Probably the easiest sports story to write is one about a meteoric improvement. The Wow This Person Got A Lot Better At Sports story is one that works in every sport, honestly, but it tends to be most common in ones like running or swimming. (Stories about rapid improvements in those sports generally tend to elide the possibility that those improvement were driven by doping or disordered eating.) Timed sports are just so clear cut that way, and the appeal of those stories is so obvious. Fan-brains like to see numbers go up or down rapidly, and also if Chuck Finkleston can go from a desk job to a 2:12 marathon, maybe you can run faster using his tips and tricks. See: that’s two posts right there.
Toledo runner Janelle Noe’s story would work very well if told along those lines. She was a 5:22 high school miler, which is pretty bad, and then on Thursday night she ran 4:10 for 1500 meters—a 4:30 mile, give or take—to make the NCAA final for the event. That’s already a stunning improvement before you take into account that she recently came off a lengthy hiatus after nearly getting burned to death by a former teammate.
But she did. After Noe’s former teammate Christopher Housel—who had been on the Toledo track and cross country teams previously but was not at the time of the incident—was sentenced, she explained exactly what happened that night back in January of 2016. Noe was coming off a stress fracture and attending a house party as a designated driver, and after she warned Housel not to try to turn a can of air freshener into a torch, he did something even dumber:
“Then next thing I know, he’s like walking in through the living room archway into another room. And he was walking towards me, and he had a candle, like this big lit candle in his hand. And down to his side, he was carrying a bottle of Everclear, which he had told me earlier that night, because I didn’t know what it was, that it was basically gasoline. And so the next thing I know, he like poured it on to the candle, and I was on fire. That’s all I remember,” she said.
“I felt like my body was not necessarily melting away, but just like feeling everything closing in. And I just felt like I was being suffocated. I was conscious the entire time; I remember trying to scream and not being able to,” Janelle said.
“The ones up here on my chest were the deepest, and my neck, and they were concerned about those a lot. They said that if I would’ve burned seconds longer, I would’ve died, because the skin’s so thin there and you have all your vital organs right in this area,” she said.
According to WTOL, doctors told Noe that “more than 50 percent of her body was covered in second, third, and ‘third degree deep burns.’” After losing the entire 2015 track season to more mundane sports injuries, Noe’s severe burns kept her out of the 2016 track season. When she returned for the 2016-17 cross country and track seasons, she was perhaps not surprisingly off her game. As Noe told Runner’s World, “It basically put me back to below square one. It was really frustrating for me. I would cry and get down on myself about it and I had to just get past that.”
Once she did, though, Noe didn’t just regain her old form; she blew past it. After running 4:30 in the 2017 outdoor season, which was almost identical to her 2014 best, she exploded in 2018. In March, she ran 4:18; in May, 4:17 for a MAC record and title, and last night, 4:10 to make the 12-woman NCAA final in Oregon.
As Runner’s World explains, Noe almost didn’t make it to the NCAA meet in the first place, in large part because her scars “affect her temperature regulation” and make it difficult for her to run in the heat. The regional meet—college track people would call this the “NCAA East Prelims”—was held in Tampa on a hot weekend, but Noe somehow still set a personal best to advance to Eugene.
And now that she’s in the final, anything can happen. The semis eliminated 2015 NCAA champ Rhianwedd Price-Weimer, and Noe had the fourth fastest time overall. She told media after the race that she was happy and surprised to just make the final. That type of athlete is often dangerous in a championship final, even if there is no implausibly heroic backstory in the mix. It’s supposed to be cloudy and rainy on Saturday.