When Erin Donohue lined up to run the 1,000 meters at the Diamond League Grand Prix in New York on June 13, she was not considered a major force in middle distance track - at least not anymore.
Dressed all in black, Donohue, who ran the 1,500 meters for the United States in the 2008 Olympics, no longer had a sponsor. Major track meets, world championships and competitions had gone on without her for years. At 32, she was 13 years older than the youngest person on the line, 19-year-old Mary Cain.
Still, Donohue didn't go into the race as an underdog, at least not in her mind.
"I always go into every race always expecting to win," she said. "I looked at the rest of the field and thought I could go in and put myself in a position to win with 400 [meters] to go."
And she did. She won by 11-hundredths of a second with a time of 2 minutes, 37.42 seconds.
That race was another rung on the ladder of the recovery for Donohue, who went through two surgeries that took her out of contention for the 2012 Olympic team. She is making her comeback and eyeing a spot on the 2016 Olympic squad in the 800 or 1,500.
Donohue, who ran for Haddonfield High School and then North Carolina, interned for Nike after college in 2005 and gained the company's sponsorship in the beginning of her career.
Nike is based in Oregon, but she came back to New Jersey in 2006. "I was based here but traveled a lot," she said. "I knew I wanted to be here." She bought a house in Haddon Heights. She also started being coached by Frank Gagliano, who was setting up the New Jersey-New York Track Club in New Brunswick, N.J.
She didn't make the 1,500 final at the 2008 Olympics, but in 2010 she had a breakout year. She set personal records in more than a half-dozen races. When she felt pain in her left heel, she tried to run through it until she was diagnosed with Haglund's Syndrome, a deformity on the bony part of the heel.
She underwent surgery to remove an enlarged bone, but that surgery didn't take out enough, so she underwent a second procedure. In 2012, Nike dropped her.
While she rehabbed, she coached track at Haddon Heights and Haddonfield. She also worked for her parents, who own a restaurant in Haddon Township. Coming back was never really a question.
"I would never have encouraged her if there wasn't her desire to become an elite runner again," Gagliano said. "She has never said, 'No, I'm done, I've retired.' Never."
Donohue built a gym in her house to build strength. When she could run again, it came slowly, and with shorter distances than she was used to running.
"It was really hard because you're so used to being able to get out and sweat," she said.
She's also smarter in making sure her body is ready to run.
"If we're doing a workout that's only 20 minutes, Erin will take 40 minutes to get ready and make sure she's 100 percent loose," said Dave Welsh, 38, who is Donohue's training partner and an owner of running stores in South Jersey. They meet twice a week, usually at the Paul VI High track in Haddonfield.
"I think she can run a lot faster," he said of the Diamond League race.
Donohue started racing again last July in a relay with her New Jersey-New York Track Club teammates, then in smaller-profile races. She took 30th at the U.S. Track & Field Club Cross-Country Championships in December.
Donohue is not sponsored at the moment, which does not surprise or dismay her.
"Not having a travel budget is hard," she said, but she hasn't pursued a sponsor, either. She credits the support system of her husband and her family for helping her be able to work and train at the same time.
In late June, she ran in the first heat of the 800 meters at the USA Outdoor Championships, but had a setback with a calf strain and dropped out of the race.
If her calf is ready, her next races are two road miles: the Liberty Mile in Pittsburgh on July 31 and the Sir Walter Miler in Raleigh, N.C. on Aug. 7, after which the quest for another Olympic berth really begins.
"She has the desire," Gagliano said. "The main thing is to keep her healthy and be very, very careful on different things that we do. But yes, she can make the Olympic team."