Farm to France: Jessica McClain coaches herself to the Olympics

Farm to France is an ongoing series on Cardinal athletes headed to the 2024 Summer Games in Paris, France.

Jessica McClain ’15 stood alone from other runners at the Olympic Marathon trials. With no coach, agent and sponsor, the former Stanford cross country runner relied on her own drive to push herself towards the finish line.

But despite the odds, McClain achieved remarkable success — she was fourth in the Olympic Marathon Trials and earned a spot as an alternate on the U.S. Olympic team. Just two weeks ago, she announced her professional contract with Brooks Running. 

McClain’s route to the Olympics was paved through unconventional choices, especially prioritizing self-coaching and balance before everything else.

Self-coaching successes

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, McClain faced some difficult choices. After graduating from college, she signed with a shoe sponsor and pursued running full-time. Though she continued to improve in her career post-grad, the pandemic made it mentally challenging to focus solely on running.

“It became really tough to only have running,” McClain said. “I felt like I just needed a break, like from the high performing aspect of the sport.”

With a pivot full-time marketing and a move closer to family, McClain started training herself, “doing the running and racing thing for me and for fun.” Unexpectedly, this decision reinvigorated her love for the sport. 

“It’s such a cool thing to train based on how my body feels and what my work schedule is like,” McClain said. “My training and racing would have to just fit into my life now. It’s not so much fitting my life around running anymore.”

According to Chris Miltenberg, the Franklin P. Johnson Director of Track & Field from 2012-2019, McClain’s willingness to “stay true to herself” sets her up for success.

Echoing Miltenberg, her high school track coach, Dave Vansickle, praised McClain’s ability to balance multiple responsibilities.

“She did everything she was told to do and did it at 100%,” Vansickle said. “Her efficiency to juggle school, running and community service was outstanding.”

At Stanford, she continued to pursue a diverse set of interests. “My coaches allowed me to be well-rounded,” McClain said about her time in the program. As a result, her time at Stanford taught her about balance and time management. The responsibilities of being a student-athlete at Stanford assisted in her ability to juggle her job and sport.

“Our Stanford athletes have also gone on to be incredibly successful as pro athletes because they learned how to run at the highest level while balancing the high stress Stanford environment,” Miltenberg said. “You can see this in how much they all were prepared to take another big step once they left Stanford.”

Juggling demands

Despite a rigorous schedule that demands considerable discipline, McClain emphasized the importance of balance in her life. 

“It’s amazing to love running and do all the little things and big things to make yourself successful there,” McClain said. “But it’s also okay to have other passions, and I never see it as ‘you’re just planning for running to not work out.”

Training herself allowed McClain to fit running into her life, not fit her life around her running career. In doing so, she never lost her love for the sport and felt free to leave everything on the course at the Trials, knowing she was doing it just for herself. 

“It was just such a fun weekend,” McClain said reflecting on the Trials. “I had my husband there and my family and it was just very low key. I don’t have an agent or a coach.

She said she went with the flow all weekend since she “didn’t really have places to be or people telling me what to do.”

“I think it’s cool to show people that doing it your way is okay,” McClain said. “Instead of thinking you only have to do the sport a certain way, there’s so many different ways you can do it.”

While McClain’s route to the Olympics was certainly self-directed, it doesn’t diminish her appreciation for teammates. 

“It’s important to rely on teammates that you trust or coaches or anybody on campus that you trust to get through the tough times,” McClain said.

Advising current Stanford athletes, she said: “Be really proud that you’re there and know that [Stanford] just sets you up for amazing things in the future.” 

It certainly did for McClain, who now serves as an alternate for the U.S. Olympic Marathon team and dives into a .