An average runner early in her college career, Megan Vaccaro took her race to the next level in the wake of a family trauma.
The most decorated runner in the history of Dominican University says it was a personal tragedy — the death of her beloved father — that sparked her fierce dedication to the sport and her multiple achievements.
“Going through college, I learned that nothing is impossible, and if you want something bad enough, you can find a way to make it happen,” 31-year-old Megan Vaccaro says.
A native of Oswego and a 2010 graduate of Dominican University, Vaccaro was inducted June 8 into her alma mater’s athletics hall of fame. She also is the university’s head coach for men’s and women’s cross country.
Vaccaro became the first individual cross-country conference champion in school history when she posted a 6K time of 22:39.26 at the 2008 Northern Athletics Conference Championship. Two weeks later, she set a 6K personal record with a time of 22:38.1 at the NCAA Division III Midwest regional race. She narrowly missed qualifying for the NCAA Division III national championship but earned All-Midwest region honors.
Vaccaro started running in middle school following the example of her older brother and joined the cross-country team as a freshman in high school, although she nearly gave up on the first day, she says. “I remember my mom picked me up and I was crying to her because I was the only freshman female,” she says. “She encouraged me to stick with it, and I did.”
Her running career at Dominican was nondescript her first year with some improvement her second year, she says, then everything changed after the sudden death of her father in 2007.
“I threw everything I had into running,” she says. “Running was the one thing that I knew that I had. It made me feel better. I could go out running and it would clear my mind and help me think.”
“Going into junior year I focused my energy on cross country,” she says. “I breathed cross country. I ate cross-country. Everything about my life was about cross-country, because I needed a focus on something. I turned something bad into something good.”
Vaccaro says she was always competitive and her own worst critic, which pushed her to want to be prepared physically and mentally, including by doing extensive research on her fellow runners. She graduated in 2010 with a major in nutrition and dietetics and a minor in Italian.
“I was very excited when I heard about it (being inducted into the hall of fame) just because currently there is no other cross-country runner in the hall of fame,” she says. “I burst into tears … happy tears. It was a surreal feeling.”
Vaccaro also works as a head trainer at Orange Theory Fitness in Naperville and continues to be an avid runner. She ran the Chicago Marathon in 2017 and has run 10Ks and half-marathons; she’s now training for a half-marathon in October. “After doing a full marathon I’ve really come to enjoy the half-marathon. It still gives you that challenge, but you’re still able to walk the next day,” she says, laughing.
Vaccaro says she’s been working on slowly growing the cross-country program at Dominican, describing her coaching style as balanced. “I want my runners to train hard. I want them to show up and be prepared and work hard, and I guess the rest will come. If they keep showing up, the results will come. But I also like to have fun. I’m a goof.”
“Any good or decent runner can become a great runner,” she says. “Not everybody will go to the Olympics, but anybody can improve if they want to improve. I think anybody can become a great runner if they put in the work.”
The above appears in the August 2019 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.