Mason Ferlic had it all, or so it seemed.
He came to Michigan out of Mounds Park Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota as a state champion in cross country, the 1,600-meter and the 3,200-meter races. With an academic record to match it, he was an Academic All-State member, now majoring in aerospace engineering.
Of course, when he got to Ann Arbor, success wasn’t as easy.
It wasn’t until he found his niche — the 3,000-meter steeplechase — those familiar rewards reappeared.
When Ferlic started at Michigan in 2012, he had never tried the steeplechase. When he began his redshirt freshman season in 2013, he still hadn’t tried it.
That season, he finished 13th in the nation in the event at the NCAA Championships, earning second-team All-American honors.
From there, everything took off.
“It certainly seems like it’s going fast,” Ferlic said. “Just starting the event and then reaching national-level ability, but I think it’s a work in progress. Reaching those goals and milestones, it’s like, wow, what else can I do? Two more years here, we’re looking at 2016 Rio Olympics. Where do things end up?”
After the last two seasons, who knows? Entering the 2013 season, his Michigan résumé was an Athletic Academic Achievement award and a fourth-place finish in the 1,500-meter run as an unattached runner.
Ferlic burst onto the scene by winning his steeplechase debut in early May his redshirt freshman year. The following weekend — his second career steeplechase race — he finished fourth in 8:54.04. Then it was fourth again at the NCAA East Preliminary Rounds in 8:41.83, qualifying him for the NCAA Championships.
And then, somehow, Mason Ferlic was on the biggest stage in college track — but in hindsight, he wasn’t quite ready for it yet.
In just his fourth career steeplechase, Ferlic lost more than five seconds from his preliminary time, narrowly missing the finals and settling for second-team All-American honors. He came back in 2014 an entirely different runner.
“The steeple is an interesting event on the track — it’s kind of like the odd child,” Ferlic said. “You’re running over some barriers that don’t move, and you have to jump over a water pit. I tell some people I do the steeplechase, and they’re like, ‘What is that?’ ”
With that new mindset, he was fully accustomed to his new race. Ferlic won his only regular-season steeplechase, but then finished third at the Big Ten Championships in 8:50.15, his worst recorded time in a year.
But Ferlic had been to the NCAA Championships before. He knew he was ready to take on the challenge of a full championship season, and a personal record in the preliminary rounds clinched a berth to his second NCAA Championships.
Ferlic said in June that his outlook changed before his second year in the race: from middling to elite, hunter to hunted. With a new mentality, he qualified for the finals and finished fourth in the country, earning first-team All-American honors.
Afterward, a reporter asked him what it was like to be the top American collegiate finisher.
And that’s when it sunk in: Ferlic was one of the top distance runners in the country.
“It was something that I always thought about, but never really considered seriously,” Ferlic said. “I was still trying to achieve Big Ten goals and national goals and college. Professional distance runner is still kind of a small subset. You don’t hear often about how people make that jump.”
Ferlic is prepared to do just that. He has also become one of the top runners on the men’s cross country team, finishing first among all Michigan runners at the Aug. 29 Michigan Open.
He stayed in Ann Arbor this summer to train and work with a doctoral student on research on North Campus. The aerospace engineering major, a self-described “kid who was always building and blowing up things in the backyard,” worked from design to manufacturing on engineering auxiliary power systems. Last season he earned his second straight Academic All-American award.
On the track, he finished ninth in the steeplechase at the USA Track and Field Championships in late June. He also ran for Team USA at the North American, Central America and Caribbean U-23 Championships. After what was by far the longest competitive season of his running career, a career beyond college doesn’t seem far off.
Ferlic is willing but hesitant to acknowledge this success. He talked about staying humble, because anything can happen, but he knows his confidence is what has gotten him this far.
He knows he’s one of the top collegiate athletes in the country, and he doesn’t plan on slowing down: It’s all coming together for Mason Ferlic.