The Tech’s April Player of the Month is Maryann Gong ’17. Gong was recently named the NCAA Division III Women’s Track Athlete of the Year by the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. She won the 3000m race at the national meet to go along with a third place finish in the mile race and helped her team clinch second in the relay. She was also instrumental in leading the women’s track and field team to victory in the Division III regional meet.
Remarkably, by the time we had a chance to catch up with her, she had already started training for the cross-country season. Her determination to be the best was very apparent. As Coach Taylor, the director of Track and Field and Cross Country at MIT put it: “Maryann is a very talented runner, but that is not what separates her from the rest. What sets her apart is that she not only says she wants to be the best, she is willing to do what it takes to get there. She is very coachable and extremely dedicated. She wants to reach her potential and will not back down due to the required workload. Maintaining a 5.0 GPA and running 80 miles per week, and all that comes with that (travel to competitions, seeing the athletic trainers regularly, cross training, mental training, strength training) requires amazing time management and keeping the goals in focus. In my 35 years of coaching there have only been a handful of student-athletes willing and able to do the work required for such excellence in both areas.”
Despite her tight schedule, Maryann Gong was generous with her time as she gave us a glimpse of what it takes to be premier student-athlete at MIT. From race strategy to a TV series recommendation to a quote on her wall, this is Maryann Gong unplugged:
The Tech: Congratulations on being named NCAA Div. III Track Athlete of the Year and winning the 3000m race at the national meet.
Maryann Gong: Thank you! I think overall our indoor season was good for me on a personal level and also for the team, because last year the women’s team was close but did not quite win the Division III regionals. This year we all brought our A game and won the regional meet overall. Personally I had two good races, the mile and the 800m.
TT: Can you explain to us what the track and field season is like? When does it start? When are the indoor and outdoor meets?
MG: For distance athletes, a lot of us do cross-country, which is during the fall, so we don’t start training for track till cross-country is over. I started training for the indoor season on December 1 last year. We participate in a lot of races at Boston University during the indoor season. They host a lot of big meets that not only attract Div. III but also Div. II, Div. I, and elite runners. That gives us a great opportunity to race people who are really fast.
Most of our season is geared towards the regional meet. There are strong teams like Middlebury and Williams College who pose stiff challenges. We were able to overcome them this year, which was good. We have the national meet right before spring break.
We start training for the outdoor track season a week after spring break. We had a meet this past weekend (4/4–4/5). The national meet for the outdoor season is usually during finals week. Basically I get a week off after the cross-country season before we start preparing for indoor season and then a week off after indoor season before we get started for outdoor season.
TT: How do you avoid burnout given that you are training for something all year round?
MG: You have to be careful about it. If you are super intense and focused and training really hard all the time, then you run the risk of getting burnt out. So we build up mileage, speed, and intensity of workouts and try to peak during the big meets.
TT: After winning a race at the nationals meet you said in an interview you preferred to run on a certain lane. Can you elaborate?
MG: For distance races, you are not required to run in the same lane all the time like in sprints. Usually after one or two turns you are allowed to come towards the inner lane. In general running on the inner lanes is better because you are covering a shorter distance, but sometimes in crowded races you don’t want to get boxed in. You can get tripped easily or spiked. You need enough free space so you can take off for that final burst.
TT: So there are some races you perform really well in, but, there must be some races that don’t go as well for you. When you are about you to go off at the beginning of a race, do you get a good feeling about the ones that you perform well in?
MG: I think there is a feeling like that. I don’t always get it. But when I do get that feeling, I usually always do well.
In distance races you usually strategize. You don’t want to go out too hard right at the beginning. So it is always a balance to conserve enough energy for the whole race, but at the same time, not be so conservative that you leave yourself too much ground to make up.
A strategy I like to use for racing is to run with the top group and go with whatever pace they are going at, and then when there are two or three laps to go, depending on the length of the race, I go for it. When I am having a really good race, I can feel I am holding back and am always on the brink of letting go. When you make a move my coach says you have to go all in. You can’t make a half-hearted attempt when it comes to the final dash; you can’t give the other athletes the hope of catching up to you again.
