Sydney Devore and Jon Mott’s Inspiring Road to the Pros

Photo Credit: Chris Thompson

Life in recent months has unfolded in extraordinary ways for Sydney Devore and Jon Mott. Just a little more than a year ago, the pair met for the first time. They quickly became running buddies, fell in love, moved in together, unexpectedly crossed paths with their future coach, and each qualified for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in 2020.

And that was just the beginning of their journey together.

In June, they both accepted offers to join the Hansons-Brooks Original Distance Project, a prestigious development program in Rochester, Michigan. It has produced such stars as Desiree Linden, a two-time Olympian and the 2018 Boston Marathon champion. “What was offered to us, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says 31-year-old Mott.

Devore and Mott quit their jobs—Devore was a fourth-grade teacher and Mott worked in a running store—jammed all their belongings into their Mini Cooper and left their home in Lakeland, Florida to embrace a new life more than 1,000 miles away.

“So much has happened that it feels like it couldn’t have possibly have been just a year,” says 26-year-old Devore. “When I sit and really think about it, I find myself wanting to say ‘finally.’ I dreamed of this life a decade ago and then I got lost.”

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Heartache Before Victory

As is the case for many talented runners, Devore and Mott’s trajectory to success was not a straight climb up. Mott showed promise in high school as a distance runner and earned a partial scholarship to Webber International University in Babson Park, Florida. But things unraveled quickly once he got there.

Diagnosed with a hernia as a freshman, he underwent surgery, only to be derailed again as a sophomore by IT band issues. He then had to have his tonsils removed, a procedure that resulted in complications, and struggled with marijuana use, a habit he was eventually able to kick.

But all that paled in comparison to the tragic death of his twin brother, Matt, also a gifted distance runner. “Most would say he was the more talented one,” Mott says. “I would have to agree. I just couldn’t make myself hurt in races like he could.” But Matt became addicted to drugs, drifting in and out of rehabs with no success. One night in July 2009, Jon noticed his brother acting strange in his sleep.

“I tried waking him up but it just never happened,” Mott says. His brother died from a methadone overdose, he later learned. “I was a wreck for months. I had just lost my twin brother,” Mott recalls. “It wrecked me emotionally but it gave me the strength to not give up.”

Tim Russell, the brothers’ high school coach, says Matt’s death jolted Jon into getting more focused on running. “After the initial shock, I think it has grounded him,” shared Russell. “Before Matt died, he kind of floated through life.”

After college, Mott became a top road runner in the region, winning the half marathon at the Gasparilla Distance Classic in 2013 and capturing titles in the event’s 15K in 2014 and 2015. “Being a successful runner should be easy with the talent Jon has, but in reality, at his level, everyone has talent, desire and the ability to hurt,” Russell says.  “Jon’s determination is amazing.”

Mott went on to run 2:18:12 in the Chevron Houston Marathon in 2015, qualifying for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, where he finished in 47th place. His first marathon win came in 2017, when he won the Detroit Free Press/Chemical Bank Marathon in humid and windy conditions. “Honestly, I was really a no one in high school and college,” he told the Detroit Free Press after the race. “It wasn’t until after I graduated that I started putting in work.”

Devore is also no stranger to troubles and setbacks. She was a high-school standout in Polk County, Florida and recruited to run for the University of Florida, but her college career didn’t play out as she had hoped. After getting injured her freshman year, she felt abandoned by her team and coach and eventually left the program. Lonely, sad and confused, she struggled to find her way.

“It was me just treading water and not having any idea of who I was or what to do with myself,” she recalls. “’What am I without running? What am I going to do now?’” It would be four years before she would return to running. In the meantime, she graduated the University of Florida, lived in South Korea for a year, and moved back to Florida to work as a school teacher.

A couple years ago, she reunited with her high school running friends, doing three-mile jogs around a lake and hanging out for coffee afterwards. She began to enjoy running again. “I was re-connected with the people I used to love running with, and that was the thing that re-lit the flame,” she says.

Eventually Devore was running 40 miles a week and was motivated to race again. In April 2017, she ran the Star Wars Half Marathon at Disney World and crossed the finish line as the top woman. “I had only run that distance once before,” she recalls. “I won that race, which was a huge surprise.” Shortly after that great performance, she met Mott.

Photo Credit: Chris Thompson
Photo Credit: Chris Thompson

Romance and Running

On Sundays Devore had been waking up at 3 a.m. to drive more than an hour to St. Petersburg so she could train with runners of her caliber. One of her running pals suggested she reach out to Jon Mott, a very good runner who lived closer to Devore, to see if he would run with her.

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But Devore’s friend also cautioned her not to get her hopes up. “‘He doesn’t like to run with people,’” Devore recalls her friend saying. “‘He likes to run alone in the orange groves.”’ Still, she messaged him on Facebook, and asked if he could meet her at an upcoming 5:30 a.m. group run that left from a local coffee shop.

