SEATTLE – The first sentence out of Ben Monk’s mouth is an apology.
“I’m so sorry I’m late. I was playing guitar and lost track of time,” he says, anxiously glancing at a nearby wall clock, as if expecting it to chide him. It is, perhaps, 30 seconds past the appointed meeting time.
A prominent member of Seattle U’s cross country and track and field teams, Monk has an unassuming yet confident air about him, with clean-cut blond hair and a pleasant, yet currently sheepish, grin that reveals boyish dimples on his face.
“I play guitar a lot,” he explains. “It’s a good, therapeutic way to relax, and there’s no pressure involved. I also used to draw and paint in high school. I should do that more often,” he says thoughtfully, a familiar sentiment to many college students who find their old hobbies falling by the wayside.
There is, of course, a lack of free time to consider – Monk, who graduated with a degree in civil engineering in June of 2018, is pursuing his master’s in structural engineering, and is in his final year of collegiate athletic eligibility at Seattle U.
Before the current season, he had not run indoor track in three years.
In Monk’s freshman year of high school, his mother, hoping to get him acclimated to the new campus environment, felt that he should join a fall sport.
“She thought I needed more friends,” Monk jokes, laughing. “I had friends, Mom! Really, though, it was either tennis, football or running. I had already tried tennis and didn’t like it, and I wasn’t going to play football because…” he gestures to his own compact frame, “…obviously.”
Running appealed to Monk’s competitive and driven nature, but he had no idea that it would continue into college. As the accolades piled up, however, he was increasingly hopeful about his athletic prospects at the university level – it all seemed to be going his way.
Toward the end of Monk’s sophomore year at Seattle U, he began experiencing pain in his right hip, which was later diagnosed as a labrum tear, resulting from a cam type femoroacetabular hip impingement. “In plain English, the ball joint on my hip was dented on the top,” Monk elaborates, pointing to the area. “I’ve had it my entire life, and it hadn’t caused anything before, but this time it interacted with my labrum and caused the tear, which is what hurt.”
Monk tried in vain for months to heal and get back to his old form, but nothing seemed to improve. He continued to run through his own discomfort, posting unsatisfactory results in the meets he entered.
Then, to make matters worse, his doctor informed him that his condition was chronic. “After I heard that, I immediately thought that I wouldn’t ever be back to full strength,” Monk admits. “I just assumed that maybe I should quit, focus on my studies and just move on.”
“My roommates were all on the team. It was…challenging to watch them go to practice while I was stuck at home.”
Monk hesitates, swallowing.
“They’d come back all hyped up about the times they ran at the workout, or be in California for races. I spent that time doing my schoolwork to the best of my ability, but it was mind-melting to not have that release of running.”
At the same time, Monk appreciated his roommates’ presence. “Seeing their successes kept me focused on the end goal of who I wanted to be as a runner,” he says. “It also kept me from giving up on running in general.”
It was getting more and more difficult to stay motivated, even with that support system in place. Monk’s body was on an entirely different page than his own mind, stubbornly refusing to heal no matter what he tried. The possibility of recovery seemed more hopeless with each passing meet.
Enter Kelly Sullivan.
Hired before the 2017-18 season as the new head coach of Seattle U cross country and track and field, Sullivan immediately set up one-on-one meetings with his new athletes upon arriving on campus. By this time, Monk’s confidence had plummeted and Sullivan immediately noticed, putting together a whole new recovery plan for his dejected runner.
“I was really burnt-out on trying to work back from the injury with no success,” Monk says, “but Coach gives off such a trustworthy vibe, and it makes you want to do well.”
Sullivan’s training adjustments for Monk included a change of shoes, a gradual change of Monk’s gait and a new emphasis on flexibility. The results were astonishing.
“The athletics trainers helped me so much, and I dedicate a lot of my work to them – they really know their stuff, and put everything they have into it,” Monk enthuses, growing steadily more animated as he describes his recovery process. “The flexibility portion of my training changed everything. Once I had free motion in my hip, I was able to build strength, which led to building mileage, which led to building speed. Coach helped me to lower my shoulders and trust in the day-to-day stuff a little more.”
Monk feels that Sullivan instantly brought a “very different atmosphere” to the team. “Coach doesn’t hold your hand and walk you through things,” he says, “but he constantly reminds you to take care of yourself, both mentally and physically. He and the other coaches have built this whole new philosophy, and they’re such excellent emotional supporters.”
Before Sullivan’s arrival, Monk had been questioning every step he took. Just seven weeks after their first meeting, he was confidently running 40 miles a week.
“It’s one of the most impressive things that I’ve ever been a part of,” Monk acknowledges. “This whole journey has been grueling at times, but when that work pays off, there’s really nothing like it.”
In the 2018 outdoor season, Monk was ready to enter his first race (a 1500 meter run) under Sullivan. His final time was 4:07, which is relatively slow for a competitive distance runner. That didn’t matter to Monk, who was smiling the whole time.
“I was just happy to be out on the track – I hadn’t raced at all in 16 months, 22 if you don’t count cross country,” he recalls, clearly enjoying the memory.
Finally, he was back in the competitive game. A month later, he ran 4:00 in the same event - a personal best.
Several months later, in the 2018 Western Athletic Conference Cross Country Championships, Sullivan beamed with pride as Monk crossed the finish line in eighth place, earning himself a commemorative plaque and a spot on the All-Conference team.
“There’s lots more where that came from,” Monk assures, excitedly. “I can say that I’ve never been more motivated.” A pause, while he searches for the best way to express his thoughts.
“It feels like I’m finally back to full strength,” he finally finishes, brightening. “I still haven’t quite gotten to where I want to be – there’ve been a few bumps in the road due to me pushing myself too hard – but I’ve gained the right patience and know-how to train and mentally compete. I have to imagine that the results will show themselves at conference this season.”
For the first time in a long while, Ben Monk sees a bright future ahead on the track. He gazes toward a window on the far wall, but his mind is elsewhere. Finally, he stands, shifts his backpack, and grins eagerly.
“Well, I had better get to practice.”