Standing on the deck of her new home in Boulder, Colorado, Sara Vaughn is an island of calm amid the swirling activity of a going-away party for Stephen Pifer, a former teammate of Sara and her husband, Brent, at the University of Colorado.
Louie, Pifer’s 2-year-old son, pushes a plastic scooter into the ankles of anyone getting in his way, including Brent, who deftly skips over the scooter without spilling the craft beers he is carrying into the kitchen for Billy Nelson, another ex-CU teammate and 2008 Olympic steeplechase runner. As collegiate running programs go, Colorado’s has been a tight-knit affair since Mark Wetmore took over as head coach in 1995, with numerous runners marrying each other and dozens staying connected around Boulder years after graduation.
As such, several former Buffs come and go, laughing and speaking of races, adventures and shenanigans from long ago. In the yard, children play tag and kickball. Aric Van Halen, a more recent Colorado grad who was an All-American in the steeplechase, comes in, drenched with sweat from running with the kids. For a moment, Sara Vaughn is silent, taking it all in; her house, husband, the youngsters, friends, family and the fecund garden, bursting into bloom amid recent hot summer days.
“Relief,” Vaughn finally says, after a pause. “You ask me how it felt, getting this house. It’s relief. We are settling in; no more moving. This is our forever home.”
The feeling of home, of grounding and connecting, of spreading roots, is palpable this pleasant, early July evening. Unpacking possessions at their new four-acre spread in April was the Vaughns’ 10th move since meeting in 2005 at the University of Colorado preseason cross country camp, in Grand Lake, Colo. Brent was the family star then, a team leader who would go on to become CU’s school record holder in the 5,000 meters with a 13:18 effort in 2008, and, later, the 2011 U.S. cross country champion.
Sara arrived as a talented transfer from the University of Virginia—a four-time state champ her senior year at Gering High School in Nebraska. During her junior year at CU, she became pregnant with Kiki, the first of the couple’s three daughters. Vaughn stayed in school, and the couple juggled training, baby care and classes until graduation—Sara earned degrees in psychology and Spanish, Brent in applied math. Sara could have stayed on the team and competed another year, but decided to focus on raising her family and supporting Brent’s promising career, while continuing to train without much sponsorship.
“School with Kiki was busy,” Brent explains. “I didn’t see Sara much, but I had completed my tough courses and was coasting through school with a 3.3 [GPA]. Meanwhile Sara was working extremely hard and earning 4.0’s along with everything else going on.”
(Knowing how hard their undergraduate years were, the Vaughns are setting up a scholarship for child care for student parents. Watch for details when fund is launched.)
After graduating and living at 8,500 feet nearby in Blackhawk, Colo., in the foothills west of Boulder, the Vaughns relocated to Portland, where Brent competed for the Oregon Track Club, as did Pifer and Nelson (in Eugene, Ore.), while CU legends and multiple NCAA champs Adam and Kara Goucher were also training in Portland. All eventually returned to Boulder, including the Vaughns in 2013. Brent continues to train while running Faraday Construction, the roofing and remodeling firm he owns, but for the past few years it’s been Sara’s turn to shine.
She did just that on June 25 in the 1500m finals of U.S. national championships in Sacramento, using a 60.9-second final 400 meters to move from 8th to 3rd and grab a spot on the U.S. team that will compete in the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London beginning on Aug. 4. Not only did it allow Vaughn to qualify for her first national team and wear the Team USA uniform for the first time, but it also allowed her and Brent an international venue to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary on July 28. (Sara placed eighth in her preliminary heat in a new personal best time of 4:04.56 on Aug. 4 to advance to the semifinals on Aug. 5.)
For Sara, it was a long road to success and finally a sense of vindication for all of the effort she has put in through the years. Now 31, a full-time Realtor and a mother of three young girls, she’s competing at the pinnacle of her sport for the first time.
So yes, absolutely, that was a look of relief, and surprise, fans saw writ across her face moments after crossing the finish line in Sacramento.
“I did not know if I had made it or not,” Vaughn said to a group of supporters at a welcome-home celebration at Flatirons Running in Boulder in early July. “I was not sure if I had finished fourth or in what place.”
All Vaughn knew was that she had given her best effort. The first person to tell her that she had indeed made the team was former teammate Jenny Simpson, who won the race with a powerful kick of her own and who will be looking for her third World Championship 1500m medal in London after taking gold in 2011 and silver in 2013.
