Senna Ohlsson owns the Loyola Maryland women’s records in the 500, 600, 800 and 1,000 meters in indoor track and the 800 in outdoor track. But early in her athletic career, the senior middle-distance runner had an issue with running late.
Just a few weeks into the 2017 season for cross country, Ohlsson and Jordyn Pugh, who were freshmen at the time, were pulled into the team’s locker room by co-captains Cordelia McGinn and Maryellen Woods and lectured about their habit of arriving late.
“When we lived together, we were always late to everything because one of us would forget something,” said Pugh, now a senior. “We were never on time together.”
Ohlsson remembered that conversation with McGinn and Woods as being “so intimidating.”
“I don’t mind being called out for the things I do wrong,” she said. “But I’m a people pleaser and knowing that I did something wrong consistently and was disappointing people and then being told that to my face, it was more of that moment of, “Oh crap, I should have realized that.’”
Thankfully, being tardy has not been a hurdle for Ohlsson when it comes to competitive racing. On May 1, she captured her fourth Patriot League championship in the 800, and her winning time of 2 minutes, 6.88 seconds eclipsed the meet record of 2:07.25 set by Army West Point’s Jess Palacio in 2011.
Ohlsson’s time was a little more than eight-tenths of a second slower than her personal best of 2:06.05 that she clocked at the 2020 Swedish National Championships last August, and she is the program’s only Patriot League titlist and indoor Eastern College Athletic Conference indoor champion.
At the IC4A/Eastern College Athletic Conference Outdoor Track & Field Championships at the American International College in Springfield, Massachusetts, Ohlsson placed third in the 800, lowering her time to 2:05.84. She currently owns the 37th-fastest time in the event this spring and is among the Top 50 runners to qualify for the NCAA’s East Preliminary Championships at Jacksonville, Florida, from May 26-29.
Ohlsson became the first Loyola women’s track and field student-athlete to qualifying for the NCAA East Preliminary Championships under the current format Thursday when she reached the field for the 800 meters.
Heats of the women’s 800 meters are slated for Thursday, beginning at 7:50 p.m. Top finishers in those races will move on to the quarterfinals May 29, with the best times moving on to the semifinal round at the 2021 NCAA Championships in Eugene, Oregon, June 9-12.
Ohlsson is the first Loyola representative to compete since the format changed to the current East and West Region Preliminary Championships with competitors qualifying for the meet based solely on time and performances.
Greyhounds coach Amy Horst said Ohlsson’s legacy — which now includes two indoor (2019 and 2020) and two outdoor (2019 and 2021) conference titles — is concrete.
“She’s the most accomplished athlete that we’ve had,” Horst said. “She’s an undefeated Patriot League champion in the 800. The only reason she didn’t win more was because we didn’t have more with indoor this past year or outdoor [in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic]. She’s our first indoor ECAC champion, the first person to go to the U-20 championships. She raced in Sweden and was a national medalist. The list goes on.”
Ohlsson’s victory earlier this month seemed like a dim prospect last fall when she began feeling pain in her right foot. An MRI in December revealed multiple torn ligaments.
The injury did not require surgery, but Ohlsson was in a boot for more than a month and then she contracted COVID-19. After recovering from the illness, she began rehabbing her foot, wearing a shoe with a special metal plate insert to prevent her foot from bending, and briefly considering platelet-rich plasma treatment before discarding the idea.
Ohlsson’s return was filled with progress and setbacks, which tested the runner’s patience.
“It got to a point where I just remember saying to Amy, ‘Amy, I just want to be able to walk, let alone run. I want to be able to walk, to do my daily activities, and not think about this,’” she recalled. “I am just a built-up ball of energy and not being able to exert that in any way was really emotionally frustrating — beyond physically wanting to be racing necessarily. I was just like, ‘Come on, let me use my legs for something right now.’”
Ohlsson said the slow pace of recovery took a toll on her psyche.
“I think the harder part for me was hopelessness,” she said. “I didn’t have anger or that sort of frustration toward the injuries because injuries are what they are. They’re a natural part of running, and to me, an injury is just our body giving us a sign of, ‘Hey, take a step back, and get some rest and some recovery.’ It was just more the fear that it wasn’t going to heal, especially with the limited time I had left at Loyola. That was more mentally crushing than the frustration behind it.”
Unlike a race, Ohlsson did not have a time frame for regaining the strength and health in her foot. Horst said she felt similarly helpless.
“I couldn’t tell her, ‘Oh, everything’s going to be fine,’” she said. “I couldn’t give her any guarantees. So it was a lot of unknowns and then the fits and spurts of finding successes and then gosh dang, this hurts. She did a lot of [physical therapy], she did a lot of different stuff. … She stayed patient. She’s stubborn, but she stayed patient, too.”
While sidelined, Ohlsson tried to encourage her teammates. Her enthusiasm reminded Pugh, a middle-distance runner herself, of March 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic canceled all spring sports.
“I don’t really remember specifics. Honestly, I was sobbing my eyes out,” Pugh admitted with a laugh. “I just remember her being such a constant and reminding us that we have each other and that bond is beyond what we do on the track. That’s something that I’ve always appreciated from her. When we lived together, I could go into her room and just talk to her about things I was struggling with or life way beyond running. I think she’s always able to remind us of the big picture. She’s someone that can see the big picture really well, and it always is just calming in the moment.”
Ohlsson did not compete in any meets until the Patriot League championships. After winning her heat by more than two seconds with the fourth-fastest time at 2:17.08, she claimed the final by outpacing the Black Knights’ Anna Tovkach, who finished in 2:08.36.
Ohlsson took a metaphysical viewpoint of her latest achievement.
“If anything, I’m thankful that the injury is healed and hope has been restored,” she said. “The pieces that I found along the way were beyond new motivators to pursue success. The pieces that I found were, ‘Wow, I have to value running as a sport outside of success, that I have to find ways to be involved and appreciate my teammates without having the guarantee that I would be at practice running with them.’ I’m really thankful that I’m continuing to find those answers and those reasons for running to be a more fulfilling experience and not just my success being defined by times.”
Horst said Ohlsson’s strength as a runner isn’t limited to her speed and her stamina.
“She’s a smart and intuitive runner,” Horst said. “She’s natural. She knows what she’s doing. She always asks me for race plans, and the other day, I just finally called her out and said, ‘I’d give you a race plan, but you already know what you’re doing.’ She goes, ‘Yeah. It’s just nice to hear someone say the exact same thing about what I need to do.’”
As impressive as Ohlsson’s accomplishments have been, Horst said Ohlsson’s impact has reverberated throughout the program.
“Senna is truly unique in that she’s come in and gotten better, but she’s also made the program better,” she said. “And that’s contagious, too. … We have so many people coming in that are improving themselves and making the program better. That’s probably a legacy that’s unique in a very good way.”
Ohlsson will graduate later this month with an interdisciplinary bachelor’s in biology and English. She plans to pursue a master’s in environmental science at the Yale School of the Environment and serve as a volunteer assistant coach for the Bulldogs’ track and field team.
Ohlsson was noncommittal on whether her future includes racing on the professional level.
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“I recognize that I’ve put myself in places in life where I’m not ready to be done as a runner, I’m not ready to be done as an academic,” she said. “As much as I don’t know, I will do everything it takes to put those pieces in line when I choose that I want to race or when I choose that I want to be involved in something in life. That option is there, and it’s not intangible.”