Author note: I have known the Malone family for a long time. Nancy Kindig-Malone was my high school track coach and mentor. Danny Malone was the athletic director. I babysat all three children, Maggie, Audrey, and Callahan. I am honored that Maggie agreed to speak with me about her experience leading up to and at the Olympics in Rio.
Maggie Malone has always been involved in athletics. With both parents coaching sports in the one-stoplight town of Geneva, Nebraska, Maggie’s “home was the gym and track. Our house was just the place we slept.”
At a young age, Maggie participated in soccer, T-ball, and track. In grade school, she played basketball and club volleyball. In junior high and high school, she competed in volleyball, basketball, track and field, and softball. The all-around training and variety enhanced her athletic ability.
“My parents did it right,” she stated. “So many parents push their kids and burn them out. I don’t feel burnt out. I want to keep going. I’m not saying it was easy or that I loved every minute of it. It was hard, and I hated that Mom made me run that one lap around the track on Sundays, but she made it fun. She’d time us and let us jump hurdles. Afterwards, we’d chat and get popsicles. That’s the hard thing about track and field – it’s not fun. Dad always pushed us to be our best, whether it was sports or in school. My parents gave me the knowledge and showed me how fun all sports could be, and from there, I found a love for track and field.”
The benefits of sports didn’t end off the field or court. Team sports developed accountability to others, built relationships, and she learned to work with others and different personalities. Individual sports built accountability to herself – she was responsible for her actions. She also developed internal motivation and discipline. Maggie stated “I learned more about myself in individual sports than I did on a team.”
While younger generations look to her as a role model, Maggie said she looked to her mother. “It’s not even a competition. I always looked to my mom for inspiration. Mom is so humble and never talks about herself. When I was younger, I wanted to beat all her records – to be better than her. Now I want to be like her – humble, kind, motivating, and grounded in faith.”
In high school, Maggie led Fillmore Central to two State Championships in track and field. As a senior, she earned all-class gold in the long jump at the Nebraska State Track Meet. Recruited by the Cornhuskers, she started training for the pentathlon and heptathlon. “I never threw javelin in high school. It isn’t allowed in Nebraska because of safety issues. The only reason javelin was even on my radar is because it’s part of the heptathlon.”
At the beginning of the year, the athletes went through a series of tests. One test was a softball throw, and freshman redshirt Maggie out-threw the entire Husker women’s team. “Coach (Gary) Pepin was impressed and Coach (Kris) Grimes immediately wanted me as a javelin thrower. But they continued training me as a heptathlete.” However, around April, Grimes handed Maggie a javelin.
“He told me, ‘If you throw pass this cone we’ll remove your redshirt and let you compete at the Big 10 Championships.'” Maggie repeatedly threw past the cone and was handed a uniform. She competed at the Big 10 Championships just days later. “I threw 165 feet, which landed third and qualified for Regionals. I ended up 10th at Nationals that year.”
At this point, Maggie’s family moved to Texas. Maggie wanted to follow and asked to be released from the Huskers so she could compete at Texas but Pepin asked her to stay another year. If, at the end of that year she still wanted to move, he would release her. During her sophomore year, Maggie improved her marks and placed 4th at Nationals.
As much as she loved Nebraska and competing for the Huskers, she still felt like God was leading her to Texas. “My family was there and Coach Grimes had transferred to Texas A&M which was just down the road from my parents. Plus, the javelin coach at A&M, Juan de la Garza, had trained multiple Olympians. I wanted and needed a coach with that kind of experience.” Pepin released Maggie and she moved to Texas.
Maggie said she faced some of her greatest challenges during her junior year. “I had a new coach and he broke down my technique in order to build me back up. I was unmotivated. I hated going to practices because I was throwing terribly. I was eating crap all the time. I went into the season assuming I would win Nationals. I ended up getting 9th.”
The day after Nationals, Maggie and her coach had a conversation about improving her senior year. She took three weeks off and then started training. “I kid you not, I was sore every day for three months,” Maggie stated. “I believe champions are made in the summer. I can’t even tell you how many bleachers I ran. Fall training doesn’t let up much and I’d do extra, like add weight or run more. I would even do extra workouts on Saturdays.”
