The first time Mason Ferlic (BSAE ’16) set foot in Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium, he was stepping onto the track to line up for the start of his race. Except for officials, coaches, and television cameras, the huge arena was empty. Everything was silent. “It was not what I expected,” Ferlic says, “for the biggest race of my life.”
A graduate student in statistics, Ferlic had been preparing for this moment since he first started running competitively in high school. “It was pretty obvious I wasn’t going to be a professional soccer player,” he laughs. “But I could run. I could outlast anyone on any challenge.”
U-M had recruited him to run cross country and track, and he dove into his aerospace engineering major, but he found himself struggling to find his footing on the team. “My first couple years running at U-M were rocky,” he says. “I finished dead last at the NCAA cross country meet my first year. I was in 252nd place. Literally the last guy to cross the finish line.”
By the end of college, though, he was elected captain of both the cross country and track teams, won multiple Big Ten titles, was named All-American, and won the NCAA championship in the steeplechase. “I went from a scrawny first-year, last at the cross-country meet, to finishing my college career with a national championship.”
These successes landed Ferlic a contract with Nike out of college, which allowed him to run professionally. His first few years as a pro cleared what he describes as a “worst to first” path. “I’d just won a national championship and was fifth at the 2016 Rio Olympic Trials—I missed making the team by three seconds. I thought, ‘I’m going to be the top dog in the country in a year.’ But then I hurt my Achilles.”
Ferlic missed a season and struggled to get back in shape, but setbacks from his early undergraduate running days had taught him to rely on his training—both physical and mental—to meet his goals. “I’m good at not internalizing failures. It happens so much in this sport. I’ve lost way more races than I’ve won,” he says. “The ability to frame disappointment in context is super important and allows for refocusing instead of dwelling.”
In early 2020, he was training for the Tokyo Olympics with a professional team in Charlottesville, Virginia, when the severity of COVID-19 started to crystalize. “I was getting ready for the Olympic Trials, which were going to be June 2020. More news was trickling out about COVID, and we couldn’t believe that the Olympics might be canceled. But then, of course, they were.”
But for Ferlic, having an extra year actually helped his training and gave him the chance to recover from his injury and go back to basics. “It was a reset. When we entered 2021, I was in the best shape and headspace of my life.”
At the Tokyo Olympics, held in the summer of 2021, Ferlic experienced “sensory overload.” Because of COVID-19 restrictions, he was only allowed to be in Japan for six days, arriving just before his race and leaving not even 48 hours later. “It was a lot packed into a very short time. I was barely used to the environment before I was racing on the biggest stage of my life.”
Ferlic competed in the steeplechase, the race he’d won at the 2016 the NCAA championship. Unlike most track and field events, the race combines endurance skills with technical hurdling ability. It’s 3,000 meters—or seven-and-a-half laps around the track—and every lap requires runners to clear four three-foot-tall barriers and a 12-foot square pit of water on the other side. “The barriers aren’t normal hurdles that knock over if you hit them. They’re solid wooden beams,” Ferlic says. “It’s very unforgiving.”
He’d first found the steeplechase by luck when his U-M coach suggested he try it in order to compete at the Big Ten Championship. “I was terrified,” he says. “Barriers, a water pit, you could trip, you could whack your knee into the barrier. It looked terrible.” But once the race started, everything changed. “It clicked. I was a duck to water. I ended up winning that race and finishing the season as All-American.”
Ferlic placed third in the United States Olympic Trials and eighth in the Olympic Semi-Finals. Now sponsored by Adidas, he’s training for the 2024 Paris Olympics with a professional team based in Ann Arbor. That might seem like enough to keep him busy, but he’s working to cross another goal off his list: getting a doctorate degree.
After college, Ferlic trained professionally for four years while concurrently working as a lab engineer at a Michigan Performance Research Lab in the School of Kinesiology, collecting sensor data from athletes. “It was a great outlet,” he says, “and I wasn’t constantly thinking about the next workout.”
The lab also got Ferlic interested in working with biomechanical data and data science. “I loved exploring data for niche questions, teasing out correlations and relationship in the human body, a really complex system,” he says. “That spurred me to go back to school.”
Ferlic was admitted to a master’s program in LSA’s Department of Statistics in 2020 to study how data from low-cost sensors, such as Fitbits, can lead to new methods to optimize health. He’s now pursuing a Ph.D. while continuing to run at the elite level. “I load up with coursework, research, and teaching in the fall when the competition season is over,” he explains. “Then when spring comes around, I swing towards the athletic side and have a lighter course load.”
Though Ferlic is most interested in how his research can benefit the general population, training as a long-distance runner offers an appreciation for the nuances of working with data. “I see problems, and not just athletic problems, from a complex systems perspective. It’s all about coming up with new ways of thinking about a problem, considering context, and giving attention to the questions themselves, not just forcing solutions. A very simplistic idea would be, you run more miles, you become fitter. But in reality, there’s a lot more that goes on. There’s a level of art to it, and to research too.
“Plus,” he adds, “I’m a better runner and a better student when I’m doing them both at the same time.”
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