How Esther Seeland Kicked Her Way Into The National Spotlight

A good kick requires the right mixture of patience and will.

The patience comes from knowing when to go -- not too early so you end up fading in the closing meters, but not too late so you don't allow enough track to run down your opponents. The will comes from digging down within yourself and finding that last bit of oomph when your legs and lungs are saying "no" because losing is simply not an option.

And, of course, a good kick calls for quite a bit of speed.

If one runner has captured the right combination of those three qualities this winter, it's been Esther Seeland. Seemingly on cue, Seeland pulled out that now-trademark kick at last week's PTFCA indoor state Championships en route to a state title in the 800 meters.

"A lot of people have been talking about my kick," Seeland, a State College Area senior, said.

It's true. She has twice won MileSplit's distinction of "Kick of the Week" -- the second of which came in that states race, and the first of which came at the Kevin Dare Invitational at Penn State in early January. The argument could be made that she should have even won it a third time at the PTFCA Indoor Track Carnival.

"I think it just comes from a desire to win," Seeland said of her finishing speed. "I am extremely driven by competition and I don't want to leave the track regretting anything. I don't want to feel like I had more to give when I step off the track and so that final lap is just everything I have left."

Setting The Stage

Seeland has been a quick study, too. The senior has only been running track for a year. After some success in the 400 meters last winter as a junior, she turned her focus to the 800 meters outdoors. She gradually improved, resulting in a PIAA District 6 AAA title and a berth in the outdoor state meet. Seeland ran an open personal best of 2:16.43 in the preliminaries of the 800 at Shippensburg, but ended up being the first girl to not make the finals. She did, however, split a 2:10 in the 4x800-meter relay at states.

So the stage was set for a big senior season.

At Kevin Dare on January 6, Seeland gave us a glimpse of what was to come. In a loaded early-season field that included XC state champion Marlee Starliper of Northern and Delaware standout Lydia Olivere, Seeland went all the way from seventh to first in the final lap to nip Starliper at the line.

Seeland's time was 2:17.11, a US No. 11 at the time and just off her open PR from outdoors last year.

A month later at February 10's PTFCA Indoor Track Carnival at Lehigh, Seeland returned to the line in a half mile that would once again feature Starliper (who just ran a 4:44 mile a week prior) and Taryn Parks of Greencastle-Antrim. Seeland's kick made an appearance again, as she went from third to first in the final 200 and ran by Parks for the win in another open PR of 2:13.78.

Those performances took Seeland from relative unknown to one of the state and nation's top half milers.

Chasing Gold At States

Despite those successes, winning a state title would still be an uphill battle.

Seeland entered the indoor state meet as the No. 2 seed, but the top seed was Gabrielle Wilkinson of Friends' Central. Wilkinson ran 2:06.03 for 800 meters to finish third at the USATF Junior National Championships last summer in Sacramento and was in the midst of a great senior indoor season that included a win in the prestigious Millrose Games mile, among other big performances.

But Seeland has already proven that she feeds off good competition, and she wasn't ready to back down in Sunday's matchup with Wilkinson at indoor states.

The early pace was menacing, as Maddie Salek of West Allegheny went straight to the front and pulled the field through a sub-31 second first 200 meters and then opened up a gap as she came through 400 meters in 1:02.3. The field strung out at the midway point, as Seeland hung back battling for fourth place about 20 meters off the leader Salek.

It wasn't panic time for Seeland yet, though.

"Coming into the race, I knew it was going to be fast, especially that first 400," Seeland said. "I didn't know exactly how it was going to play out, but my goal was to stay in a good position and give that last lap anything I had left. My times have been consistently improving throughout the season, so I knew that I had a chance, but nothing was guaranteed in that race."

When the field hit the bell lap, Wilkinson, who had run the mile earlier in the day, had just about caught up to Salek. Seeland moved into third, and was still within pouncing range. We've seen this movie before, but this time, it would come against Wilkinson, the No. 2 all-time indoor half miler in Pennsylvania history.

That fact probably didn't cross Seeland's mind as she stormed past Salek on the backstretch and then Wilkinson on the homestretch. Seeland crossed the line first for the win.

A year ago, she had only just started running track. On Sunday, Seeland was a state champion.

"It feels phenomenal to be a state champion. It validates all the work I put in every day and encourages me to keep working," she said.

Now how about that poise to remain calm as the leaders started to separate? For Seeland, that was all according to plan.

"My coach advised me to stay toward the front of the race," Seeland said. "The first lap was for sure quick, but I just wanted to stay in touch near the front and hold that position. Going into the last 200, I knew I was going to have to push hard. The race played out pretty closely to what we had discussed, which was good to see."

Seeland had the most even splits in the field: 31.8, 32.5, 32.9, and 31.5

Just winning was impressive, but the cherry on top for Seeland had to be looking up at the clock and seeing the time: 2:08.71.

That's over a five-second improvement from her Carnival time and open PR. It's also a PA No. 1 and U.S. No. 2 time. Recall that only just started running the event last spring, and consider that meteoric rise to the top.

Looking Ahead

Seeland's senior season will keep rolling along. She said she has not yet decided on a college, but the Mid-Penn Conference First Team All Star on the soccer field has received interest from schools for both track and soccer

For now, she's looking forward to the 800 meters at New Balance Nationals Indoor this coming weekend, where she's entered in the Championship section of the event. Wilkinson and Salek are also entered, along with U.S. No. 1 Athing Mu from New Jersey, Victoria Vanriele of New Jersey (U.S. No. 3 800m), and Lily Flynn of New York (U.S. No. 1 1K), among many others.

The competition doesn't seem to faze the state champion, though. Each race has been a learning experience for Seeland despite facing big names every step of the way. It's been a trial by fire and she passed every test in legendary fashion.

"I think that I've benefited from getting more experience with the race and having the opportunity to run with fast competition," she said. "This year, I ran three indoor open 800s and each one was faster than the last. I think the opportunities I've been given to run with other fast girls have helped me to improve a lot."

Seeland may still not be seen as a the favorite coming into Sunday's race at nationals. Maybe she likes it that way. But the nation should at least know that they can't take the newcomer lightly.

Especially if it comes down to a kick.