But there was something missing. Maggie found her faith in God failing. “I’m blessed to come from a family that is really strong in our Catholic faith. Mom is very involved in church, and Dad is always the first to ask ‘Did you make it to Mass?’ I surrounded myself with friends who put God first. But that summer, I detached from my faith. I just didn’t care. I was angry at God because I’d had a poor season.”
Around December, several of her teammates approached her. “They put a mirror in my face and said ‘This person you’ve become isn’t you.’ I remember being alone and bawling, asking myself why I turned away from Christ. At that point, I handed my life back to God. Immediately, I was happier, and practices started improving.”
Coach “Chico” (de la Garza) structured Maggie’s training so she would be at her best for Nationals. “I never even considered the Olympics. It was like a far-off dream. Chico kept mentioning it because he thought I could do it but I just wanted to focus on NOT getting 9th at Nationals.”
As planned, Maggie peaked at Nationals and threw a personal best of 62.19 meters (approximately 204 ft) which broke the record. Then Maggie won the Olympic Trials, making her the first in American javelin history to win both the collegiate and national titles.
“After my throw, Audrey ran up to me and hugged me, yelling ‘You’re going to the Olympics!’ I sprinted across the field to find Chico and hugged him and my head coach. Then I was swept off by officials for interviews and drug testing. I didn’t even get to see my family for two hours after the competition. It was a whirlwind.”
The day following the Olympic trials, Maggie reported at 8 am for Day One Processing. She was fitted for the Olympic outfits, briefed on Rio, given a travel itinerary, rooming information, Zika information, checked for her immunizations, told what to bring and what not to bring, given doctor information, and had to decide on travel dates for plane tickets. “At least I already had my passport,” Maggie joked. “It was all so overwhelming.”
She delayed her departure to continue training with her coach, and to “keep as much of a normal schedule as possible.” The “normal schedule” turned out to be a challenge with interviews, parties, agents approaching her, and finally signing a contract with Nike. “I wasn’t expecting a sponsorship. It’s fun to be part of the Nike family. They take care of you.” Then came Day Two Processing, where she was fitted with her Ralph Lauren outfit, flag etiquette, nutrition and food in Rio, more on Zika, and other information.
Balancing all the attention with training required discipline. “It’s been overwhelming but very humbling. Everyone is so kind and genuine about my success. Everyone wants to be a part of it. I didn’t realize what kind of impact I was going to make. I don’t see myself as an inspiration but God set me on this path, and if I need to be that for someone, I will.” Maggie also stated her younger brother, Cal, kept her grounded. “If he thought I was getting a big head, he’d remind me that I was just a girl from a small town and that he could still beat me up,” she laughed.
The best advice before Rio came from her Aunt Colleen. “She told me ‘Make it small,'” Maggie stated. “What she meant was I needed to think of the competition as a little track meet back in Nebraska, without the whole world watching.”
Upon arriving in Rio, Maggie stayed in the Olympic Village most of the time because she didn’t know the area. She couldn’t understand the language or communicate with others. “The food is terrible,” Maggie stated. “The line outside of McDonald’s is always so long! All these elite athletes are eating McDonald’s and pizza!”
Then there’s the aspect of meeting other athletes. “Team USA is united and supportive. It’s so cool that all the best athletes in the world are in one place. I get to meet them and talk to them, like Ashton Eaton. I’ve learned about so many of them on a personal, non-sport level. Plus, they have great advice. I’m so new to this and I need guidance.”
On the day of her competition, Maggie tried to keep her same pre-competition schedule. She listened to Christian music, ate her regular breakfast, journaled, and gave herself positive affirmations. “And my espresso,” she said. “Espressos are my competition day treat. It’s the only time I allow myself to have one.”
That’s where the “normal” stopped and things got “real.” She stated “Everything I knew, the warm ups and competing, none of that was similar. Audrey and my other three teammates weren’t there. Chico was texting from Texas to a coach in the stands. I was literally by myself. I was on a field, preparing to throw against women that I watched videos about in order to learn how to throw the javelin. Most were over 30 years old, and it was their third or fourth Olympics. I was this new thrower, having only done the javelin for 3 1/2 years. It was the first time I felt like I didn’t belong, and I felt my inexperience. Next time, I’ll be more prepared and have a different mentality.”
