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Leah Falland was on her way to the Olympics, and then came the fall and the shock

Leah Falland grew up in a Michigan farm town and went to Michigan State, where she won two national championships. She will not race in Tokyo after a fall at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
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Leah Falland was so certain about what was going to happen. Two laps to go, and she was running alongside Emma Coburn and Courtney Frerichs, the two best 3,000-meter steeplechase runners in America for the better part of the past decade. They were about to pull away, the three of them — the Olympic bronze medalist, the American record holder and Falland. She did not only envision it. She felt it.

“I knew I could do it,” Falland said. “I just knew it was in there.”

The trio came to a barrier, an immovable obstacle. On her way over it, Falland’s right toe nicked the top. Falland tried to land on her left foot, but she had been running too fast and her legs were too tired. She tumbled to the ground and rolled. When she stood and started running again, a pack of runners surrounded her. She was shocked.

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At the U.S. Olympic track and field trials, it is part of the ritual for winners to share what they have overcome to become an Olympian, to explain how the calluses formed. The athletes who don’t make it have those stories, too.

Falland will turn 29 next month. She grew up in a Michigan farm town and went to Michigan State, where she won two national championships. Running had only rewarded her, and then it started punishing her. An overuse injury would lead to something much worse. She would finish one rehab just to start another.

“I can’t explain right now everything that it took to get to a place where I was confident and strong and injury-free and excited to be racing,” Falland said late Thursday night. “Years. Years. Times when I thought I was going to quit the sport.”

“I’ve broken two bones in my feet, ruptured my plantar fascia, broken my shin, had to get an injection in my hip for a frayed labrum, broken my pubic bone, and battled through anemia,” Falland wrote in a 2018 blog post.

“It took me a couple of years to finally put my hands up in the air and say, ‘There’s something wrong, I don’t know what to do, and I need some more help,’ ” Falland wrote in a 2019 blog post. “And honestly, guys, for a fiercely independent and competitive human, that admission felt like swallowing acid.”

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Thursday night, once she gathered herself on the Hayward Field track, Falland stayed with the pack for a lap. Her adrenaline went haywire. She tried to kick for the last 200 meters, but the fall had depleted her. “Yeah,” Falland said later. “I was just really cooked after all that.”

When she crossed the line, it was Val Constien in an embrace with Coburn and Frerichs. Falland finished ninth. She dropped to her hands and knees and bawled. Her sweat was indistinguishable from her tears.

Coburn put her arm around Falland and told her, “You’re more than this moment.” Falland knew that. She still could not stop crying. She found her coach, Dathan Ritzenhein, and cried in his arms.

“It took so much on Dathan’s part,” Falland said. “I really wanted to do this not just for me, but for him. Yeah, I’m going to be really sad for a while. I think that that’s warranted. It’s been a very difficult journey. I do have a lot to be proud of.”

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Falland sat down in a chair and answered questions during a virtual news conference for eight minutes, pausing to catch her breath and trying not to cry, unable to shake how much could have been different if not for one toe grazing the top of a barrier.

“I’m sorry, guys,” Falland said. “I’m just really, really sad. I worked really, really hard to get back to a place to where I could contend for that team. I wasn’t afraid at all. I believe in myself wholeheartedly. I felt like I was in a really good position. I could feel us peeling away from the pack. That’s what I had envisioned. I don’t know. I’m probably going to replay it thousands of times in my mind trying to figure out exactly what happened and what I can do to prevent that from happening again. I knew I could do it. I know I can do it. Brutal. It’s brutal.”

Before the trials, Falland spoke with her sister, who asked how she was doing mentally. Falland felt proud and confident. She knew the trials could be fickle, especially an event that includes splashing through 2½-feet-deep pits of water. Anything could happen. “Of course,” Falland said. “you never think it’s going to go wrong for you.”

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She told her sister that she had done everything she could have to make it to the trials and to be healthy.

“As cheesy as it sounds, I feel like I have the heart of an Olympian, even if it doesn’t go that way,” Falland said.

Tears welled in her eyes deep into Thursday night. Falland’s husband and family and college friends had come to Eugene, Ore., to watch her run. All she wanted was to hug them and go get a beer and talk about the good things that had happened in the past five years. She had earned some of the same rewards as the three Olympians — the calluses. That only mattered so much.

“Right now, it sucks,” Falland said. “It sucks bad.”