Back on track and breaking records
After a six-year hiatus, Maya Ries returned to college and became the fastest hurdler in MSU Denver history.
Editor’s note (updated story on Feb. 21, 2023): Maya Ries’ record-breaking season continues this week at the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Championships in Alamosa, where she will try to earn a trip to the NCAA Division II Indoor National Championships.
It’s January 2022, and Metropolitan State University of Denver student Maya Ries is in the starting block, ready to run a competitive hurdles race, just as she had done hundreds of times before.
“Oh, I was literally shaking in the blocks,” Ries said.
It had been six years since her last race.
Her first college experience didn’t exactly go as planned. She struggled academically and dropped out as she faced mental-health struggles, unhealthy relationships and lackluster jobs. Despite the challenges, Ries found her way back to the classroom and the track at MSU Denver, where she easily set a school record on her first try and just keeps getting better.
Despite being a nervous wreck at the first meet, the 24-year-old Communication Design sophomore ran the seven fastest 60-meter hurdles times in program history during the indoor season. Outdoors, she posted the top three times in the 100-meter hurdles in program history as well as seven of the fastest eight. She broke the school record indoors four times and the outdoor mark three times in 2022.
This season, Ries has competed in seven meets during the indoor season and has broken her school record four more times, including an 8.77-second clocking on Jan. 28 that ranks 41st in Division II this season.
“It was muscle memory for me,” Ries said of regaining her hurdling technique. “But some things had gone away over time — my arms and small little things that I’m still working on. But getting over the hurdles wasn’t really a problem for me.”
Life’s hurdles, however, proved more challenging.
A 2016 graduate of Denver East High School, Ries was a spectacular athlete in high school. Despite tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee during her junior season, Ries came back better than ever as a senior and finished sixth in the 100-meter hurdles and the triple jump at the Class 5A State Championships.
But on her last triple jump, she once again tore her reconstructed ACL. Her Division I scholarship offer was pulled. Ries enrolled at a Division II school in Colorado, but she struggled academically.
“I wasn’t able to advocate for myself,” she said. “My dad had always been around to be on top of everything for me. Going to a school by myself and living by myself, it was just difficult for me to keep up with everything. And because of that, my grades started to slip.”
Unable to compete due to low grades, Ries saw her personal life begin to spiral, and she felt overwhelmed by depression. She had a heart-to-heart talk with her father and told him she didn’t want to be in school or on the track anymore. She started working and didn’t think she’d ever return to college.
“For a while, it felt pretty good because I was just living my life,” she said. “But it was masked behind all the things I was going through, the relationships I was so focused on instead of thinking about myself and putting myself first.”
She started working various retail jobs and fell into a pattern of unhealthy relationships and disordered eating, shrinking down to 96 pounds.
Finally, she started working as a valet at Denver International Airport in August 2019. With the help of a family member, she bought a car that December. She ended the abusive relationship she had been in the following day.
One more setback awaited, though — the outbreak of Covid. Due to the uncertainty that many businesses felt, her valet job was put on hold in April 2020.
“After I was done working at the airport, after Covid had just started and everybody was at home, I realized I wanted to go back to school,” Ries said. “Because I didn’t want to be working those types of jobs. I wanted to be doing something that I loved, and I wanted to have a better future for myself.”
Nearly as important, track reentered the picture for her. Though being a track athlete had always been part of her identity, she had thought it had partly been so she wouldn’t disappoint her father, a track coach.
“I realized that I didn’t want to just go back to school, but I also wanted to run track,” she said. “I realized that I actually do love the sport.”
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She began doing track workouts organized by her father, and by January 2021 she was visiting MSU Denver and Roadrunners coach Janis Christopher. By this past fall, she was hesitantly ready to start classes. MSU Denver’s diverse population, with students of all ages, helped her make the transition.
“When I first came, I felt awful about myself because all my friends my age had already graduated or were going to get their master’s or had their career started … and I was about to be a freshman,” Ries said, laughing. “But when I did start going to classes, I saw so many people of different ages that I didn’t feel as bad as I had.”
She still had to restore her academic eligibility during her first semester at MSU Denver, which she did. And that put her in the starting block in January 2022.
Ries finished fourth at the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Indoor Championships last February, running the 60-meter hurdles in a school-record 9.0 seconds. At the RMAC Outdoor Championships last May, she finished third with a school-record in the 100 hurdles. She’s currently ranked 34th in NCAA Division II — the top 18 at season’s end will earn invitations to the National Championships.
Ries wants to run at Nationals, she said, and is looking forward to a career in graphic design. Her early uneasiness about returning to school is behind her now.
“It was kind of difficult for me, but my dad and my family kept telling me, ‘You go at your pace. It’s your life,’” she said. “A lot of people, after taking that many years off, don’t go back to school. So I started to realize that, and I felt better about myself.
“I don’t mind being the age that I am, because I’m accomplishing the things I want to accomplish in my life.”