EUGENE, Ore. – It’s a chilly Sunday morning in February as Megan Patrignelli prepares for her weekly workout at Hayward Field. The air is crisp and clouds loom overhead, yet Patrignelli seizes the early wake-up call to work out with more than 100 recreational walkers, joggers and runners from the Eugene-Springfield area.
The crowd gathers in the East Grandstand to hear the morning’s training regimen laid out by 2016 U.S. Olympic Coach Vin Lananna. This is the beginning of TrackTown Fitness, where Patrignelli volunteers her Sunday mornings to help community members achieve their fitness goals.
“You can relate to everybody no matter what their ability,” Patrignelli said.
The Sunday morning sessions are just a small portion of Patrignelli’s passion for fitness that extends far beyond the track. While running is the base on which she builds her foundation, she has found ways to leverage it through different outlets as a platform to promote confident, healthy lifestyles for young children and adults.
When she’s not lacing up her own shoes for morning training runs, she dedicates her afternoons to immersing herself in the community. Her involvement spans across multiple organizations – in particular the Oregon Special Olympics. Despite her busy schedule, what motivates her are the people she interacts with each day.
“Everything I do on the side gives me extra energy because I’m passionate, so it doesn’t feel like I have to go do something,” she said.
The Special Olympics has been Patrignelli’s passion for the past couple of years. She works year-round for the organization as a coach in soccer, weight-lifting and track and field, doing her best to develop her athletes both on and off the field. Like many coaches, she focuses on communicating effective strategies for each person. Some days can be difficult, such as the time when one of her athletes wanted to lift a heavier weight than they were ready for. That’s when Patrignelli reminds them that sports are a process. She’s excited to coach at the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle this summer.
“Getting to know people is the biggest thing,” she said. “Once you’re there, they learn who you are and it’s an athlete-coach relationship. I’m excited to see them grow.”
What most people don’t know is that Patrignelli had to grow into her infectious personality.
Growing up in New York, she battled social anxiety throughout her childhood to the extent that she was intimidated to interact with her teammates. Close to her family, she didn’t consider moving almost 2,800 miles across the country to the University of Oregon until late in high school. When she did land in Eugene, she found it just as difficult to socialize with her collegiate teammates.
“I’m a really shy person; I dealt with social anxiety in college and it took a long time for me to become friends with my teammates,” Patrignelli said.
Her four years at Oregon were filled with steady improvement on the track.
Her first breakthrough came as a junior in 2013 at the NCAA West Preliminary Round, where she snagged the 12th and final qualifying spot for the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships in the 3,000-meter steeplechase with a time of 10 minutes, 9 seconds.
On paper, the odds didn’t stack in her favor.
Patrignelli was not among the favorites to advance, and the women’s steeplechase at the NCAA West Preliminary Round in Austin, Texas, was delayed until 12:30 a.m. due to inclement weather, which forced the athletes to warm up in the hallway of a nearby building.
Normally, those would not be ideal conditions, but Patrignelli made the best of what she was given, overcoming a rough patch in which she was struggling with a negative mindset and a fear of racing.
“It was a really imperfect build-up and somehow I just got out on the line and did it,” she said. “It was a proud moment after a couple years of not feeling like myself.”
The achievement of reaching the NCAA Championships for the first time was a satisfying end to a year when she became a more vocal leader.
“I knew that I was able to be myself again running because everything was wrong, and I still did it,” she said. “I felt like I embraced who I was, and it translated on and off the track.”
In essence, a new version of Patrignelli was born.
Her personality has blossomed since that year as she began to take on leadership roles with Team Run Eugene, a local semi-professional running group focused on community interaction.
This is also when she, unlike her one-on-one coaching interactions with the Special Olympics, recently found confidence in addressing large groups of people during practice and being a vocal leader among her teammates.
“She’s gone from the person who loves to be supportive to the one who can talk in front of a group,” said Ian Dobson, who has been Patrignelli’s coach since 2015.
“I’m super proud of her for that because she’s put herself in uncomfortable positions and figured out how to make it a good thing.”
Dobson also sees it mutually beneficial to combine performance and personality.
“It’s rewarding because it definitely reinforces the connection between performance and engagement,” Dobson said. “Megan’s very genuine about it so the relationships go beyond ‘hey how are you doing’ – she actually wants to know.”
At TrackTown Fitness each Sunday, Patrignelli is also charged with bringing the group back together after they finish their workout for the team cheer. As the group shouts in unison, her personality shines through and the echo harkens back to her own personal journey.