Headed into the U.S. Olympic track and field trials, Roseville native Mason Ferlic has attained a sort of Zen about his place in the world of steeplechase.
Ferlic has battled injuries, Nike declining to renew his contract and moments when he doubted his career trajectory, his training and how he compared to other athletes.
But these stumbles, some literal and some figurative, have led Ferlic, 27, to a point of clarity as he enters one of the biggest races of his life — trying to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in steeplechase.
"I feel like I finally figured out the sport," Ferlic said. "It's weird saying that after being in the sport for 10-plus years — to say I finally figured it out. But in a sense I have. I matured as an athlete and person and now feel like a little bit more control at the right time with my training and body."
His trajectory since graduating from Michigan after winning the NCAA championships in 2016 has mirrored his college days: Injuries, followed by disappointing results until things coalesced at the right moment.
"Early on, had a couple of unfortunate injuries. Just couldn't quite put the races together I thought I was capable of and now here we are five years later coming to a trial and I'm in a position to win the Olympic trials," said Ferlic, a four-time Minnesota state champion in track and cross-country for Mounds Park Academy. "I take comfort in the fact that it's almost like I've been here before."
Ferlic had such a good year that he actually qualified for the trials in the 1,500, steeplechase and 5,000 but said he will only be running in the steeplechase, the first round of which is Monday in Eugene, Ore. On that same track in April, Ferlic set a personal best of 8 minutes, 18.49 seconds, the third-fastest qualifying time at the trials.
In another year, his mind might have been racing several different directions, wondering if he should cram more training in the week of the trails, or his confidence might have slacked. Not this time.
"I'm coming into this month and this week of being like, 'No, I'm as fit as I've ever been. I'm fit enough to accomplish my goals and make the Olympic team,' " Ferlic said. "So with that, it takes the pressure off. I've arrived. I'm ready to go. Now we don't need to do anything special or different."
Ferlic's path to this point began when he was training in Charlottesville, Va., as the pandemic hit. His schedule was now clear and he made an extended road trip back from Virginia through the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains to Minnesota with his brother.
"It was just really good brotherly bonding time," Ferlic said. "I was in a pretty rough mood, just with the Olympics being canceled and not really sure what to do next in my life because you plan this four-year cycle and now I have to wait another year. What next?"
While figuring that out, Ferlic got back to training — and he became a Ph.D. student in statistics at Michigan in the meantime.
Without any specific event to train for, Ferlic finally let his guard down. He wasn't going to look at Instagram posts to see what others were doing — a source of potential anxiety.
He and the group he was with in Ann Arbor, Mich., were just going to run and work out with no specific agenda other than to have a little fun during a scary time.
"I had spent so much of my professional career in the sport always thinking about either trying to please a sponsor or hit a certain ranking or qualify for a certain meet, and it became way more like a political game," Ferlic said. "In college, it was just like racing and beating people and the thrill of getting fit and like knowing you're going to smash it. It felt like I got stuck in the minutiae of the sport, which was the not enjoyable part of it."
Ferlic said his group would do some training around the "golden hour" of 7 p.m., a social outlet for them during a time of isolation, and he even figured he would do some speed work. He would break a four-minute mile.
He trains in Ann Arbor with Olympic medalist Nick Willis and high school phenom Hobbs Kessler and enjoyed the community atmosphere they found in their training.
"This is the fun part about training and racing and from that, I got sneakily fit and that's kind of transformed to the rest of the summer and season here," Ferlic said.
Now, his mind is at ease and clear of clutter, and his body is healthy. All that's left is to punch his ticket to Tokyo.