Shortly after she crossed the finish line at the California International Marathon in Sacramento, Megan Skeels collapsed in a heap of emotion as her husband repeatedly screamed, "You did it!"
Skeels, a 37-year-old mother of two from Fort Worth who participated in her first marathon just 18 months earlier, qualified for Saturday's U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston on Dec. 4, her fourth attempt and final opportunity to qualify before the Dec. 17 deadline.
The lasting image that flashed in Skeels' mind before she crossed the finish line was of her father-in-law, Wilbur Skeels, who lost his life to prostate cancer in October.
Megan had dedicated her comeback to Wilbur and had hoped they could help each other continue to fight. Shortly before the marathon, Megan told her husband, David, that nothing had changed, she was still going to qualify for Wilbur.
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"It was a complete victory, one of the sweetest moments of my life," Skeels said. "Two feet before I crossed the line, I called out Wilbur's name and said, 'This is for you.' So it was an incredible amount of joy for what I was getting to experience, but it was also bittersweet because I wished he was there standing next to my husband."
Though Skeels had never run a marathon before 2010, she was a championship runner who found a reserve of will that had been dormant for more than five years.
Skeels was on the 1992 NCAA national championship cross country team at Villanova as a freshman before transferring to Arkansas, where she was a 10-time All-American in track and cross country. At Fort Worth Trinity Valley, Skeels set a Texas Relays record in the 3,200-meter run. Her time of 10 minutes, 32.5 seconds stood for 17 years.
After her success in high school and college, Skeels struggled as a professional, first with Adidas in Colorado and then with injuries and self-described burnout after several years of frustration.
"I left college thinking the next step is to run as a professional athlete, which I got to do, and then to go be the very best, and that always has been the Olympics," Skeels said. "There were no really great victories; I was running slower at times than I had in high school and a couple of times I thought it was probably time for me to retire."
Skeels took time off after giving birth to son Mack in 2005 and then daughter Scarlett in 2008. She began running recreationally eight months later without any intention of competing.
Then in 2009 she decided to start training for the 2010 Cowtown Marathon. She entered the Texas Half Marathon in Dallas in January 2010 to test her strength and stamina.
"Lo and behold, she went into this race and won the whole thing," her husband said. "When I say won it, I mean she beat the women and the men. Coming down the home stretch, she passed the three men who were leading in the last mile and, when they saw her ponytail bobbing by, they looked shocked."
Shortly after the Texas Half Marathon, a family friend put Megan in touch with internationally renowned athletic trainer Benny Vaughn of Fort Worth, who has served on the U.S. Olympic staff and is training several sprinters who could compete in London this summer. Skeels is the first marathon runner he has ever trained.
Her qualifying time of 2 hours, 43 minutes and 51 seconds ranks 87th out of the 180 runners who will vie for three spots on the Olympic team.
"I've been on the track at Olympic stadiums and world championships and been around some great champions and I can't say that I've ever been more excited for a race than I am for Megan Skeels' marathon," Vaughn said.
"I've walked through the tunnel with some great Olympians for the finals and I've never been this excited."