Stephanie Pezzullo came so close to quitting in 2007.
Struggling financially and mentally, Pezzullo had just broken her ankle during a steeplechase, the distance event in track with five hurdles and a water pit.
But she rehabbed, first learning to walk, then run, during the next two years after major surgery, and now has jumpstarted a serious career in professional running.
Pezzullo, a Penn State graduate who lives in Charlotte, N.C., finished 10th of all females at the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 7 and qualified for the 2012 Olympic Trials in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. She hopes to qualify for the next Olympics in the marathon, even though she ran her first in Chicago.
Had anyone else suffered the same injury, that would have been it, said her coach, Mark Hadley.
But not Pezzullo.
“She has what I call an indomitable spirit,” said Hadley, a Charlotte, N.C.-based running coach who heads Team Alchemy. “I really don’t think she has it in her to give up.”
What separates Pezzullo from other athletes is her competitive nature, which has carried over from the soccer field to the track, said former Penn State women’s soccer coach Paula Wilkins.
Pezzullo, 30, played four years of soccer at Penn State before joining the track team. She helped lead the Nittany Lions to four consecutive Big Ten regular-season soccer titles and to the second round of the NCAA tournament during her senior year in 2004.
“She came from Rhode Island. No soccer players come out of there,” Wilkins said. “Her physical attributes were ones that stood out. Her love for the sport, to compete, were ones that stood out. Her ability to chase people down was unbelievable. “
Pezzullo didn’t want her Penn State athletic career to end after soccer in her senior year. To make the track team, Pezzullo — or Pezz, as she’s known among athletes — had to run a 5:15 mile. She said her best had been 5:40.
After working non-stop over the winter break, she cracked that mark and steadily improved.
“I’m an athlete,” Pezzullo said. “You can show your athleticism in the sport of running. It comes down to how much pain you can handle. It’s a sport for the tough.”
After graduation, she played two years of semi-pro soccer in North Carolina. A midfielder, Pezzullo said she wasn’t the most skilled player but could run with anyone and was always a competitor.
After the league folded, she joined up with North Carolina-based Zap Fitness’ Pete Rea. He saw her running a workout in 2006 and tried to persuade her to enter the pro running world.
Hadley then spotted Pezzullo at a meet in December 2010. He asked her if she’d like to train with him and move up in distance from steeplechases to half-marathons and marathons. Hadley was training several emerging marathoners at the time and Pezzullo jumped on board.
Hadley said what surprised him most about Pezzullo’s quick transition to track was her natural endurance. Most people assumed she’d be fast based only on her soccer background, he said.
“She just has it in her to endure and deal with a lot of discomfort,” Hadley said, “and that is what distance running is about — the ability to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Growing up in Rhode Island, Pezzullo always pushed herself in sports. She played basketball, softball, tennis and soccer and eventually joined a competitive club soccer team at age 15. She then went to a camp, attempting to make the Region 1 team in high school that was filled with the best players from Maine to Virginia.
“It was very nerve-wracking,” she said. “I wanted to play in college. I needed to play something of high caliber to take me to the next level.”
She signed with Penn State as a high school senior after receiving interest from local schools, including New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Boston College and Brown. Pezzullo didn’t receive a full-ride to become a Nittany Lion but wanted to compete with the best. Wilkins’ program was perennially ranked and a Big Ten force.
“Her determination to be successful in anything she does sets her apart,” former Penn State assistant women’s soccer coach Melissa Ramsey said. “She has an uncanny amount of determination. I hope that other kids look up to her for that.”
That determination helped Pezzullo push through the ankle injury to pursue her career in running. While doctors told her she would never fully regain strength in that area, her drive never wavered.
Pezzullo said she knew she could be better, and she’s proven that. Since 2010, she has placed in the top 10 for every USA National championship she has entered in the 1 mile, 5k, 10k, half-marathon and 20k, according to her personal blog.
“For any athlete that I’ve ever watched overcome, Stephanie has been the most amazing one in dealing with obstacles in her life,” said Wilkins, who now leads Wisconsin’s women’s soccer team.
Pezzullo broke out of her comfort zone in the past few years, transitioning from the steeplechase to the marathon. She had an opportunity to run in the Olympic Trials in the steeplechase, but the chances of her making last summer’s London Games were slim. Instead, she ran in the Chicago Marathon that weekend.
“I quit track and focused on the road,” she said. “Everything just kind of clicked and moved forward.”
Pezzullo will now race one or two marathons a year, in addition to a number of shorter distances ranging from 10k’s to half-marathons, Hadley said.
She is scheduled to race in the Rock n’ Roll New Orleans Half-Marathon on Sunday.
Since she has only run one full marathon, she’s still getting used the distance. At mile 11 in Chicago, Pezzullo’s leg started to seize up — the same one with the broken ankle. But running there was surreal, she said, and she hopes to do some more major city marathons soon.
“It was a lot of mental games in your head to make it through,” Pezzullo said. “…But you plug on and keep moving. I’m glad I stuck it out.”
Steven Petrella is a Penn State journalism student.