Column: As Shae Anderson chases her Olympic dream, she stays strong for her father

UCLA's Shae Anderson prepares to run in the 400-meter final at the Pac-12 championships in May.
UCLA’s Shae Anderson prepares to run in the 400-meter final at the Pac-12 championships in May. Two days after finding out she was heading to the Tokyo Olympics, Anderson’s father was in the hospital.
(Katharine Lotze / Getty Images)

Shae Anderson knew something was terribly wrong with her father the moment she saw his whole body begin to tremble and his face turn pale.

Mark Anderson, a two-time all-America decathlete at UCLA who won the 1980 NCAA championship and still holds the school record in the event, had coached Shae through a busy track season. She was part of a 1,600-meter relay team that finished third at the NCAA championships in a school-record time of 3 minutes, 25.01 seconds and, after a quick turnaround, she reached the final of the women’s 400-meter race at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Ore., last month.

The 2017 California state champion in the 300-meter hurdles and the 400-meter run at Norco High, Shae began her college career in Oregon but transferred to UCLA in part to work with her dad. He paused his career as a personal growth coach and motivational speaker to become a volunteer coach at UCLA and guide his daughter toward an Olympic dream he didn’t get the chance to live.


UCLA 400-meter runner Shae Anderson, left, and her father, Mark Anderson, during his days as a decathlete at UCLA.
UCLA 400-meter runner Shae Anderson, left, and her father, Mark Anderson, during his days as a decathlete at UCLA.

Shae’s Olympic aspirations crystallized on June 20, after she finished eighth in a stacked 400-meter final in a personal-best time of 50.84 seconds. Quanera Hayes won in 49.78 seconds, followed by nine-time Olympic medalist Allyson Felix of Los Angeles (50.02) and Wadeline Jonathas (50.03). That trio was nominated to the Olympic team. “It was a very crazy race,” Shae said.

Soon afterward Anderson was told she would go to the Tokyo Olympics as a member of the relay pool, which is comprised of runners who compete in the preliminary rounds but might not run in the final. If the relay team wins a medal in the final, each athlete who ran in the heats gets a medal too.

The Andersons’ plans had gone so well. Shae was blossoming. It should have been a time for her to celebrate her status as an Olympian and continue to benefit from her father’s wisdom as she prepared for her role in Tokyo and a chance at a medal.

Two days later, as Mark developed severe and inexplicable stomach pain while in his hotel room in Oregon, their plans and their world changed.

“He wasn’t feeling good and couldn’t get out of bed because he had really bad abdominal pain. Out of nowhere he starts shaking uncontrollably and he was kind of going into shock,” Shae said during a phone interview last week.

“I could just tell when my dad’s not looking good because he’s pretty strong,” she said of Mark, 62. “He’s just a very high energy person so you just know that something’s wrong with him. I was like, ‘He does not look good.’ It looked like he was turning blue.”


UCLA's Shae Anderson
(James Lee / UCLA Athletics)

Her mom, Susan, initially considered taking Mark to urgent care. Shae thought the situation was dire enough to contact 911. “I’m glad I made that call because we did not think it was anything this serious,” Shae said.

Mark Anderson underwent surgery on his perforated colon in an Oregon hospital last Thursday. There were no complications, Shae said, but doctors found infections that required extensive cleanup. He was expected to stay in the hospital for five days after the operation. “It would have been better if he was [closer to] home in a hospital but he just wasn’t fit enough to be transported,” Shae said.

He’s getting better, she said, but the family is facing another problem. Shae said her father’s insurance won’t cover some of the bills because he’s an out-of-state patient, and those costs are mounting. Susan Anderson has set up a fundraiser through to help the family pay the costs of getting him back home to heal.

Shae stayed in Oregon for a while, but she wasn’t allowed to visit her father in the hospital and she wasn’t eating or sleeping well. She returned to Norco with the hope of resuming something like a normal training routine before her scheduled July 26 departure for Japan. But it can’t be normal without her father nearby. “My dad normally guides me through my warmup. Just having him there really helps with my nerves going into races,” she said.

She has been working out at Norco High and at UCLA, opting for Westwood when temperatures get especially toasty in the Inland Empire. “I made the decision to come home and just train on my own and force my friends to go to the track with me and time me,” she said. “I also have a lot of weight equipment that I need in our garage so it’s very convenient for me to be home rather than staying in Oregon not getting anything done as far as training.”

The family has heard from many of her father’s old teammates and friends, which has provided great consolation while they wait for him to get well and figure out their finances. “We’re getting an extreme amount of support. It’s so crazy,” Shae said. “Also the fact that I qualified for the Olympics, I got a lot of support there, and everybody hearing about my dad is giving even more support.

“It’s awesome seeing how big of a family we have, even though it’s not blood family, but people who care about you.”