By John Roth, GoDuke the Magazine
As a 400-meter specialist from high school through college, Maddy Price has run more laps around more tracks than anyone would care to count or even estimate. But no doubt one of the most memorable came late in her senior year at Duke, under the appreciative gaze of over 47,000 pairs of eyes at America’s most revered track & field carnival, the Penn Relays.
As Price took the baton from teammate Brittany Aveni for the anchor leg of the Championship of America women’s 4x400 relay final, the Blue Devils were in third place. Almost immediately Price burst into second, but down the first straightaway she remained several meters behind Clemson’s Fellan Ferguson, who a couple of months earlier had helped the Tigers take the ACC 4x400 indoor title by eight-tenths of a second over Price and Duke.
Not this time. Price gradually gained ground, passed Ferguson midway down the homestretch of sun-splashed Franklin Field, and crossed the finish line .36 seconds ahead of her Tiger counterpart. Within an instant of breaking into a huge grin and fist-pumping the baton, Price was embraced by relay mates Aveni, India Lowe and MacKenzie Kerr. Shortly thereafter, the jubilant quartet could be seen hoisting their prize, the coveted Penn Relays wheel – just the fifth ever claimed by a Blue Devil relay contingent, and first since 2011.
The memory of a lifetime, no question — made possible by Price’s stunning 51.49 split over the last 400 meters. Price can recount the gist of those seconds, knowing she had the leader in her sights as she was eating away at the margin between them. But not every detail is firmly ingrained in her mind — because the race was won mostly with her heart.
“In those kinds of experiences or really great performances, a lot of times you’ll cross the finish line and not really remember it,” she explained several days afterward. “Your body is kind of just doing it for itself and your mind and your heart are just going, which is a really cool feeling. You end up just letting go and letting your body do it because you’ve trained so much that muscle memory is there, that speed is there.
“That’s what happened — I just let go and let my heart go for it. That was a pure heart race for me, just wanting that wheel for my team so badly.”
The 2018 Penn Relays 4x400 final may go down as the signature race of her college career, but it was just one of the many times Price trusted her heart to lead the way around a track. Her senior year, which concluded June 7 at the NCAA outdoor national championships, featured one high note after another, eliciting glowing plaudits from veteran director of track Norm Ogilvie. He succinctly, and aptly, described her season as outstanding and her career phenomenal.
Price departs as Duke’s record-holder in the indoor and outdoor 400 meters, establishing both marks this season in ACC championship races (53.27 indoors, 52.30 outdoors) in which she claimed silver medals. She also owns the 200-meter Duke mark (23.20) and had held the 100 record, before freshman teammate Kethlin Campbell topped her in April. And Price was a member of five relay teams that rank No. 1 in Duke history — the 4x200 and 4x400 indoors, plus the 4x100, 4x200 and 4x400 outdoors.
She may not have accomplished every individual goal she pursued — coming up just short of an ACC crown and missing out on an NCAA qualifying spot in the 400 — but she left with a heart full of pride for helping the Blue Devils’ program continue its emergence as a bona fide relay contender. In each of her four years, at least one of her relays qualified for and competed in the NCAA nationals, and every time her contingent came home with All-America honors.
As a freshman, her 4x400 unit took sixth at NCAA indoors for first-team All-America accolades. Sophomore year she was on the distance medley relay team that placed 11th at indoor nationals. Last year she anchored the 4x400 unit to 16th place at outdoor nationals, and this year her 4x400 group made both indoor and outdoor NCAAs. They placed 14th indoors, and just missed the final outdoors with the ninth best time in the semis. They also turned in three of the best four 4x400 times in school history down the stretch of the outdoor season, setting a new school record in the NCAA regionals at 3:32.21 to earn their spot in Eugene, Ore., for nationals.
The 4x400 team benefited from experience and chemistry in reaching national elite status. Price, Lowe and Kerr were fixtures each of the past two seasons. The only change for 2018 was replacing last year’s senior, Madeline Kopp, with the sophomore Aveni. Next year, Price will be the only member not returning.
“The biggest thing is racing for the girl next to you,” Price said. “You go out there and you do your job and give everything you can so you can hand that baton off in better position, so you set that girl up — or in my position being the anchor later in my Duke career, knowing these girls worked their butts off to put me in a good position, so I’m going to finish it not only for myself but my team. The relay part of track is really cool.
“Track is an individual sport, but the relay makes it this super-team aspect that has a lot of heart. I think a lot of people say the 4x4 is a heart race. That Penn Relays race was really just a pure heart race for everyone, especially for me coming from behind and getting those girls for our team, because we believed in it.”
Price admits there is pressure attached to running anchor for these aspirational Duke relays, but it’s a pressure she’s learned to thrive on due to the raw competitive nature of the endeavor. That was one of the lures that initially drew her to the track from her multi-sport upbringing. “There are no refs, no interference, just pure competition,” she said. “It’s simultaneously terrifying and also really exciting to have that.”
If it can be said that Price has a heart built for racing, the genetic origin would be traced to her father, Shawn Price, a former professional racecar driver and off-road motorcycle racer. He won Mexico’s Baja 1,000-mile motorcycle race in 2002, drove a Porsche to victory in the 2005 Rolex 24-hour race at Daytona, and once completed the Paris-Dakar Rally by motorbiking 6,000 miles through the North African desert.
