(Steeple) chasing Olympic glory

Run, Ferlic, Run!

When the 2020 Summer Olympic Games opened Friday, U-M doctoral student Mason Ferlic was confident and prepared — physically and emotionally — to compete in Tokyo.

“I was fit [last year], but I don’t think I was quite mentally prepared in the same way I was this year,” he says. “I wasn’t totally confident in my ability to make it. This year, after a long break, I just came in [to the Olympic trials] with a renewed and refreshed mindset.”

After an extra year of training for the three-man steeplechase team, the track and field athlete also was better prepared to manage the logistical obstacles wrought by COVID-19.

“I [could] only fly in, at most, five days before my first race, and I have to leave immediately 48 hours after my last race,” Ferlic says of the Tokyo games. “Normally, we would be in the country a week or two weeks beforehand and we’d have a training camp. However, Team USA doesn’t want everyone together because of the (COVID-19) risk.”

Obstacles and opportunities

In June, Ferlic finished third in the track and field Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore. The steeplechase is a 3,000-meter obstacle race with four barriers — or hurdles — and a water pit. The race consists of seven laps, so runners must jump over a total of 28 barriers and seven pits.

Mason Ferlic with his fellow members of the U.S. Olympic steeplechase team.

Mason Ferlic (right) with his fellow members of the U.S. Olympic steeplechase team. (Photo courtesy of Ferlic)

The athlete was surrounded by his family, clad in blue, at the track’s edge in front of the final barrier, cheering like never before when he clinched his spot on the USA steeplechase team.

“Having my family in the field was really special for them and me. They were wearing T-shirts saying ‘Go, Mason,’ and the audience knew they were my relatives,” he says. “After I qualified, everyone was congratulating them as well.”

On the morning of the finals, Ferlic says he had never felt so nervous before a race, but once the gun went off, he switched into race mode and focused on the immediate goal.

“In the last lap, I knew I was in a position to get that third spot,” he says. “So I ran a really smart tactical race. I cleared the last water pit smoothly, got over the last hurdle, and then was in third. I was looking up at the scoreboard, and when I saw my name, I just felt this huge sense of relief and gratitude.”

For Ferlic, the steeplechase is a fantastic sport: It’s all about being driven, disciplined, and motivated.

“That’s why I fell in love with it,” he says. “It’s beautifully simple and also complex at the same time. Never count yourself out after one bad experience or one bad race. It’s a journey; give yourself time to reflect on it. You gotta be you, gotta stick with it, have some credit.”

Wolverines on the run

At U-M, Ferlic was the NCAA steeplechase champion in 2016 and an Olympic qualifier that year. He was a five-time All-American and Big Ten champion in the steeplechase and long-distance running.

In the classroom, he studied aerospace engineering, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 2015 and a master’s degree in 2016. He is now a PhD student in statistics and a graduate instructor in LSA. His goal is to work in the exercise and science field, solving mobile health problems through the use of wearable devices and biometric sensors to improve data techniques.

“The PhD program aligned with my career goals and my general academic interest,” Ferlic says. “I work on the intersection of big data, health, and performance. Having something else outside of the track makes me a better athlete and gives me a mental outlet. There are only so many hours I can train in a day; there are only so many miles I can run. I feel accomplished doing both things.”

Now the Minnesota native dreams of returning to U-M this fall with an Olympic medal.

“I really have a shot. I never stopped believing in myself and my ability to do it,” he says. “Sometimes, people count you out, but I never counted myself out. Those entire four to five years, even if there were times when I was injured or wasn’t racing as well as I wanted to, I knew the magic, the spark, the fire, and the ability were all there.

“I’m really proud of the Michigan connection,” he continues. “I was coached in college by Kevin Sullivan, who’s the current Michigan coach, who was coached by Ron Warhurst, who is now coaching me,” he says. “It’s just this whole intertwining of this Michigan tradition of Olympic-level runners and training partners (like) Nick Willis, who was a Michigan alum. So it’s a very cool story of how Ann Arbor somehow became a mecca of elite distance running.”

The 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo run through Aug. 8, 2021.

(Lead image: Mason Ferlic qualifies for the Olympic Games in Eugene, Ore., in June 2021. Photo courtesy of Ferlic.)


  1. Betty Yagi - 1971 (masters)

    Great story. Interesting how his degree, steeplechase ties in with his future career plans. Hope NBC will pick up the story.


  2. Joseph Ray - 1955, 1957

    A fascinating story about dedication and preparedness. Equally fascinating is the background of the author — what an experience base!


  3. Bruce Zenkel - 1952 BBA

    Have you mentioned in any article that Gary Zenkel, LSA 83, is President, NBC Olympics and Business, NBC Sports Group? Tho our focus is clearly on athletes, this is also something the University should be proud of.


    • Deborah Holdship

      That’s fantastic!


  4. Anamaria Kazanis - 2000

    As an UM AM Statistics alumna, I am very proud of Mason’s accomplishments and see the connection with “ intersection of big data, health, and performance.”
    THANKS to Fernanda for an inspiring story!


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