Breaking Free & Living: Seivert Sprints Past Barriers, Finds Success

Leah Seivert, a fifth year senior cross country star at Augustana University has a bright future. She’s a successful athlete with a room full of trophies. She’s on the Dean’s List. The elementary education major knows she wants to teach third or fourth graders. But it wasn’t too long ago the All-American was at her all-time lowest. She was battling anorexia.

The Sibley, Iowa, native started running in sixth grade when she and her mother both signed up for a 'couch-to-5k plan’.

“It started off as both of us just walking three miles, then walk for 30 seconds and run for 30 seconds,” Seivert laughed. “It was a very step-by-step process. So then at the end of the summer, we did a 5k and the cross country coach happened to be there, so he asked about what sports I was planning on doing next year in middle school.”

At first, Seivert didn’t even know what cross-country was but she knew she wanted to do some kind of sport in the fall. “I wasn’t really into volleyball and actually never heard of cross-country,” Seivert said. “So the [Sibley-Ocheyedan High School Generals] coach painted a little picture of what it was and then I asked my friends what they thought and they said, ‘Don’t do it; you have to run like five miles a day.’” After talking to her friends, Seivert didn’t know if she would be able to run that far but knew she enjoyed running with her mom. The small-town girl decided to give it a try and actually got a couple of her friends to join her.

“After I started competing it just came easily to me,” Seivert said. “I wasn’t always motivated to run by myself, especially in junior high when I wanted to go to the pool and hang out with my friends. My mom was really the one who started the fire and my dad was the one who kind of kept the fire burning after it got started.”

Once that spark took off, Seivert never looked back; she was a natural runner. And she was taking in as much reading material she could about how to get that so-called ‘runner’s body.’

“I wanted to be lean and cut fat so I could be faster,” she says. “I started by eating a balanced diet but eventually I got more and more strict. I eliminated all desserts and extras like ketchup, mayonnaise and ranch dressing. I never allowed myself food rewards.”

For awhile, her methods worked. She never lost a race in junior high. By the time she entered high school, she was a champion runner. “I wasn’t striving to lose weight,” she states. “That’s the scary thing. Cutting weight improves your times but a crash is bound to happen. Oftentimes, people see the glory and continue their behavior, not knowing what is ahead.”

Eventually, the effects started showing. “I was a sophomore in high school and I had some health issues,” she says. “My body was starting to break down but I didn’t see it.”

Soon, Seivert started to lose her races. Finally, she says a few people took charge and got her the help she needed. “When I was diagnosed, I weighed nowhere near what a five foot five girl should’ve,” she says. “My heart rate was extremely low. I didn’t see it but I look at photos now and can’t believe how awful I looked. At the time, I was winning and that’s all that mattered to me.”

Seivert spent the spring of her sophomore year in high school gaining back weight and seeing a psychologist “to make sure I was in the right mindset.” The following fall and spring of her junior year was the best she would have in her high school running career. She spent time working with dieticians and nutritionists but always felt like something was missing. “I bounced back and I had an amazing junior year. I was working on recovering from not fueling myself properly and I saw a doctor who helped me. However, I was still having trouble with perfectionism and putting pressure on myself.”

Fast forward to her senior year of high school where she finished runner-up in cross country at state four years in a row. She also set a state record at the Class A girls 3,000-meter championship.

Her coach believed she could run in college and asked if she thought about continuing her career as a runner. Seivert, just like before, had no idea college running was a path for her or anyone.

“I had no idea that college running existed but I decided to give it a try,” Seivert said. “I had a couple Division I schools as well as Augustana looking at me. Ultimately, it came down to Augustana. I really loved the atmosphere Tracy [Hellman, head men’s and women’s track and cross country coach] built at Augustana and that he put time into you as a person, not just a runner.”

Seivert was also interested in the diversity that Augustana offered. She says she was impressed that the focus is on not only athletics but academia and the community. “I was drawn to the balance at Augustana; they want you to be successful in competition but at the same time it’s not everything. The coaches, the faculty and staff all want you to be a well-rounded student.”

It didn’t take long for Seivert to make a name for herself in college athletics and in Viking history. During her first two years at Augustana, she became a five-time All-American, a seven-time First Team All-Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC) honors and earned U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) All-Central Region honors.

During the NSIC Championships her freshman year, she placed fifth and took tenth overall in the NCAA Championship. Her sophomore year was not much different; she took second in the NSIC Championship.

“It was great,” she reminisces. “But my sophomore year was also the year I had my first injury. It completely rocked my world.” Seivert says getting that heel injury was the first time something didn’t go her way. “I felt so much pressure to live up to my own expectations. I felt that running was who I was. It was my identity. I felt so lost when I got injured.” Seivert fought hard and began her junior year with more accolades. “I had a really strong fall but as soon as spring hit, I got injured again.”

Seivert sat out indoor and outdoor track season her junior year, this time nursing a knee injury. “I just started losing passion for the sport. I felt mentally drained and just completely lost in who I was. I truly thought that up until that point, Leah was a runner and that was it. Running was my entire identity.”

She says when she started her senior year, she was at her lowest point mentally and was considering giving up running completely. “I loved the sport and I hated the sport,” she says. “So I started praying. Finally, I got the message that if I give up, what does that say to other young women and teammates?”

In addition, she had already started her blog, "Break Free and Live," which focuses on battling self-control and anorexia. And she didn’t want to abandon her readers. “I was thinking, ‘am I running to appease others or am I doing it to make myself happy?’” It was at that pivotal point where she started thinking about her personal future after college. “I was thinking, ‘is what I’m doing now getting in the way of my ultimate dream?’ I knew I wanted to be a mom. So what was I going to do to make sure that happened? And will the achievements matter in ten years?”

Seivert says she focused on her holistic health and faith. “I knew I had to make some changes,” she says.

Once she started seeing little changes in her body, mind, and spirit, it was all the motivation she needed to continue to get healthy — physically and mentally. “I finally have the headspace to invest in relationships. I have friends and teammates who I can bond with. These relationships have skyrocketed.”

Seivert wants to credit assistant coach Scott Tanis as someone who was really instrumental in her recovery and growth as a person. “Scott really bought into me and saw me as a person outside of being just a runner,” Seivert said. “He kept telling me ‘I hope you look back at your career and are thankful that you kept getting back up.’ Now that I started a blog I am able to look back and be thankful and know that running is a big part of who I am but it isn’t all that I am. I am a student, I am a friend and a sister as well as being a runner.”

Now as a fifth-year senior, Seivert weighs a healthy 135 pounds and is happy. “My body is finally functioning as it should be,” she says. “I keep going back to this verse in the Bible: ‘You are fearfully and wonderfully made.’ Why would we change who He wants us to be?”

Her success has transferred to the classroom as well. Seivert has maintained a perfect 4.0 GPA throughout college and was recently awarded the Elite-18 award, which the conference awards to student-athletes who have success on the field and in the classroom.

Coach Tanis is impressed with Seivert’s perseverance. “Leah's influence on Augustana and our team extends well beyond her athletic contributions,” he shares. “She has amazing values and works extremely hard in all that she does, which has resulted in a lot of success.

However, her journey has also shown that having those qualities does not make you invincible and that everyone is susceptible to struggles. Her resilience within those challenges and subsequent courage to open up about them, has left a legacy here that is far more significant than just running fast.”

Seivert says when she got injured, she was devasted but now sees it as a blessing. “I have so much peace. We can’t control what happens to us and God has a plan. My injuries have released running’s control over me. God is always working and works for good. We just have to trust Him.”

Greta Stewart
Editorial Strategist