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<p>Cory McGee races during the Southeastern Conference Championships on Nov. 1 on the Mark Bostick Golf Course in Gainesville. McGee finished in 16th place, as Florida placed fourth.</p>

Cory McGee races during the Southeastern Conference Championships on Nov. 1 on the Mark Bostick Golf Course in Gainesville. McGee finished in 16th place, as Florida placed fourth.

Cory McGee thought about one person as she walked up to the starting line at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow on Aug. 11.

His name is Douglas Zembiec.

She had known him her entire life. Zembiec, a U.S. Marine Corps major, died in Baghdad on May 11, 2007. He was 34.

“He would spend all sorts of time as a teenager hanging out with my family, working out, running with us,” said Jim McGee, her father. “He always came over for Thanksgiving. Very, very close member of our family.”

Cory finished 10th in her heat for the 1,500-meter race with a time of 4:12.33, which was 3.06 seconds shy of advancing to the semifinals. The memory of Zembiec kept her going.

“It kind of gives me that extra strength, because I grew up with him as like my brother,” she said. “I think that his strength and his legacy in the military and just who he was as a person and the tragedy of him dying so young is just something that has kept me motivated.”

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Her love of running started 13 years ago. Seeing her dad and then-11-year-old sister, Shannon, running made her want to join.

“That’s when I started running on the beach with her,” Cory, now 21, said. “She would always go with my dad, and I would try and jump in and stick out a few miles.”

But it was not until her family lived in Athens, Greece, while her father worked security for the 2004 Olympics that she had her first glimpse of professional running.

“Cory had a lot of exposure,” Jim said. “She got to see all the athletes, where they trained, where they slept. It kind of planted the seed for what she wanted to do in the future.”

The McGee family settled down in Pass Christian, Miss., when they returned to the U.S. in 2005.

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The seed was ready to sprout.

Yousri El Mejdoubi, a former runner at Southern Mississippi, wanted to coach McGee after seeing her race at a state meet when she was in the seventh grade.

“He’s mentored me through it all,” McGee said. “He made the sport fun for me. He made me love it. But he also made me work really hard.”

El Mejdoubi’s coaching paid off.

On March 12, 2006, McGee ran the mile at the National Scholastic Indoor Championship at The Armory in New York. Despite being a 13-year-old eighth-grader on race day, she won the event with a time of 4:49.32 to set the record time for her age group while topping 23 high school athletes and one other middle school racer.

McGee collapsed as she crossed the finish line — an image Jim remembers well.

“She was not going to lose,” he said. “She gave everything she had.”

McGee’s training level was elevated during her sophomore year of high school when she and other local high school runners had the opportunity to participate in a two-week camp in Colorado with El Mejdoubi.

Most of the runners gave up afterward. Cory did not.

“It was one of those things where it gave you a taste of what it would take to be a collegiate track athlete or a collegiate cross country athlete,” she said, “and a lot of them figured out it wasn’t what they wanted.”

That taste of being a college athlete became reality for McGee when she ran her first cross country race for Florida on Sept. 18, 2010. She finished sixth of 208 runners at the Mountain Dew Invitational, clocking a time of 17:47.37 in the 5K race on the Mark Bostick Golf Course.

“Cory is competitive. She’s a fighter,” UF cross country coach Paul Spangler said. “That’s one of the things that makes her an elite runner.”

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Following her sophomore year at Florida, McGee raced at the 2012 US Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore. She ran her 1,500-meter heat in 4:17.76 on June 28, 2012, which was 0.11 seconds shy of qualifying for the semifinals.

If only she would have been lucky enough to have another near miss after the race.

The night after competing, McGee went out to a local restaurant in Oregon with her mom and some friends. About seven feet away from her, a group of people was cheering and clinking their glasses. One of those glasses dropped, and a shard of it shot across the wooden deck where McGee was standing on and pierced her ankle.

“It didn’t hurt,” McGee said, “but it was a really big gash in my ankle.”

After running the race of her life, she could not fathom what had just happened.

“I should have been totally re-motivated, totally inspired but instead I’m in a wheelchair, foot in a cast, stitches, surgery a week later,” McGee said. “It was such a freak accident. No one could believe it. I was beside myself.”

Even though the injury caused her to redshirt the 2012 cross country season and limit her training for three months, McGee believed that night was a blessing in disguise.

“I finally appreciated how lucky I am to be able to do this and how much I love it,” McGee said. “That’s how I was when I was a kid, and I think that got away from me for a good three or four years. Last year I found it again.”

McGee returned to action in 2013. She racked up two All-American accolades and finished as the runner-up at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in the 1,500 meters.

One year removed from her ankle injury, McGee headed to Belgium to run in the 2013 KBC Night of Athletics in July.

Needing to finish faster than 4:09 to qualify for August’s World Championships, McGee ran the 1,500 meters in a personal-best 4:06.67 to claim her ticket to Moscow.

Even though she only ran in the first round at the World Championships, McGee thought that competing in the race improved her confidence.

“I feel like an entirely different athlete,” McGee said. “I learned so much over the summer and also realized that sometimes you don’t pick the circumstances, sometimes you don’t pick the time and you don’t really have any control over the other things going on in your life, but if you want to get the mission done, you can.”

For Cory, the mission isn’t over yet.

“I’ve always imagined myself on a podium at the Olympics,” she said. “I still believe that I can do it, and I think as I get older, it becomes more realistic. Being at the world championships this summer, watching the final, I truly believe that I belong there and truly believe I can compete with the women who were in the front.”

And when she gets there, she will think about Zembiec.

“It puts it in perspective what we do,” she said. “We’re just athletes. Essentially what we do is a game and what he did was to represent the United States in a much more real way.”

Staff writer Kelcee Griffis contributed to this report.

Follow Jordan McPherson on Twitter @J_McPherson1126.

Cory McGee races during the Southeastern Conference Championships on Nov. 1 on the Mark Bostick Golf Course in Gainesville. McGee finished in 16th place, as Florida placed fourth.

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