Frequent talks with her father fueled Maddy’s passion for racing and was a driving factor in her development on the track. The two shared a dream that Maddy might one day perform at the ultimate race, the Olympics. They even plotted a course of action. Although Maddy was born and raised in California, where her father became a successful executive in cloud computing for Oracle, both of her parents hailed from Canada. Her dual citizenship enabled her to run for the Canadian Junior National Team while in high school, and she earned a spot in the 2016 Canadian Olympic Trials following her sophomore year at Duke, coming up a couple places shy of qualifying for Rio in the 200 and 400.
Maddy plans to continue training for a shot at the 2020 Olympics, but her father won’t be along to encourage her racing strategy or stoke her speed gene. He tragically passed away at the age of 53 in October 2016, during Maddy’s junior year, from an aggressive form of melanoma.
With a heavy heart, Maddy left school and went home for two weeks to mourn with her family. Upon her return she immediately jumped back into training and academics — a move that had both pluses and minuses during such a fragile time for the 21-year-old.
“It was simultaneously saving me to be on the track and put myself into this mental space, to keep grinding,” she recalled, “because I knew he would want me to be strong and continue on and work hard in school. So I just pushed on, which can be great in some ways but also hard, because college isn’t necessarily the best place to be grieving and to deal with something like that.
“It led to a transition in my track career, going from having that racing part and that person who was there, to doing it on my own,” she added. “Getting myself to get back on the track and feel confident again, and feeling like this dream that was ours, to make it to the Olympics, to make that my own and redefine what track was for myself — that was definitely a big hurdle to get over mentally and physically to get back out there.”
Price went through the entire indoor and outdoor track seasons of 2017, earned All-ACC and academic honors and went to the NCAAs with her 4x400 unit, but she acknowledges that it wasn’t until the ACC indoor meet this winter that she reached her turning point.
“It was a huge breakthrough for me after that whole last year of coming back. Getting second place (in the 400), setting the school record, and having my mom and my grandma there, my best friends on the team, Coach (Mark) Mueller — most of them were crying because they knew how big of a thing it was for me to reach that after struggling and getting through all that.”
Mueller was one of Price’s coaches in high school. He came to Duke as a sprints coach the same year she matriculated, so he was a guiding influence throughout her Blue Devil years.
“Her junior year I told her, ‘Let’s just have no expectations for yourself in individual events. Just focus on being there for your team, focus on the relay and try to enjoy track and being out there with your team.’ It’s such a big part of her life that I wanted it to be an outlet, something positive and not something more stressful. That year was definitely tough for her but I was extremely proud of her because in spite of having some nagging injuries and going through the grieving process, she ran a monster anchor leg at regionals to help qualify is for the NCAA Championships.
“This last fall training was still hard for her knowing she had a lot of expectations for her senior year, wanting to leave Duke on a high note, wanting to make her dad proud, and to reach what she knows she is capable of. By the time we got to the ACC indoor meet, she was running well and she was ready physically but was as nervous as I’ve ever seen her to actualize what she had worked so long for. All her hard work was coming together and you could see how motivated she was to make it a great year. She proved how much she wanted it at ACC indoors and then consistently for the rest of the year.”
Away from the track, Price started a student organization that aided her healing process. Actively Moving Forward (AMF) is a national initiative with chapters across the country to empower and support students who have lost loved ones while in college. “I was actually enrolled in a class called ‘Death and Dying’ when my dad was sick. I wrote a research paper and found out about AMF. The statistic is that one in three college students are grieving the loss of a loved one within the last year. Knowing the huge number of students going through this, without a lot of resources, was huge motivation for starting it here. It was a special part of the latter part of my Duke experience.”
That Duke experience was a full one, to say the least. Price also was involved with the pre-orientation program, Project Waves, all four years, first as a participant and then as a staff member, to help mentor freshmen at the beginning of their college journeys. And last summer she was one of the 20 Duke student-athletes selected for the Rubenstein-Bing Student-Athlete Civic Engagement (ACE) program, spending three weeks in Vietnam working with eighth and ninth graders.
Price majored in sociology, minored in political science and earned a markets & management certificate. Though her undergraduate career is now complete, she has more Duke in her future. Next year she will pursue an MMS degree at the Fuqua School of Business while continuing her track training on campus, with eyes on the 2019 World Championships in addition to the 2020 Olympics.
“I honestly couldn’t imagine being at a better place,” she said.
During the 2017-18 year, seniors set a high bar of achievement across the Blue Devil sporting landscape. Heavyweight wrestler Jacob Kasper made a run at the NCAA title… lacrosse star Justin Guterding became the all-time leading goal-scorer in Division I… Imani Dorsey topped a nucleus of dynamic seniors who carried women’s soccer to an unforgettable year… Leona Maguire wrapped up her career as one of the school’s best golfers ever… tennis player Samantha Harris, golfer Jake Shuman, swimmer Leah Goldman, fencer Pascual Di Tella and hoopster Lexie Brown all had standout swan songs worthy of mention.
But when the school’s student-athletes had the collective opportunity late in the spring to vote for a Most Valuable Player amongst their peers, the winner turned out to be the much-respected senior trackster with racing in her heart, Maddy Price. And that was before she’d led her 4x400 group to the Penn Relays crown.
“It was such an honor,” she reflected. “Even being nominated alongside people like Jacob Kasper, Imani Dorsey, Leona who won the lifetime achievement award — all these amazing athletes that are all seniors who’ve had these amazing careers — it was just amazing. To feel like this athletic community recognized me was super special.”