Catching up with Olympic Gold Medalist Mary Wineberg
By Betsy Ross, Contributing Writer
Photos and video by Madison Schmidt
Mary Wineberg used to run track around the world: Now she runs around her classroom at Hyde Park Elementary, chasing down her room of second graders. To the rest of us, she’s a gold medal Olympian. To her kids, she’s Mrs. Wineberg. And that’s OK with her. It may be a different venue, but the same goal: To help her kids do their best.
The Monday through Friday of teaching is a far cry from Mary’s previous career of running at world-class track events across the globe. But being a teacher was always in the back of her mind, even before she reached Olympic stardom.
“I remember my days in elementary school just thinking, ‘What teacher do I want to be like?’ I had no idea that I wanted to be a teacher, but I looked around and thought, ‘Oh, I want to be a teacher when I grow up.’”
The idea to be a teacher came even before the idea of being in sports. It’s a story Mary tells often: At age 4 she took part in a fun run during a neighborhood block party against the other kids. And beat them—handily. “But I honestly never thought to participate in sports like I did. I just enjoyed being a child.”
Later that year, she moved from New York to Cincinnati with my step-grandmother (more on her family later). “I didn’t know what kind of life the move would bring, but I felt it would be a little bit better than what I had in New York.”
Mary enjoyed running, like most kids, but she can thank her coaches at Walnut Hills and her best friend for convincing her to take up track in high school.
“I wanted to do it just to be cool, not thinking that I had a talent, not thinking anything of that nature until my coaches said ‘Wow this girl, I think she can be really quick.’ And even then I’m thinking well, I don’t understand anything about running. But it was really about having confidence in me.”
Her track career led her to the University of Cincinnati on scholarship, where she excelled, but Mary had a hard time believing in her own success.
“I struggled with being the athlete that my coaches wanted me to be,” she said, “or believing I could be the athlete that everyone else wanted me to be. When I look back, I’m winning all these races and I’m doing great and I think why would this girl struggle with believing in herself?
“I could get out on the track and I could race, but I would get so nervous when I would get into the big competitions, because then I would be the underdog. For me I had to learn not only to believe in myself, but I had to really think that I know I can do this because they said I can do this and I know I can do this because I’ve been training to do this.
“It really hit me my senior year. I’m standing at the University of Louisville track and getting ready to go, because I’m expected to win the women’s 400. I was very stressed because I didn’t want to let my team down. And I’m thinking, I can’t do this, I can’t run this race, and my roommate at the time, she kind of looked at me and said, ‘Mary, you can do this, you have this.’ And I’m crying now, and I said, ‘I’m not going to the start line.’
“I look back and think, ‘did I really believe I wasn’t going to the start line for this race that I’d been training for four years in college?’ But for me, being at the conference meet in front of all those other girls, that’s where I didn’t think I was good enough. I didn’t deserve to be there. But that day I had to learn, I did deserve to be there. And I ended up running a personal best.”
Mary was at the peak of her profession when she left U.C., so it was only natural that she would take her track career to the next level. “After college I thought I could just say I could do anything and it would just happen. I graduated in 2002 and I had the chance to go to the Olympic training center and train for the Olympics. So I think ‘Wow, I’m at the Olympic training center, I’m going to make the Olympic team, it’s that easy.’”
The truth was, it wasn’t easy and at her first try at going to the Olympics in 2004, she didn’t make it. But instead of discouraging her, it encouraged her to change her tactics and work harder, and in 2008 she represented the United States in track and field in Beijing, winning gold in the 4 x 400 meters.
Her journey to the Games, her ups and downs in the sport, her private battles with self-confidence are all included in her new book, Unwavering Perseverance. Also included in her book are her first public comments about her adoption. “I had talked about it a little, mostly with close friends and family members. People in my close circle knew I was adopted.
“After losing my (adoptive) mom in 2012, I struggled with wanting to know where I came from. I didn’t really know about my background and history, and so I wanted to know and have some sense of closure.
“At first I thought ‘I don’t want to do this, I don’t know what I’m going to open up.’ After doing the search, I was very happy for making my peace with my mother and talking with her and hearing her side, because of course there are always two sides to the story. But it was also for me nice to know where I came from.”
From modest beginnings in Brooklyn to the top of the podium at the Olympics, to a school desk at Hyde Park Elementary, it’s been quite a journey for Mary Wineberg, now with a family of her own with husband Chris and her two daughters. She found stardom on the international stage, but now she’s just as happy in front of her second graders.
“A lot of people ask, ‘Do you like teaching? Is this really your passion?’ And I tell them yes. I knew when I was done running, some athletes always struggle with what they want to do next. What’s the next step. And for me, I knew. I wanted to be a teacher.
“I tell my students, I’m their mom away from home. They kind of laugh and then say, ‘You are mom away from home.’ It gives me great pleasure to be able to just inspire them and show them what they can be. It makes me happy.
“I used to run, it made me happy. And now teaching makes me happy.”
Mary Wineberg’s book, Unwavering Perseverance is available at http://marywineberg.com/shop/.
Her book release event is scheduled for this Saturday, November 18 from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m. at Walnut Hills High School. It’s free and open to the public.