By Shanna O’Mara
Emily Ritter has set countless program records in both track and cross-country, has earned All-East and All-American status in multiple events and was Rider’s first woman to qualify for the NCAA Track & Field Championships last spring.
Arguably the most talented runner ever to compete in that cranberry uniform, she is ready to graduate in December then slip into different colors next summer as she gears up for the Olympic trials in early July in Eugene, Oregon.
“I have to run a little faster for my personal record to qualify, so the goal is to cut a few seconds in the steeplechase,” Ritter said. “Right now, I run a 9:54, but the qualifying time will probably be right under 9:50. Four seconds is a lot in the track world.”
Teammate, friend and fellow senior Nicolette Mateescu now prepares for her winter track season, her first without Ritter as her training partner.
“Emily has really pushed me to sustain a new level of running this year,” Mateescu said. “I loved training with her and am definitely going to miss her this upcoming winter. She is training post-collegiately so we will definitely still run together from time to time.”
With help from Head Coach Bob Hamer, Ritter has landed a spot on the New York, New Jersey track club, with whom she will train twice a week for the next six months.
“It’s been hard to find a group to run with,” Ritter said. “Hamer has been helping me reach out to coaches. It’s overwhelming, but he’s been really helpful with all the decisions.”
Although Ritter has months to prepare for the trials, many of the athletes that she will soon run alongside have been training together for far longer.
“It’s a weird time to start training for those,” she said. “Because of my fifth-year eligibility, it’s mid-season right now for those of the post-collegiate world.”
During Ritter’s junior year cross-country season, she injured her iliotibial band, the ligament that runs down the outside of the thigh from the hip to the shin, and had to redshirt during the fall.
“I came off a pretty good outdoor season during my sophomore year, so I was super excited for cross-country,” she said. “I kind of overdid it, and I ended up with an IT band injury. It was an overuse type of thing, and I ended up being out for the remainder of the season.”
Ritter faced a similar knee injury this season; however, she had no choice but to run through the pain.
“This season has been the most difficult for me,” she said. “I felt great coming into this season, but I ended up with a slight overuse injury. This was my last season, and I knew I didn’t have an option to redshirt again, so I had to keep training through it. I had to drop down my mileage, and I wasn’t able to work out in the weight room. It was hard that I couldn’t train like everyone else, but I was still expected to perform my best. A few years ago, I wasn’t the same athlete as I am now. I have a whole new mindset, so it was a lot harder this year when I got hurt compared to when I did last time.”
Last spring, Ritter ran the steeplechase in a personal best time of 9:54.34 in the NCAA Regional meet in Jacksonville, Florida, to qualify for the national meet held in Eugene, Oregon, known as Track County USA.
“It was a really cool feeling to be there and to have the support of the Rider community,” Ritter said. “It was cool to get all the shoutouts. There were so many people I didn’t even realize were following me until I was seeing all the support on social media. Even the track team started a hashtag, #GoEmily, so it was such a cool experience.”
Ritter was the first Rider woman to qualify for this meet, and the experience was a first for Hamer as well.
“We have had some athletes recently come close to breaking through to the national level and she was able to knock down that wall,” Hamer said. “She has shown people that it is possible. She was able to give me a tremendous lifetime thrill as a coach, the opportunity to coach at the NCAA Championships at the mecca of American track and field. It was an incredible experience that I know she will treasure too.”
Ritter, now accustomed to fast times and high praise, wasn’t always in that position.
“I started running in seventh grade, but my main event back then was the 200-meter dash, so it really wasn’t anything like I do now,” she said. “I didn’t start doing the longer distances until my freshman year of high school. I played field hockey growing up, so even track was a new thing for me. After I did track my freshman year, the coach convinced me to try cross-country, so I started sophomore year.”
Growing up in Millsboro, Delaware, Ritter admits that her level of success was relatively unheard of in such a small, rural town and that even she ran unexceptional times throughout high school.
“I’m from low Delaware, so everyone calls it ‘lower, slower Delaware,’” she said. “We don’t have too many people, so I ended up doing a whole bunch of different events. I triple jumped, ran the mile, two-mile and, depending on the day, the 4×400 relay. I never really focused on one particular event, so I never really had super great personal records going into college. I was always doing four events, and my training wasn’t focused. It definitely wasn’t as good as when I got to college.”
Hamer said that Ritter improved quickly.
“Emily came to Rider as a very talented runner,” Hamer said. “In the last several years, she has taken that talent and combined it with a lot of hard work, and she has developed into a tremendous runner. She has achieved many new heights and set the bar of success for the team at a very high level.”
She was the first member of her family to pursue a collegiate sport.
“It was definitely a new thing when I decided to compete in college,” she said. “It was challenging because no one knew about collegiate sports [in my family,] so I didn’t get much guidance.”
Ritter relied on the guidance of Hamer and the older runners on the Rider team at the time. After visiting several Pennsylvania schools, Ritter crossed the border to visit one small university in the middle of suburban Lawrenceville.
“I did an overnight visit at Rider,” she said. “After that visit, he asked me what I thought and I just said, ‘Rider seems like the place for me.’ We finalized everything shortly after. It’s kind of funny because my overnight visit really wasn’t the best experience; it was raining, I was feeling pretty sick, and my air mattress deflated. But something about it clicked, and after all those things, I still ended up going. Rider seemed like the right place for me in the end.”
Now a fifth-year senior, Ritter is ready to graduate with her degree in biology. She hopes to work with the Science Outreach Program for kids, which is aimed at promoting public awareness and understanding of science. Although she cannot graduate with her desired second major, secondary education, she is sure that teaching still lies in her future.
“I was secondary education and biology, but I actually had to recently drop education,” she said. “You have to do a full semester of student teaching, but I have to continue to train. I can’t really commit full-time to go into the classroom every day like a normal teacher would. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me, so I feel like I really need to focus on running right now. Eventually, I’ll get my certification for teaching, but in the meantime, I have enough credits to get my substitution teacher license, so I can do that.”
As Ritter looks forward to time in the classroom and on the track, she must also stop to thank everyone who helped her succeed over the years.
“I want to give a huge shoutout to everyone who supported me this past track season when I got to nationals,” she said. “I never really got a chance to thank everyone for all the support and tell everyone how much it meant to me, especially my coaches. Because my season went so long, Hamer had to come in every day to run with me. I want to thank him for all of his coaching and guidance over the past few years.”