time as a professional runner might be over. It was around then that Brumlik noticed that she wasn’t with the Brooks team. He reached out again, and this time, Saunders responded. She joined District Track Club in January of 2018, about a year before the team received an Under Armour sponsorship.

“I think we connected for the most part in terms of the philosophy of training and our group. And I think she was really excited to kind of like step in and kind of be a centerpiece of our program and help build something,” Brumlik says. “Bringing her on was huge, because the easiest way to recruit is to have good athletes and have success.”

The team currently has 13 members: eight men and five women. Saunders ran a personal best in the 800 meters (2:00.47) just a few months after joining the club, but in May 2019, she tore her posterior tibial tendon for the first time. She believes the injuries may be partially attributed to some big toe issues she’s had “off and on since high school.” It would be nearly two years before she put on track spikes again to race.

Last month, at the Trials of Miles NYC Qualifier alongside some of the best runners in the world, Saunders finished fourth in the seeded 800 meters heat with a time of 2:03.51. She will need to run a 2020 Tokyo Olympic qualifying standard of 1:59.50 before the Games.

“I feel optimistic,” Saunders says. “I think that’s kind of a part of being an elite athlete, right? Sometimes you kind of have to have this optimism that to other people maybe seems a little unrealistic. But if you don’t think that you’re gonna do it, it’s definitely not gonna happen.”

During an Olympic year, the stakes for athletes in sports like track and field and swimming are amplified. This is the time where casual fans tune into the sport, and a breakout performance can be life changing.

“So every good moment and every bad moment is heightened,” Saunders says.

Then there’s the question of whether or not the Olympics will even happen. Doctors in Tokyo have called for the Olympic Games to be canceled due to the surge of COVID-19 cases in Japan. This Thursday, about 10,000 of the 80,000 unpaid volunteers for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics dropped out.

Saunders understands the dilemma.

“Obviously I would be really devastated if the games were canceled, but at the same time the health/well-being of ppl in Tokyo, athletes, officials, and coaches is more important,” she writes in a text. “So I hope there is a way the games can happen safely for everyone involved!”

But for now, Saunders finds joy simply in being able to put on her spikes and run without pain. She wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.