Abbie McNulty was perfectly satisfied to play recreation league soccer growing up in Cumberland as well as dabbling in ice skating, squash and skiing.
Oh, and there was the occasional game of tennis with her dad, who himself was a three-sport athlete when he attended Bishop Feehan High School.
“My wife was participating with Abbie’s youth soccer league (during her junior high years),” Tom recalls. “I went to watch some of her games, and saw that the coaches wanted to even out the playing time, and I could see that other kids had issues with all the running, getting winded.
“So I told Abbie, ‘You may want to consider running; I think you have a good foundation for it. The way you run around that field, you have some good running ability.’ It piqued her interest.”
Young Abbie was reluctant at first because she had never been a runner and she really enjoyed soccer, but she gave it a try when she followed in her father’s footsteps and went to Feehan.
The rest, as they say, is history. And historic.
Within a couple of years of participating in the Shamrock program, Abbie had captured the 2012 Mass. All-State title in cross country, and 16 months later the Mass. All-State crown in the 2-mile race (10:48.98) as a high-school senior.
She then moved on to a stellar career at Stanford University, where she ended up as the No. 3 all-time 10,000-meter runner at the school, clocking 33:07.41 in 2018.
Now the once-reluctant running enthusiast is training in Charlottesville, Va., as part of the professional Reebok Boston Track Club, for whom she made her debut at last month’s legendary Falmouth Road Race. She finished an impressive seventh among nearly 6,200 women and was 45th overall in the field of 11,438 on the scenic, 7.1-mile Cape Cod course.
Not surprisingly, her next goal is to participate in the U.S. Olympic Trials next June in hopes of being a part of Team USA at the Tokyo Summer Games, ideally in the 10,000 meters.
This is a staggering achievement for the 23-year-old former Shamrock, especially given the fact that she took up the sport at such a relatively late stage in her athletic career.
“I grew up playing rec soccer, all through middle school,” Abbie recalls. “My dad wanted his kids to go to Feehan. He ran at Feehan, but I didn’t start running until high school. I was apprehensive at first (to try the new sport), but he was encouraging, and once I got to there, it developed.
“It was definitely different from what I was used to,” she said, “because soccer is more of a team sport and running is much more individualized. Much different. So at first it was hard to adjust to what it was, but I loved being part of the team in high school. I fell in love with it pretty quickly, as I got a better feel for the sport.
“I don’t know if I was good enough to play soccer,” she admits. “I wanted to try out (for the Shamrock soccer team) but Dad wanted me to join the running team. I was probably too small for soccer. I think I would have done well, since I was pretty athletic as a kid.
“But I probably wouldn’t have had the future in (soccer).”
Abbie adds, “When I was playing soccer, running around, my dad saw the potential in that. He believed that staying active on the field for a really long time could translate really well (to running). I’m glad, because it was a good thing that he saw that in me.”
That didn’t mean that she was necessarily gung-ho about it from the get-go.
“I remember when she was a freshman we would hold captains’ practices,” recalled her high school coach, the legendary mentor Bob L’Homme. “So her father would drop her off at Feehan and she would get out and slam the truck door. She would walk to the track, sit against the fence and almost pout. She wouldn’t talk to anyone; it was obvious she didn’t want to be there.
“Then the kids would go out running and she would stay with the top runners, all the time, and then like teenagers do, she found out she was pretty good at it. A switch was flipped and she became fully invested and fell in love with it.”
After what Abbie described as a “transitional” freshman year training in the new sport, she said it wasn’t until her sophomore year that she “really started to develop. And senior year I hit my stride.”
“I will always be curious how it would have looked had I started running earlier,” she admits.
Under the watchful eye of L’Homme, McNulty became an elite runner as part of powerhouse Feehan cross-country and track teams. By the time she graduated in 2014 as a state champion in both sports, she held the school’s indoor record in the mile (4:58) and 2-mile (10:38), the 5-kilometer (17:08), and the outdoor 2-mile (10:30). She was also a member of several record-setting relay teams and three state-champion cross-country teams.
“Coach L’Homme definitely has a strong personality,” Abbie says. “I loved having him as a coach; he developed me into the person I am today. I feel like he instilled a sense of confidence, a drive in me that I wouldn’t have necessarily found on my own. He was very motivating, and he pushed me to another level.”
Tom McNulty concurs: “She was very fortunate that she had a great coach in Bob L’Homme, who has a long history of developing athletes. He was instrumental in her training regimen — not too much too soon — and really assisted her, which transferred right into college, where (Abbie) was lucky to have a coach that had a similar mindset.”
As McNulty wrapped up her senior season at Bishop Feehan in 2014, L’Homme said, “She’s the best that’s ever been here. It’ll be a long time until someone like her comes around again. The beauty has been to watch her get better and better. Abbie’s able to zone in when she’s running. It’s like she has blinders on. She’s really coming into her own now.”
Today, she’s still among L’Homme’s best runners.
“She is probably the toughest, in terms of mental toughness, we’ve ever had,” L’Homme said recently. “In my 36 years, she’s in the top three overall (runners), the No. 1 female, and her accomplishments speak to that.”
When McNulty committed to Stanford, the school already boasted a legendary track-and-field program.
Was the kid from Cumberland intimidated about joining the Cardinal ranks?
“Yes and no,” McNulty says. “I was pretty confident going in, but humbled pretty quickly; after all, you go from being good in your state and region, and then go to the top program in the country, going up against people that were four years older than you.
“So it took me some time to get used to the next level of sport, to become an athlete competing at such a level. I definitely had some performances the first couple of years that were really frustrating, racing people who had been doing it for longer, stronger, but it eventually turned out great.”
Indeed it did. McNulty concluded a remarkable collegiate career by capturing Second-Team All-American honors in the indoor 5,000 meters last March and outdoor 10,000 (where she finished 10th nationally) three months later as a fifth-year senior. McNulty also graduated with the third-fastest times in the program’s history in the indoor 5,000 (15:42.13) and outdoor 10,000 (33:07:41).
Oh, and she also majored in bio-engineering and mechanical engineering at Stanford.
McNulty eventually wants to pursue a career in those fields, but for now, she’s been a member of Reebok Club, based in Charlottesville, the home of the club’s main training base. Most of the club’s workouts take place at the University of Virginia’s track facility, and McNulty and her new teammates are part of an elite group overseen by former Syracuse track head coach Chris Fox and Orange assistant Adam Smith. Hopefully, that kind of stewardship and good health will lead McNulty to the starting line of the US Olympic Trials at the University of Oregon next June.
“I’m giving myself two years to evaluate, give myself a shot, and run through the 2021 World Championships (also to be staged in Oregon),” McNulty says, “then kind of take a gap year. After 2021 I will reevaluate, and see where I’m at — if I’m progressing, making a comfortable level at the time, pursuing goals.
“But I want to be realistic about it, and if it’s not working out the way that I want, I’ll still run and race, but not focus on it full-time. The goal is to see how good I can be, the potential; I don’t know how many years that will be, if it’s two or five, but we’ll see the next few years.
“And that’s one of the reasons why I want to keep running. I feel like it took me a few years in college to really get my stride, and I just want to keep on seeing what I have.”