Mariah Kelly has just completed 14-days of quarantine and is comfortable back home in Victoria, B.C. Kelly competed at the New Balance Grand Prix World Indoor Track and Field Tour, her first race in a year. The event gave her—along with six other Canadian athletes—the opportunity to not only compete, but also earn points that affect an athlete’s world ranking and possibly their Olympic qualification.
This event kicks off the indoor track season and, after a good 2020 race season, the Niagara, Ontario-native came out in 2021 even better. Her PB in 1,500 is 4:09:38. In 2019, she ran 800m in 2:03:20. And 1,500m in 4:10:62. These are amongst some of the fastest Canadian finishing times we’ve seen.
Ask Kelly and she’ll tell you candidly that it has been a challenging year for her. She had many reasons to evaluate everything from her training to her relationships with her teammates to her husband, and herself.
Kelly is no stranger to hard work. On the track she has never been the fastest runner, and that only made her dig in deeper. She quickly became known to her coaches and teammates as one of the hardest working mid-distance runners in the country. Kelly’s work ethic, grit and willingness to take an unconventional path is how she landed a full scholarship at Baylor. Known for producing a strong contingent of track and field athletes including Olympians Michael Johnson and Jeremy Wairner, Kelly knew the University’s track and field program was where she needed to be if she was going to compete at the Olympics—a goal which had been her focus nearly as long as the 29-year-old had been running.
“From day one, my goal was to go to the Olympics,” she says, “However, even from day one, and honestly up until this point, I have yet to put any ‘Olympic status’ performances on paper that suggests I have what it takes to compete at that level. And honestly, many have said I don’t—but I know I do and the people who matter most to me believe that I do. Having their support and knowing deep inside I have what it takes is all I need. I still haven’t figured out how to bring it to the surface just yet but I will and every day I get a little closer.”
Growing up, Kelly played most everything, but fell in love with running after winning a cross-country race that her mother had registered her in. Eventually, she joined a local track club and began training as a mid-distance runner. Kelly’s focus is admirable. That said, in her self-reflection she recognizes how she may not always have been the best teammate. “I have always been extremely competitive, with others and with myself. I think that competitiveness came from having a strong desire to prove myself. I wanted to prove I belonged. I wanted to prove I was good enough; prove it to my teammates, my coaches, but mostly prove it to myself. And workouts were a place I could attain some of that validation I was desperately seeking.”
During workouts with her teammates, she would act so overly confident that she would set training paces that she was incapable of running at the time, all in an effort to prove herself. Needless to say, she wanted to fit in with the rest of her team, but finding her way wasn’t easy. “Most people would say I’m outgoing, loud and confident, but the truth is that over those first few years as a professional runner, I was really insecure and I felt like I didn’t belong.” she says.
Some of my training partners took some of my behavior personally and it affected them negatively. At the time I refused to see it from their perspective. I lacked remorse along with compassion. It’s taken a lot of self reflection and work to realize I was being so ego-centric and ego driven. Taking ownership of that and then taking the necessary steps to make amends and create change is the best thing I ever did.”
For Kelly, it was the situation surrounding George Floyd that changed her worldview. In 2012, she started dating Dennis Scruggs, a Black teammate of hers at Baylor. Three years later, the two graduated and Dennis joined Kelly in Canada. They signed a commonwealth marriage license so that they could apply for permanent residency and so that Dennis could work and live in Canada. However, Dennis surprised her with an official marriage proposal in 2018 and they were set to have an official wedding ceremony in Los Cabos, Mexico, with family and friends, September 5th 2020. Obviously, due to the pandemic, they had to cancel those plans, and in the ensuing time, Kelly says began to question her privilege and felt like she could no longer deny the opportunities she had taken for granted for most of her life. She’s been candid about her journey. “I had seen some inappropriate actions and heard the ignorant comments, I even thought, at the time, that I understood my own privilege, but it all felt different than ever before,” she says. More than anything, the striking difference for Kelly is in the moments she wouldn’t usually think about. “I don’t go outside and have to consider someone may be looking at me as a bad person because of the colour of my skin,” she says. Her husband Dennis does.