Maggie’s first throw fell short of her expectations. Nervous and not wanting to make a mistake, she asked an official when she was supposed to make her second attempt – except only one official spoke broken English and he was busy elsewhere. So she pointed at herself, pronounced her last name, and motioned to the runway. The official pointed at her and said “You, you,” so Maggie made her second attempt; it fell outside the throwing boundaries. For those watching the live stream there was confusion as a long pause ensued in which the officials conferred and then spoke with Maggie (there was no commentary). “I threw out of turn. They gave me a yellow card, like a warning. I didn’t even know there were yellow cards in track and field! It was OK, though, I didn’t care. My throw was out of bounds. I just don’t understand why no one stopped me. I was obviously not so-and-so-from-wherever, but they didn’t. I thought it was a little funny.”
Chico sent a text telling Maggie to be more aggressive. “I really ‘brought it’ on my last throw,” Maggie said. “I really thought I threw 61 meters but my technique wasn’t there and my body was just tired.” The throw went 46 meters. “It just showed that I’d been training and competing for so long. I peaked at Nationals like we wanted. I was able to hold onto it for the Trials. But my body just broke down at the Olympics.” She placed 25th out of 31 throwers.
After the competition, Maggie immediately called her mom, dad and sister. “None of them answered!” she laughed. “I finally got my boyfriend. Then my Aunt Barb called and cried with me, helped me feel better, and put things into perspective.” Maggie stated “I was upset that I did poorly but I was more saddened that my season was finally done and I didn’t have anyone there to share that with who’d been with me since the beginning.”
It wasn’t just Maggie who felt the chasm of space. After rooming with Maggie for 18 years and at meets, training with her, fighting and supporting her, competing with and against her, watching the Olympics from Texas was hard on sister/teammate, Audrey. Audrey wrote: “I was nervous as heck! Every single time she stepped on the runway I felt like I was going to throw up because I wanted her to do so well.”
Due to safety concerns in Rio and her mother’s recent illness, Maggie’s family stayed behind and cheered from the United States. “When I spoke to my family, my dad immediately said they regretted not coming to Rio, and that they wouldn’t be missing the next Olympics.”
Now that her season has ended, Maggie gets some time off. She used her free trip to Rio to explore the Olympic Village, work on her tan, attend other Olympic events, and relax. She seized an opportunity to be on the TODAY Show. Of course, there’s shopping for souvenirs, although she laughs and says “Everything I need is paid for by the US but people forget I’m still a poor college student. They should have sent money if they wanted a souvenir!” She plans to do yoga and swimming to rehab her body before getting back into conditioning in October.
The Malone family is heading to Geneva for a post-Olympic celebration. While in Nebraska, she plans to see UNL and (hopefully) make it to a Husker football game. But mostly, Maggie is excited to relax, spend time with family and friends, eat, and “be normal.”
“I’ve never been able to be a ‘normal’ college student, one who just goes to class and does homework. I can stay up late or sleep in! I’ll have about two months of that before I start training again and I am so excited for it.”
A small color tattoo of the Olympic rings and ” Rio 2016″ is in the near future. “I’m going to get it where people can see it – on my right wrist.” They’ll leave room to add the next several Olympics to the “wrist list.”
So what’s her next goal? To graduate with her Human Resource Development degree (with minors in Communication and Business) and then start a Masters degree in Marketing. Athletically? “To medal at the World Championships and the next Olympics. It’d be nice to set an American record, too.”
As for her loyalty: Huskers or Aggies? Laughing, Maggie replies “I call myself a ‘Huggie.’ I love Nebraska and will always be a Husker. But I’m also an Aggie. God led my path so I got the best of both.”
Maggie remains adamant in her faith. “I wouldn’t be here without God. He has led me my entire life. You need a community of followers to keep the fire in each other and that’s how I feel. I love being Catholic. I’ve felt the love and prayers from everyone back home. I even heard priests were praying for me at Mass. Every time I talk about my accomplishments, the glory goes to God. He works through me to do things and spread His Word. If throwing the javelin is how I can get the Word out, then I will do that until the day I die.”