When Maggie Vessey toes the line at this year's pre-Prefontaine Classic on Friday night, you'll notice her. And it's not because she's tall or blonde or statuesque—though she's all these things. You'll notice her because while the half-milers that surround her are in muted black uniforms with the occasional pop of neon, she'll be wearing something that's never been seen on a track.
Longtime sponsor New Balance effectively fired Vessey on January 1 after a four-year relationship. Maggie was great—she made world championships teams in 2009 and 2011, and was a finalist in the latter—but she's also been erratic, bombing the Olympic trials final in 2012 to miss a trip to London, and then last year running her slowest times since 2008. On the wrong side of 30, she just wasn't worth the risk.
In January, Vessey had a choice: retire or press on alone. "In your dark moments, of course your mind might wander to [retiring]," she says, "but it always comes back to the fact that I've only done this because I wanted to see how fast I could run. It's an expression of myself."
So she was going to run and she had to run in something, but it sure as hell wouldn't be her old New Balance gear. She needed to make her own superhero costume. Something that represented her.
"When I was first coming back in 2008 [before the New Balance sponsorship], I would get a nondescript black top and sharpie out the logo. Like, 'I'm here, I'm myself,' she says. "I've transcended beyond that now."
Vessey relocated from her home in Santa Cruz, Calif., to Beverly Hills a few years ago. A stylist she met on a fashion shoot introduced her to designer Merlin Castell, who invited Vessey to start sketching her ideas. What she drew, he stitched.
Honestly, Vessey could wear a brown paper bag and still have the fanboys ogling. But there's something . . . different about her running outfits. You just don't see pink ruffled collars at a track meet. You don't see one-piece bathing suits that look like remainders from The Fifth Element.
"I always try them on, but I don't do a trial run in them," she says. "It's just around my apartment."
Every race has its own uniform from the "overflow of ideas" she's got. This Friday, she says she'll be racing in a fabric she specially designed, though she's not yet willing to give a sneak-peek.
Whatever Vessey is doing, it's working. She set a personal best in the 400-meters in early May—absurd for this late in her career—and she narrowly lost to the U.S.'s number one girl a week later. That race was her fastest time since 2011, and it's still so early in the season.
With the way she's been running, she could have offers from any company she wants, and she says she's fielding a few offers, including one from New Balance, which has come skulking back, hat-in-hand. But for now, Vessey represents herself and not a shoe company. The creation is hers, and you can see on her face and body when she breaks the tape.