TT: How much does your qualifying performance affect your race? Does that play on your mind? Do you re-strategize based on how your qualifying went sometimes?
MG: Yes, what everyone else’s times are in qualifying and how they compare with mine does play a role in my strategizing. If everyone else is slower than you, you can just do a pace no one else can keep up with. On the other hand, in a really big meet when there are athletes quite a bit faster than you, it gives you an idea of which group you should keep up with for the bulk of the race before making your move.
But of course, you can’t always trust the times in qualifying because people have good and bad days, but it is something good to keep in mind always.
TT: This is pretty interesting. It seems there is a lot of strategizing and not just strapping your boots on and racing.
MG: Absolutely! I feel there are always athletes in the race who are physically capable of matching the winner’s time. It comes down to how mentally tough you are in that moment and the strategy you take to get there. There will be different athletes with different strengths — for example, some may be good at the sprints — so it is important to know your strengths and play to them.
Other times, it just comes down to how much pain you can take mentally. It’s delayed gratification. There is a quote [by Laura Hillenbrand] that comes to mind: “A lifetime of glory is worth a moment of pain.”
There is also another quote [by Jerry Rice] that I have on my wall in my room: “Today I will do what others won’t, so tomorrow I can accomplish what others can’t.” We do two sessions a day when we train, whether we go on runs or do weight training, and then on weekends, we go for long runs. Sometimes you wake up very tired and you don’t feel like doing the morning session — that’s when I read that quote on the wall. I really like that quote.
TT: You are majoring in EECS. Is there any particular field within EECS you are most interested in?
MG: I still haven’t chosen my specialty. Right now I really like the algorithms class (6.046) I am taking right now. It is very challenging. Sometimes I feel like I need to do mental gymnastics to comprehend everything but I relish the challenge. I am also interested in artificial intelligence and machine learning.
I am doing an UROP with Prof. John Guttag right now where we are analyzing different speech samples from children with different speech developmental disorders. We are trying to use machine learning to give diagnoses.
TT: How are you able to balance academics with the practice schedule of a student-athlete?
MG: I think freshman year wasn’t so bad. I just started my UROP. I feel like you have to compromise on something, and right now I think what is suffering is my sleep. A couple of weeks before spring break there were three exams — that was the week leading up to the national meet. That was really stressful. Sleep is important for running, but also I needed to study for the exams. Not all weeks are as horrible as some!
TT: Do you get time to chill outside academics and training?
MG: Yeah, I do like to chill during the weekends. I like visiting NYC, cooking, and eating out with friends. I try to make time for myself during the weekends. I play the piano. I like to watch TV shows with my friends. Currently I am watching The 100. It is pretty good. I recommend it!
TT: What is it like to be part of the MIT Track and Field team?
MG: The team spirit is great and a stark contrast from my high school team. Track is a collection of different sports. So you might not always interact with everyone on the team on a daily basis. For our team here, we are required to learn every teammate’s name, face, major, and athletic goals. So the pole-vaulters know the runners, and so on.
That helps with cheering people on during meets. Not only are your teammates from your event group cheering for you, but also teammates from other event groups when they are not actively competing. I feel people are more invested, since we know what each individual’s goal is, be it time, length, or height.
The coaches here are really good. Coach Taylor is the head coach. He coaches the runners and is really great. Sometimes he will say you can run a certain time, and I’ll be like, no way can I run that fast. He will tell us to trust training, and then eventually he turns out to be right. Pretty remarkable! He has the right combination of mental toughness and understanding.
TT: What are your goals for the upcoming seasons?
MG: I want to win all the events I am participating in during the national meet. I participated in the mile, the 3000m, and the relay. I won the 3000m but finished third in the mile and second in the relay. Going into the final lap I was in the lead in both the mile and the relay, and I got sprinted down in the last 100m or so, so that was disappointing. But it was a good experience. I would like to improve.
I also want to focus and do well in the 1500m and 5000m during the outdoor meets.
TT: Thanks for making the time to talk to us. All the best!
MG: This was fun. Thanks!
This transcript was lightly edited for clarity and length.
Please keep sending your nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org!