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Simple quest to improve leads to major success, on and off the track

There was no master plan for Maddie Van Beek.

There wasn’t a clear vision of the future. There wasn’t a grand dream to chase. There weren’t even really any long-term goals for which to aim.

When she arrived at North Dakota State University in the fall of 2010, Van Beek was uncertain in almost every way. She came here from her home town of Perham, Minnesota, undecided on an academic major. While she knew she’d be running for the track and field and cross country teams, she didn’t have any idea what events she might specialize in. Van Beek also didn’t know if she would be able to achieve the same type of athletic success she had in high school.

“I loved competing, and I loved running, but I really didn’t know anything about it,” Van Beek acknowledged in a recent interview. “I didn’t have those sorts of goals just because I didn’t know anything about track other than that I loved running. I knew I wanted to get better, and that’s really all I was thinking about.”

Despite the unknowns, Van Beek was wired for success with three critical traits: a penchant for hard work, nearly unparalleled toughness and a relentless drive to always give her best effort.

Her ensuing success was by no means one-dimensional. It reaches far beyond the world of athletics.

She is a 4.0 student with degrees in English and English education, and, an indication of her academic achievement, was selected to give a student address at the winter 2014 NDSU commencement ceremony. Her amount of campus and community involvement has been staggering — a resume that includes countless volunteer events, student leadership, and serving as the secretary and vice president of NDSU’s Blue Key Honor Society.

Van Beek was twice honored as an Academic All-American. She was selected as NDSU’s nominee for the NCAA Woman of the Year award — a distinction given to the top graduating NDSU female on the tenets of athletic and academic achievement, leadership and service.

Sprinkled throughout the last half-decade, there are multiple examples of Van Beek’s unyielding effort in the athletic arena. One common theme emerges from each tale — a tough young woman who refused to ever give less than her best.

Although the steeplechase — a unique 3,000-meter track race that features 28 hurdles, including seven barriers that splash down into a water pit — has become Van Beek’s specialty, her introduction to the event can be classified as baptism by fire. Then-NDSU head coach Ryun Godfrey entered her in the event at a meet at Duke her freshman season, even though she had never even witnessed it being run. She learned that day — by standing trackside and watching the race before hers.

That initial race wasn’t necessarily pretty — the first foray into the water pit almost never is — but Van Beek made a choice to push forward. She simply kept going.

There was the fall morning in Palo Alto, California, in 2012 when Van Beek became physically ill during a cross country race and was forced to stop momentarily. After getting sick, she jumped back in the race and finished, helping NDSU to seventh place in front of numerous bigger schools at the prestigious meet.

While most people might question her decision to rejoin the race, to Van Beek it was the only option. She kept going.

This spring, Van Beek took a fall in the water pit during the steeplechase at the Mt. SAC Relays. She picked herself up, didn’t bother to waste any time dusting herself off, and still managed to beat her previous career-best time.

It would have made sense to step off the track and try again next week. She did not do that. She kept going.

photo of Maddie Van Beek and quotes from the story

There was the night in Austin, Texas, at the NCAA West Preliminary Rounds when she burst into her finishing kick with 500 meters remaining in the 3,000-meter race. Needing a spot among the top three runners to advance to the NCAA Championships in Oregon, Van Beek suddenly kicked up her pace — not one gear, but two — and raced her way to a qualifying spot. Her time was a new lifetime best by 17 seconds.

Her finishing burst was so impressive that inside the normally silent press box high above the track, an audible buzz broke out as members of the media took notice, pointing out the girl in green and yellow who looked like she wanted it more than anyone else.

She did.

She kept going.

Two weeks later, Van Beek found herself in Eugene, Oregon, and the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships were charging full speed ahead. Both grandstands at historic Hayward Field were packed to capacity, with more than 10,000 people crammed in to watch the nation’s premier college track meet. Thousands more watched on ESPN.

When that point of the collegiate track and field season arrives, the goals and aspirations become almost painfully simple. Athletes who have trained for the better part of a decade suddenly find themselves near the end of their careers — careers that become fragile when years of hard work come down to one race on one day.

Ultimately, it’s the last chance to cement a legacy. Split seconds can decide whether a college career ends unceremoniously or atop an awards stand.

Van Beek is not the type to be intimidated by those conditions. She’s not going to be overwhelmed or shy away from the situation. She’s even less likely to give up when the odds are stacked against her.

Van Beek proved it once more on that June evening at the NCAA Championships. She powered through the national finals with a lifetime-best performance yet again. Nearly 600 women competed in the steeplechase at the Division I level in 2015, and Van Beek finished eighth. She was an All-American.

How did she do it? Hard work, toughness and a relentless drive. She kept going.

“It’s not recognition,” said Van Beek, when asked what motivates her. “It’s nothing to do with getting any awards or wanting other people to know about me. I think it’s just — I want to see what I can do. Whatever paper I’m writing or project I’m doing, I think, ‘When I get done with this, I want to know that I gave it all I had.’ ”

“It’s the same with running,” she continued. “If I don’t win, or if I don’t make it to nationals, or if I’m not an All-American, I may be disappointed because I didn’t reach my goals. But I’m not going to be disappointed in myself if I’ve tried my best. My goal is to always finish knowing, ‘That was all I had. I have nothing left.’ ”

Her list of athletic and academic accomplishments becomes even more impressive when you consider what Van Beek and her husband, Daryl, went through last year. Daryl was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor in April 2014 while Maddie sat out the outdoor season as a redshirt. The following months of treatments and uncertainty meant a withdrawal from heavy track training, keeping things in perspective.

After several rounds of chemotherapy and surgery, Daryl has since been given a clean bill of health.

And Maddie has yet to slow down.  

“Maddie epitomizes what we want Bison track and field athletes to be about,” said NDSU women’s head coach Stevie Keller. “She’s a great athlete on the track, but she’s an amazing student and an amazing person first. We couldn’t be more proud to have her represent NDSU and our team.”

Van Beek was named the Summit League Championships Track MVP three times in her career, along with claiming the league’s Track Athlete of the Year award for the 2014 indoor season. She also has the validation of her All-American finish in the steeplechase. But her impact on the program at NDSU likely means much more.

“There’s something almost magnetic about Maddie,” said Keller. “She’s a leader by example, and we couldn’t ask for a better one. She works so hard that she raises the bar for everyone around her. There’s no doubt — her work ethic has left a mark on our program.”

Van Beek’s legacy at NDSU is actually quite simple: with maximum effort and a refusal to give up, anything is possible.

“Throughout all of it, I learned that I’m never going to regret putting my all into something,” Van Beek said. “If it’s important, then you should put 100 percent into something. If you’re not putting 100 percent into it, then it’s probably not important to you.”

“I got more out of NDSU than I ever thought I would,” said Van Beek. “I’ve met the best people here who will be my friends for my whole life. I’ve changed as a person. I became more confident and determined.”

— Wes Offerman

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.