While they were both on athletic scholarships, Kelly says that she and Dennis had a very different focus. While she was able to chase her athletic aspirations along with her academics, for him, an athletic scholarship was his sole opportunity for a university degree, and ultimately, a better life. Raised by a single mom who worked multiple jobs, money was tight. To increase his chances for an athletic scholarship, Dennis studied at a community college, training on the track team, and waiting for his shot at a D1 school where athletic scholarships are aplenty. “It’s different when you have your family encouraging you along the way, versus feeling alone as he felt,” says Kelly, who has seen her platform grow on social media as she publicly wrestles with her surroundings. “For me, money was never a concern. I never had to worry about how I would afford to eat, or pay for school. I was aware that I had a security that he didn’t have, but I don’t think I understood what that felt like. I realize now that I took my own privilege for granted.”
Both her running and attitude have converged, adding a layer of strength to Kelly’s character both on and off the track. She has an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the belief Dennis has had in her and his commitment to her Olympic goals. “Part of him retired so that he could support me, and he continues to,” Kelly says. “There’s not a day that passes where I don’t think about it.” There have been many times in the past months when she’s become overcome with emotion. “After being with someone for eight years, knowing this is what they have gone through their entire lives and that they have tried to open up, but you were so closed off and consumed in your own world that you didn’t really hear it, understand it or see it, but most of all you didn’t feel it, that was a devastating realization for me,” she says. “I felt like I was a part of the problem and I believe I was.”
Beyond her personal awareness, Kelly is committed to talking about the issues her husband and other Black athletes have and continue to encounter. While she openly speaks out about her own experience and how she could have (and is) doing a better job of listening with a compassionate ear, she acknowledges there is much more work to be done to even the playing field so that athletes who want a post-collegiate career are able to have one regardless of their socio-economic circumstances. Dennis Scruggs is also wrestling with his approach to the world.
“In my last performance on the track I came in last place at the Big 12 Championship meet,” he says. “I was devastated and heartbroken and the first thing I did was isolate myself at the back of the hotel, cry and call my grandma. She didn’t understand my disappointment. None of my family ever truly understood any of my accomplishments or struggles in the sport. At that moment I felt so alone.”
Scruggs says that, as his relationship with Mariah grew and he continued to watch her pour her entire soul into the sport, the only thing he was sure of was that he was not going to let her experience what he had. “I wanted to be that person who helped her do it because when I tried I had no one and the feeling of having no one was much worse than the actual reality of having no one,” he says.
Dennis also has thoughts he shares on Black Lives Matter. Like Mariah, it’s important to him now to share his voice. “Prior to 2020 my biggest concern was making sure that other people felt comfortable around me and often that was at my own expense,” he says. “For me, I had gotten so used to hiding my blackness that I didn’t even realize I was doing it anymore. People often say that ‘they don’t see color,’ well if you don’t see my blackness then you don’t see me. My main focus now is on making sure I stay true to myself and stand proud in my own skin.
Proud in her own skin is also something that Kelly has been working on, and now her focus is on securing her spot on the Canadian Olympic team. The 1,500m qualifying standard for Tokyo is 4:04:20. Her time at last month’s Grand Prix was 4:10:84. She’s run a 4:09:38 in 2017, but her plan is in place for more. There are four and a half months until the Olympics. In June, Canada will host the Olympic trials and in July the official Olympic team will be named. Kelly has a plan in place and the focus to put it all in motion to get there. In the meantime, she’s going to continue to make strides, and take it day-by-day.
“I think the most difficult thing in the world sometimes is the ability to truly put yourself in someone else’s shoes and really feel what they feel. I have struggled with this for a long time because I was too consumed in my own world. Fortunately for me, 2020 gave me the opportunity to do this more than I ever have throughout my entire life. The act of doing this so often gave me a new perspective, a new understanding, but most importantly it taught me how to be truly compassionate. It is difficult to take ownership of your shortcomings and admit to your faults and insecurities but if you can find the courage to say those things out loud all of the sudden they can’t weigh you down anymore. They can’t hold you back. You are no longer hiding from them. Owning my truth was scary but as soon as I did it I felt free. I let fear keep me from feeling the power of love but now I know that love is always the answer. You just have to be brave enough to let it shine through.”