“I don’t remember exactly what I said to her right afterward, but I did try to emphasize to Sara several times that I was really happy for her and how cool this must be for her three girls to experience,” Simpson recalled. “Having watched the race video since that weekend, I saw that she moved up so well over the last lap and really fought all the way to the finish line. That’s the way you make USA teams.”
Fighting hard has been a theme of Vaughn’s life since she was a girl growing up in Gering, a small town (population 8,500) near the old Oregon Trail. When a gym closure forced her out of her first sport, gymnastics, Vaughn turned to the track her freshman year. She excelled, holding the state 1600m record until last year. She continued fighting to reach the elite level after her up-and-down collegiate career, seeking the big breakthrough through the many moves and demands of working full-time and raising Kiki (10), Calia (7) and Cassidy (1).
Vaughn has other reasons to be relieved this summer day. Back in February, she was without a coach, having split with Lee Troop of the Boulder Track Club in November. With her family still renting a house and her career at Sotheby’s Realty taking off, Sara was wondering if her promising career, full of peaks and valleys, had perhaps reached its apex at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, when she placed a commendable seventh in the 1500m finals, which included two very good races to advance out of her prelim and the semifinals.
The best, however, was still ahead. Vaughn found her new coach—her “forever coach,” it seems—close by in her husband. “When I asked Brent to coach me, he turned me down at first. He said, ‘But we are getting along so well.’”
Brent did agree to coach his wife, and Vaughn has excelled ever since for the very reason that the couple gets along so well. “Brent has had a lot good mentors, starting with [high school coach] Greg [Weich],” Sara says. “He knows what makes me tick; he understands me.”
And what makes Sara tick, her husband knew, was being able to recover from the demands of her very full life and top-level training—of being a “high-achiever,” as one fan described her. Key to Vaughn’s training? Recovery. Instead of fighting the changes that age, work and motherhood bring, and trying emulate what Simpson and the other U.S. elites are doing, Brent works with who his wife is, gearing her training to her busy lifestyle. That means two days’ recovery after every hard workout, including the long run. Training is now on a nine- or 10-day schedule, not weekly.
“Hard work and lots of recovery, to keep from getting rundown,” Brent explains, when I ask him his coaching “secret” at the Flatirons Running party. I wait. There must be more. He only smiles, knowing from his own career, and from his coaches—Greg Weich, CU’s Mark Wetmore, Jay Johnson, the Bowerman Track Club’s Jerry Shumacher and the legendary marathoner Steve Jones—that is the “secret.” The rest is the quotidian details.
But let’s be clear, Sara Vaughn is racing in London because her “hard work” is extremely hard, as training partner Bradley Harkrader, another former CU teammate, explains in describing the previous day’s track workout. It was 8 x 1K on a local middle school track, each in roughly three minutes. Harkrader and Brent Vaughn took turns pacing Sara through 600 and 400 meters of each kilometer. The still-fit Harkrader said he was working hard with his portion of the session.
Finishing the workout, run in near 90-degree heat, there was no nap for Vaughn. She went home, showered, fed the kids, who had been babysat by Harkrader’s wife, Ashley, and then was off for an afternoon of showing houses to prospective clients.
“Most weekends I am with buyers,” she says, the days when clients from the coast fly in, hoping to become the latest Google employee (a new facility is opening in Boulder at the end of the year) moving into one of Boulder’s million dollar houses (The average Boulder home price was $1.14 million as of late June.) “I love my job. I love Boulder, and I love showing it to people.”
Mother and wife, Realtor and elite miler. How does Vaughn do it?
She shrugs off such questions, like a bothersome insect. Life for the Vaughns is for living, not analyzing; that is best left for the pundits and the fans who admire and understand what this rooted-in-rural-Nebraska woman has accomplished, from marriage to motherhood to world-class racing.
“We like to do life with other people,” she says.
All at once, Vaughn is back in mother mode. The conversation ends as she moves across the deck to swoop up her second daughter, Calia, whose face is streaked with ice cream, safely depositing her on a couch with Pifer, who is watching Louie, the scooter having been safely tucked away.
Darkness descends and the party continues, moving off the porch so that some house guests can sleep) and into the large garage. As she rejoins the party, Sara turns and gives a simple explanation of how she not only survives, but thrives in her busy life.
“It takes a whole village, and this is our village,” she says. “These are our people. That’s why we moved back here. We like being around people. We missed home, and Boulder was always home.”
And now the Vaughns have a home to suit their home.