IT WAS A LITTLE OVER 4 years ago that Sean McGorty stood on the starting line of the Olympic Trials 5000 final. On paper, he had a lot going for him. NCAA runner-up at age 21 with a PR of 13:24.25: what could go wrong?
“Everything,” says the 25-year-old Virginia native. “I was treating those guys like they were just at another level. The confidence that I had raced the NCAAs with just went out the door. I was just reacting to whatever they were doing. I was running scared and in my mind I’d already decided like, I didn’t belong here.”
He finished next-to-last, almost a half-lap behind what it took to make the team. “It was a big wakeup call.” Now, he says, “It was a great experience because it can only serve to help me moving forward.”
The Stanford alum’s road since then, however, has been anything but straight and flat. “Roller coaster ride” comes to mind.
The next year, poised for his senior campaign, he instead had surgery on his Achilles, followed by a stress fracture, and only raced once.
In ’18, he got back on his feet and triumphed in the collegiate title 5000, outsprinting Justyn Knight and his own Stanford teammate Grant Fisher. A brief trip to Europe gave him PRs of 3:36.61 and 13:21.93. “To end college accomplishing probably my biggest goal going in with winning an NCAA title was perfect,” says McGorty. “I think Milt [then Stanford-coach Chris Miltenberg] played such an instrumental part in my development and set me up incredibly well to transition.”
A pro contract followed and McGorty moved to Portland to work with Jerry Schumacher and the Nike Bowerman club. And that’s when the ride got crazy. Indoors, he delivered a sterling 13:21.35 in Boston to open ’19. Outdoors he had barely started, racing a couple of decent 1500s in California, when he started feeling pain in his right foot.
A suspected edema in his heel turned out to be a serious infection. Doctors advised surgery, warning that if the infection had penetrated his bone marrow, they might have to take the foot.
The July operation seemed to be a success and by August McGorty had returned to light running: “I was trying to get back into it and my foot would swell up and I was still having sharp pain. I was icing like 3 times a day. I was trying to do every miniscule thing to just run 25 minutes and still have it not feel good.”
By September, he had to be hospitalized again. The infection had never left, and a biopsy confirmed osteomyelitis. Another surgery, with his doctor shaving the bone. Then 6 weeks of IV antibiotics.
“There were times in the hospital in Virginia that were frustrating. I just wanted to be back to normal. Whenever they came into the room, it was going to be terribly bad news, telling me things I didn’t want to hear. I’d have these moments of like, ‘Is it going to be OK? Am I still going to be able to run?’”
In late October, he finally felt good enough to run again—with the Bowerman women. “We have such a talented women’s team that I was able to pop into workouts with them to help close the gap as I was working back to getting with the guys.”
With the men by December, McGorty started out training with Chris Derrick (coming back from injury) and Andrew Bumbalough (returning from a marathon), before joining Fisher, Ryan Hill and Evan Jager in workouts around New Year’s.
While on vacation in Florida, he had a breakthrough in a workout he did with his brother Ryan. It was a 10 x 400 session that followed a 4M tempo, and Ryan rabbited on the 400s. “Without him, I don’t think I would’ve gotten through the workout,” says Sean. There’s kind of a mental block and having him rabbit helped me turn it off and be like, ‘Oh, there’s actually more in here than you think.’”
Then came altitude camp at Park City, Utah. “It was trial by fire,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘I’m going to do whatever they do, whatever it takes.’” He showed progress in the indoor season, running 3:57.19 for the mile and 7:46.76 for 3K.
A strained hamstring in March came as perhaps a blessing, he says. “It forced me for a month to hit reset and I was still able to get good mileage. I just wasn’t able to work out.”
The next altitude camp went even better. “That was the best camp I’ve had, with how workouts were going and how I was feeling. I definitely felt I was back and ready to roll.”
At the end of June, McGorty made his statement, topping Fisher in an intrasquad 5000 with a PR 13:11.22. Three weeks later he clocked 3:37.12, just a half-second off his PR, in the 1500.
Now, his foot troubles seem so far away. “It was great to have some nice performances this year. It’s exciting moving forward. You know, I have a scar on my foot to remind me, but I try not to dwell on [the surgeries].”
One sweet takeaway—the conversations he had with girlfriend and teammate Elise Cranny during the ordeal: “I think we found a way to both smile and make that memory special. That’s just a lesson for life moving forward. They were definitely hard moments; a lot of life lessons learned. I’m grateful for that.”
McGorty’s path to the higher reaches of distance running started not surprisingly with his parents. Father Kevin McGorty was a 2-time decathlon All-America for North Carolina; mother Vicki (as Verinder) was a Foot Locker XC finalist who also competed for the Tar Heels.
All three sons have made a name in the sport. Middle brother Ryan was a 2-time NCAA qualifier for William & Mary. The youngest, Brandon, is an 800 specialist who ran on Stanford’s 4th-place NCAA distance medley in ’18 with Sean.
All ended up being runners, despite dad’s being a field event coach, though Sean relates to one of the family’s holiday traditions: “My mom always saves the pumpkin until Thanksgiving and we set it out in the field and see who can hit it with a javelin.” He adds, “Our dad helped us foster an appreciation of all events instead of just being focused on distance runners.”
Currently McGorty is readying himself to lay down another off-season of basework to put himself in the best possible position for the Olympic year and beyond. “I think the team joke is that we just had our off-year and we don’t get another one until 2026. I think it’s exciting that every year is a big year with a global championship.
“Off-years are great for running fast and trying new things, but it’s a great feeling to put on a USA uniform and to have that opportunity every single year is very exciting. There’s a lot to get pumped up for.
“I’m sure, leading into the Olympics, it’s still not going to be our normal training block—with the state of everything from COVID—but I’m excited to learn to adapt and still do everything I need to do to be ready when I toe the starting line at the Trials.”