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Perseverance Pays Off for Marsella

Mike Marsella
Mike Marsella

June 6, 2018

Schedule of Events for NCAA Championships | Meet Information | UVA Track & Field/Cross Country Rosters | Schedule/Results | TFRRS/Men's Results | Twitter: @JeffWhiteUVa

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- As a 17-year-old freshman in the University of Virginia track & field program, Mike Marsella had a teammate with a 1988 birthdate.

Now, as he prepares to leave UVA with two degrees, the 23-year-old Marsella has teammates who were born in 1999. "That's crazy," he said.

He's picked up several nicknames over the years. The latest? "Now they just call me 'Grandpa,' " Marsella said, smiling.

His college career will end this week in Eugene, Oregon, where Marsella is one of eight Cavaliers competing in the NCAA outdoor championships. His semifinal in the 1,500 meters is scheduled to start around 7:45 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday. If Marsella advances to the final, he'll race for an NCAA title on Friday night.

Whatever happens, Marsella will have the satisfaction of knowing he finally raced in Eugene as a collegian.

"It's a huge burden off his shoulders," said Pete Watson, who coaches the men's distance runners at Virginia.

When Marsella left his hometown of Hope Valley, Rhode Island, for Charlottesville in the summer of 2012, he never dreamed he'd stay at UVA for six years. But a series of medical setbacks forced him to alter his plans.

 

 

Early in 2013, a car struck the moped on which Marsella was riding with teammate Adam Visokay. Visokay sustained a concussion but otherwise was OK. Marsella suffered a brain injury that left him in a coma for four days.

Marsella, who wasn't able to complete that semester academically, eventually recovered from his injury. He returned to school and rejoined the team. In the fall of 2013, he placed 56th at the ACC cross country meet, and he finished second in the 800 meters at the ACC indoor championships in March 2014.

In January 2015, he broke the four-minute mark in the mile, finishing in 3:59.97 at an indoor meet in Boston. In March 2015, he earned first-team All-America honors after helping the Cavaliers place sixth in the distance medley relay at the NCAA indoor championships, and two months later he finished third in the 1,500 meters at the ACC outdoors meet.

In the fall of 2015, however, Marsella came down with mononucleosis. Once he was cleared, he resumed training and was able to compete at the ACC indoor and outdoor meets in 2016, but he wasn't close to full strength.

Worse for Marsella, his troubles weren't over. In the fall of 2016, he suffered a stress fracture in his right femur. He expected to be healthy again by early 2017, but was sidelined with a second stress fracture, in the same spot. He missed both the indoor and outdoor seasons in his fifth year at UVA.

"I was ready to kind of call it quits there," said Marsella, who'd earned his bachelor's in sociology in December 2016, "but then Watson was like, `You could come back for a sixth year.' "

With encouragement from his best friend, former All-American Henry Wynne, Marsella decided to return to the University in 2017-18.

Wynne, who's from Connecticut, enrolled at UVA in the summer of 2013 and quickly bonded with Marsella.

"He was my main training partner," Wynne said by phone from Seattle, where he competes professionally with the Brooks Beasts Track Club.

"We had a lot of big goals, because we knew we could do well," Marsella recalled. "Watson kind of sat us down and was like, `You guys could really be great.' We loved that. We competed, honestly, in everything. We lived together. We played video games. We were trying to beat each other in everything."

Watson said: "Mike wouldn't be here without Henry, and Henry never would have gotten where he has if he didn't have Mike."

In March 2016, while Marsella was still feeling the effects of his bout with mono, Wynne won the mile at the NCAA indoor championships in Alabama.

He and Wynne had entered the 2015-16 academic year convinced it "was going to be a big year," Marsella said, "and obviously it was for him. It wasn't for me. So it was difficult. He was having the success that we both wanted.

"I was a little jealous of it, but at the same time I was happy for him. And knowing that our relationship was the way it was, it was fun. He knew that it wasn't the end for me, so the whole time he was like, `I'm waiting for you to get back.' "

Wynne said: "I just tried to help him stay positive and keep in loop with the team. All [of Marsella's setbacks were] things that he couldn't control. It's really hard to stay motivated when you're getting in shape and something bad happens. It's not like it's something that's his own fault."

After Wynne graduated last spring, Marsella remained at UVA. He'd exhausted his eligibility in cross country and so did not compete last fall. But at the ACC indoor meet in February he placed fourth in the mile, and at last month's ACC outdoor meet he finished fifth in the 1,500 meters.

Then came the NCAA East Preliminary meet last month in Tampa, Florida, where a top-12 finish would be required for Marsella to finally qualify for Eugene.

"I think this should be the third time that I'm going," said Marsella, who for various reasons had fallen short in his previous attempts.

He nearly stumbled again in Tampa. In his first race, in sweltering conditions, Marsella finished eighth. He came away dejected, certain he'd run as a Cavalier for the last time.

"I texted my girlfriend and said, `I can't believe that was it. That's my career right there. It's over,' " Marsella said.

In reply, Marsella received stunning news. His girlfriend, who'd been following the meet online, informed him that his time of 3:47.40 had earned him a spot in the quarterfinals.

"All the other [first-round] heats ran slow, so I got a time qualifier out of it," Marsella said.

He didn't squander his second chance. In the quarterfinals, Marsella ran 3:47.55 to secure a trip to Eugene. In Seattle, Wynne celebrated.

"I just wanted him to make it more than anything," Wynne said. "I tell all my friends out here, if he had been healthy, I don't even know how good he could have been [at UVA]."

Marsella, who has a strong kick, won't be favored in Eugene, but those who have followed his career are not about to discount his chances.

"He's got some crazy speed," Wynne said. "I've experienced it firsthand a lot of times. I think he can surprise a lot of people."

So does Bryan Fetzer, who directs UVA's track & field and cross country programs.

"The 1,500 at the national championship level becomes very tactical," Fetzer said. "If Mike stays patient and sticks to the plan, why not? It's just a matter of being in the right position and doing it."

Marsella, who received a master's last month from the Curry School of Education, plans to pursue a pro career after the NCAA championships. His resilience figures to serve him well.

"When I'm down, I know I'll get back up," he said. "That helped me coming back after a bad showing the first day [in Tampa]. I've been through worse. My confidence kind of resets every time."

He originally planned on running for Watson at the University of North Carolina. But Watson left UNC to join Fetzer's staff at UVA in January 2012, after which Marsella decided Charlottesville would be his college home.

His experience has been one he never could have envisioned when he left Rhode Island.

"The beginning feels like so long ago," Marsella said. "It honestly does feel like my whole life. Emotionally and even mentally, I feel like a totally different person. Honestly, I feel like I was a child after I got hit by the car.

"It felt like everything I did in high school, or everything I did before that, was just thrown out the window. I had to start all over again ... So it was depressing. It was horrible."

Through everything, though, Marsella persevered. And now he's in Eugene, ready to compete on one of his sport's biggest stages.

"It's been a long time coming," Fetzer said. "This is almost like redemption for him, to make it to national championships."

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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.

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