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Rio de Janeiro • Completely drained from his best race ever, the one that only further solidified his rise in the distance-running world, Jared Ward needed help tying his shoes. He tried bending down, thinking it would be easy. It was then that every step of those 26.2 miles hit him. He could only laugh.
When both sets of laces were eventually done up, he started down a narrow pathway at the Sambódromo stadium, where he would have to maneuver around a series of puddles from the rain that pelted Rio de Janeiro on the final day of these Olympic Games.
It was there that the chant started. It never got too loud, just noticeable enough that other fans in attendance turned to see what the six Americans at the end of the pathway were clapping in unison:
"Wardy, Wardy, Wardy!"
Once Ward, the former BYU All-American runner from Kaysville, made it to his group all donning red, white and blue some sporting mustaches in support of his trademark look he hugged each one. Ward's Olympic debut in the Rio men's marathon went about as sweetly as a debut could.
No, there wasn't a medal to be displayed from his neck, but the 27-year-old who was considered a somewhat surprising qualifier six months ago at the U.S. Olympic Trials demonstrated that his name will be one to keep tabs on for years to come.
Ward finished sixth overall in the marathon, running a personal-best of 2 hours, 11 minutes, 30 seconds. In just his fifth marathon, he not only cracked the Top-10 goal set out by he and BYU coach Ed Eyestone Ward went the extra mile.
"He's certainly leaped into full world-class status," said Eyestone, a former Olympic marathoner himself. "You're top-six in the Olympic Games."
Kenya's Eliud Kipoge, the marathon favorite going in, took the gold medal in a time of 2:08:44. Ethiopia's Feyisa Lilesa won the silver (2:09:54) while Ward's American teammate, Galen Rupp (2:10:05), brought home the bronze.
Entrenched in the lead pack of runners for the first 16 miles, Ward could only look on as the leaders burst off. He went from trailing the pack by three seconds to 17 seconds during a three-mile span late in the race. Ward felt his legs tighten up a bit. They got heavier. That's when the adjunct statistics professor, whose completed master's thesis was on marathon pacing, waited for the second wind.
He later said the conversation he had with his inner self went something like: "I want to be in it, and I want to stay in it."
Soon, Ward discovered his rhythm again. That carried him to the final three miles, and at that point he discovered he still had some fuel left in the tank. Ward started making moves. He started picking off runners one by one as the finish line grew closer. It was in those moments when Ward said he remembered how to tap into an extra reserve.
To him, it was envisioning his wife, Erica, due with their third child Sept. 9; son Paul and daughter Ellie; his parents, who made the trek down to Rio to watch the former Davis Dart run the marathon of all marathons; his longtime coach Eyestone, the man who recruited the one-time gangly soccer player.
"You save your cards until the end," Ward said with a grin.
And he did. Those cards carried him. Passing rivals one by one, he worked his way back into the Top 10 those last few miles. When he eventually made the last turn into the Sambódromo stadium, he didn't have anyone left in reasonable distance to pick off. Those last few hundred yards were all smiles. Rupp, who finished a minute and 25 seconds before Ward, marveled at his fellow American's discipline.
"He's tough as hell to be able to keep pushing through things," Rupp said.
He added: "Just to see someone who's not scared. A lot of people are scared of the distance."
Not Ward. Eyestone said the sixth-place finish in Rio is an important steppingstone for Ward's professional career. He came into Brazil as the third American to qualify last February in Los Angeles, behind higher profile marathon names like Rupp and Meb Keflezighi.
"This takes him from [being] an American who happened to make the U.S. team because he ran a really cagey race to being one of the top-six in the world today," Eyestone said.
Ward couldn't escape the post-race interviews without being asked about the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo. That will be tackled after the birth of his third child in two weeks. Eyestone said Ward has always had a unique ability to "live his life in balance."
"I've always been an advocate on keeping my focus not too far in front of me," Ward said. "We'll worry about the next race, and then the next marathon, and what we're doing over this next year.
"But 2020's going to be in the back of my mind. I'm going to want it more in 2020 than I did this year, just because I now know how incredible it is. I didn't know before. I'm going to want to come back."
Olympic men's marathon
1. Eliud Kipchoge, Kenya, 2:08:44
2. Feyisa Lilesa, Ethiopia, 2:09:54
3. Galen Rupp, USA, 2:10:05
4. Ghirmay Ghebrelassie, Eriteria, 2:11:04
5. Alphonce Felix Simbi, Tanzania, 2:11:15
6. Jared Ward, USA, 2:11:30
7. Tadesse Abraham, Switzerland, 2:11:42
8. Munyo S. Mutai, Uganda, 2:11:49
9. Callum Hawkins, Great Britain, 2:11:52
10: Eric Gillis, Canada, 2:12:29