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Dyslexia didn't slow down UVA's Michaela Meyer, the school's first female track national champion
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Dyslexia didn't slow down UVA's Michaela Meyer, the school's first female track national champion

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Her parents had seen it before. Still, never on this stage, never with an achievement of this magnitude hanging in the balance.

There were the leaders of the women’s 800-meter race, pulling away from Virginia’s Michaela Meyer. There was Meyer, a graduate transfer from Delaware who never met an obstacle she couldn’t best, sizing up the field with 200 meters left.

There was the big finish — “classic Michaela,” UVA coach Vin Lananna called it — and then there she was, crossing the finish line first, outrunning history, disability and nine other of the fastest middle-distance runners in college track and field.

“I guess we’ve gotten a little used to it,” said Meyer’s mother, Siobhan, who was in Eugene, Ore. on Saturday to see her daughter’s victory. “You’re just thinking, ‘Did she save enough? Is she going to have that kick?”

Meyer’s late kick Saturday made Virginia history. In just one season in the program, she became the first Cavaliers woman to win an NCAA championship.

The program has just three second-place NCAA finishers all time — javelin thrower Julia Solo in 1989, long jumper Dana Boone in 1990 and steeple-chase runner Stephanie Garcia in 2011 — and hasn’t had a top three finisher in a decade, despite having at least five ACC champions in three of the previous four seasons.

Meyer clocked a personal-best 2:00.28, breaking her own school record and recording the ninth fastest time in NCAA history.

“At 200 to go, I was like, ‘I know they were going to come back to me, I’m confident in my kick,’” she said. “‘I got this.’”

Confidence hasn’t always been one of Meyer’s calling cards, though determination certainly has.

She was in kindergarten when her mother began to suspect she might have a learning disability, noting that she was picking up reading slower than her twin sister was or her older siblings had.

“You could tell she was bright, intelligent, curious, learning in all different ways,” Siobhan Meyer said. “But just putting the words together on paper just didn’t come naturally.”

For Michaela, schoolwork would always be a struggle. Still, she pushed to be in honors classes and turned herself into a solid student.

“I wouldn’t let it slow me down,” she said. “Even though homework took me twice as long, I wanted to just work harder and not let that disability stop me.”

On the track at Pomperaug High School in Southbury, Conn., dyslexia didn’t slow Meyer at all. She became a team captain and star for both the track and cross country programs before going to run at Delaware.

“That’s one of the main reasons I gravitated toward track and running,” she said. “I wanted to be really good at something.”

At Delaware, distance coach Ryan Waite told her she could be more than that. Michaela recalled that in her first meeting with Waite he said she could be an NCAA finalist.

“I remember thinking, as an 18-year-old, that he was nuts,” she said.

At the same time, Michaela was wrestling with her plans. She grew up wanting to be a nurse, like her mother, but as a freshman at Delaware she wondered if her dyslexia might make that goal unattainable, opting, instead, to major in nutrition.

But after two years at Delaware, Meyer decided nothing was going to hold her back in the classroom or on the track.

She reinvented herself, shifting from a night owl to a morning person, and followed a regimented schedule to balance her studies and athletic pursuits. Schoolwork was still a challenge, and the stress of exams would cause the words she was reading to “jumble.”

Meyer graduated and set seven school records running at Delaware, including the indoor and outdoor 800-meter marks.

“When you have those kinds of challenges, it can easily turn into the excuse for why you can’t do something,” Waite said. “And what was always so impressive about her, it’s, ‘This is the obstacle. How do I overcome it?’”

COVID-19 wiped out her would-be senior season, but the NCAA essentially gave athletes a year of eligibility back. That brought an opportunity — the chance to graduate, transfer and compete at the Power Five level. Waite ran for Lananna at Oregon and found himself lobbying for Meyer to stay with the Blue Hens, while also extolling the benefits of finishing her career at Virginia.

The chance to compete in the ACC, combined with UVA’s accelerated nursing major, proved the perfect situation for Meyer.

She won the outdoor 1,500-meter title and finished first in the 800 meters at the NCAA regional race, qualifying for Oregon.

Waite flew to Eugene to support Meyer — not to coach her, playing card games during her downtime. Her mother, father and twin sister were there, too.

Her whole family, along with a group of friends, will be back in Oregon next week to see her compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. At some point, she’ll likely be behind the leaders, sizing up the gap, picking her moment to surge.

“It started in high school. She would anchor the relays. I’m like, there’s no way she’s going to make up that time. And she does,” said her father, Jeff. “Once she starts, it’s just pedal to the metal.”

mbarber@timesdispatch.com

Twitter: @RTD_MikeBarber

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