When Amy-Eloise (Neale) Markovc was a senior at Glacier Peak High School in 2013, her classmates voted her the most likely to go to the Olympics.
“I was laughing about that the other day, I think I should scrounge that certificate out,” Markovc said with a chuckle.
This week Markovc makes her classmates’ prediction come true.
The 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo officially get underway Friday, and after an arduous and controversial qualifying process Markovc’s childhood dream finally comes true when she competes for Great Britain in the women’s 5,000 meters.
”It’s been a very exciting and tumultuous couple weeks,” Markovc said when reached by phone last week in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she’s now based. “But I’m thrilled to be on my way to Tokyo.”
Markovc, who was born in England before her family moved to Snohomish when she was 2, will race in the preliminaries for the women’s 5,000 on July 30. If she qualifies for the final, she’ll run again on Aug. 2.
Markovc (the “C” is silent) is perhaps the greatest female distance runner ever produced by Snohomish County. She was a 10-time individual state champion in high school in track and field and cross country, and she was a seven-time All-American while running at the University of Washington. She was The Herald’s Girl Athlete of the Year in 2013 and The Herald’s Woman of the Year in Sports in 2016.
Now she’ll be competing on track and field’s biggest international stage, something she seemed destined for since she was a kid.
“She was 8 when she first said she was going to the Olympics and we have always believed in what she could do, and this year she did it!” Markovc’s mother, Elizabeth Neale, said via email from Laxton, England, where she was visiting family.
“The first time I became aware of her was when she was in fifth grade,” former Glacier Peak cross country coach Dan Parker recalled. “There’s a Great Pumpkin elementary race for first through sixth grades, and she was running it for the first time. The varsity girls used to pace the kids, and we had a good girls team. Amy-Eloise blew them away, they gave up.
“I’m very proud of her (reaching the Olympics), but not the least surprised, given the level of her talent and her incredible work ethic,” Parker added. “And she has a lot of passion for the sport and a lot of drive.”
But Markovc almost missed out on her Olympic dream because, of all things, cones.
Markovc headed to the British Athletics Championships on June 27 thinking she just needed to finish in the top two to earn an Olympic berth, since she had run an Olympic qualifying time at a race in May in Boston. However, two days before the race she received a call from British Athletics telling her that her qualifying time was not being recognized because the track had cones placed on the inside edge of the track instead of bricks.
“It was a rush of emotions,” Markovc said. “I had been so looking forward to just going to the trials to race and compete and not have to worry about time. But after that I knew I had to lead the race wire to wire, and I knew it was going to be a difficult task because my main competition had great kicks. The next 24 hours I was trying to calm my nerves and commit to a new race plan.”
When the day of the race arrived, Markovc found herself faced with windy conditions that were not ideal for recording a good time. Nevertheless, she went to the front right from the gun and led for 90% of the race. She crossed the finish line in second place, which would have automatically earned her a berth to the Olympics if she had a qualifying time. Her time in the race was 15 minutes, 10.54 seconds, just a half-second short of the qualifying standard.
“I crossed the line and thought, ‘I’m not going,’” Markovc said. “In that moment it was kind of crushing.”
But Markovc’s team didn’t give up, as her coaches and agent frantically worked the phones to try and get her time in Boston ratified. The problem was that the time needed to be ratified by USA Track & Field because the race was in Boston. But with the U.S. Olympic Team Trials also taking place at that time, it seemed doubtful the organization would prioritize ratifying a time for a British athlete.
But USA Track & Field came through, and Markovc found out the night of June 28 that she had been selected as one of the three British women to compete in the Olympic 5,000.
“Honestly, I think I was just in shock,” Markovc said about receiving the good news. “My hands were shaking.”
Because of the coronavirus, Markovc’s Olympic experience will be different from normal. Instead of going straight to the Olympic Village the British team is instead being housed at a holding camp in Yokohama, located about an hour south of Tokyo. Athletes are allowed to enter the Olympic Village three days before their event, then must leave the country within 48 hours of the completion of their event. Therefore, Markovc won’t be taking part in the opening or closing ceremonies. She’s also there on her own as no fans are allowed to attend the events or travel with the athletes.
On the other hand, Markovc may not be an Olympian if not for the pandemic. The 2020-21 season has been a big breakthrough for Markovc, punctuated by her victory in the 3,000 at the European Athletics Indoor Championships in March.
”I think winning that race did wonders for my confidence because I competed when I needed to under pressure,” Markovc said. “Especially with COVID, it’s so much more different and complicated, it’s not the same atmosphere at races. Within that stressful environment I produced a really good race when it counted, I was able to trust my instincts and strength and training. It helps going forward because I trust myself more in the really hard workouts as well as in races.”
Markovc isn’t considered an Olympic medal contender. Her goals in Tokyo are is a little more modest.
“First and foremost I want to try and make that final, that’s the first goal,” Markovc said. “I hope to come away from the Olympics with a really big (personal best), and to get to the final that might be necessary. At the end of the day if I come away with a huge PB I’ll know I did everything I could.
“For some people the moment (going to the Olympics sinks in) is when they cross the line at trials,” Markovc added. “I think my moment will be when I step on the track in Tokyo.”
A moment that always seemed destined for Markovc.