“He wouldn’t commit to coming, and he was like, ‘I don’t think I can wake up that early. I usually run around 9 a.m.’” Devore remembers. “I was like, ‘If you can, please try.’” On the morning of the run, Devore lost hope as the clock ticked closer to 5:30 and there was no sign of Mott. “Literally it was 5:29, and the pack was like, ‘We’re leaving!’ and I was like, ‘Please wait a little longer! I think he’s coming!’” she recounts. “We had started jogging, and I see a car pulling in.”

Mott showed up to run with Devore—and they’ve run together almost every day since. “She’s super confident. That’s the number one thing that stood out,” Mott says of what drew him to her. “She has high goals, and I really liked that. I saw the potential in her.” As the more experienced runner, Mott began helping Devore with training and race plans. Their friendship grew into a romance.

“He is one of her biggest fans,” says Kimberly Rozak, Sydney’s mother. “He understands her passion better than probably anyone else. He gets her and she gets him. Add in love and you have a great team.” That great team would soon grab the attention of one of the most respected distance running coaches in the United States.

A Serendipidous Encounter and Big Move

In March 2018, Mott and Devore went to run at Clay Loop, a 10-mile trail in Clermont, Florida that is popular with elite runners, including members of the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project.  Though the team is based in Michigan, the runners travel to Florida during the winter to train. Before Devore and Mott started their run, they noticed the team’s flashy van nearby, and Devore excitedly wondered if they would see some of the runners.

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After their workout, Devore and Mott spotted the Hansons’ runners, including Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein and Shadrack Biwott, the top American finisher at the 2018 Boston Marathon. Their coach, Kevin Hanson, was also there. The pair struck up a conversation with the group.

“Sydney had just destroyed her long run, and it was super impressive,” Mott recalls. “I did a lot of bragging on Sydney.” Kevin Hanson, who manages the Hansons-Brooks coaching program with his brother Keith, sensed something special about Devore and Mott. Until that encounter, he only knew them as solid regional runners.

“On that day, I realized that they had much larger goals,” Hanson recalls. “They not only want to be great, but are willing to make the necessary sacrifices to make those goals a reality.” Initially, the Hansons showed interest in bringing just Devore onto the team. Although Mott says he felt disappointed, he only expressed support and excitement for his girlfriend. “He has always believed in my potential,” Devore says. “As soon as he heard they wanted me, he was like, ‘It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. If you go, I will go with you.’”

But Devore wasn’t totally sure she should leave her life and teaching career in Florida to pursue running professionally. In May, she got a clear sign that she was merely scratching the surface of her ability. She won the Pittsburgh Marathon, her first marathon ever, in a stunning 2:32:39. Not only did she win the race, she qualified for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.

“I knew I was in shape to run a faster time, but Jon and I had a very conservative plan,” she says. Later that month it would be Mott’s turn to shine. At the Scotiabank Ottawa Marathon, he fought tough winds to run 2:18:35, placing ninth and also qualifying for the marathon trials.

Within days of Ottawa, Mott and Devore were both offered spots on the Hansons’ team. Kevin Hanson says their positive and determined attitudes had convinced him, even before their great marathon performances, that he wanted both on his team. “The one thing that is always important to me when adding athletes to the group is that I want them to add to the athletes that are already here,” he says. “I want them to make their teammates better.”

For Mott and Devore, the final decision was easy to make. “The fact that we could do it together took a lot of the fear out of it,” Devore says. This month, they arrived in Michigan feeling elated and nervous.

Photo Credit: Pete Madia
Photo Credit: Pete Madia

Life as a Professional Runner

As members of the Hansons-Brooks team, their full-time job is running, racing and recovering. The program provides housing and covers other living expenses, so the athletes can focus solely on their training and goals. So far, the couple has been enjoying their new life more than they expected.

“I was nervous about working out with other people and the pressure of joining a team, but it has been so incredible,” Devore says. Mott has also been pleasantly surprised by their smooth transition. “What we worried about most before we got here was if everyone would be competitive with each other in a negative way,” he says. “Once we got here, everyone was really nice, and there was no racing each other. There was none of that negativity.”

Devore and Mott have also done a good job of supporting one another, especially on challenging days. “We can share opinions on workouts,” Mott says. “For example, I had a bad workout, and she was trying to cheer me up, give me advice.” A strong bond between each other, top-notch teammates and excellent coaches allow Mott and Devore to dream big.

For Mott, that means finishing in the top 10 at a major marathon, like New York, Boston or Chicago and breaking the top 20 at the Olympic Marathon Trials. He’d also like to run under 2:15 in the marathon and test his ability at shorter distances. “He is much better as the distance goes up, but is way better than he thinks he is for the shorter stuff,” Hanson says. “Jon is going to be minutes better once he wraps his head around how good he is.”

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Devore isn’t afraid to share that she is aiming to make the U.S. Olympic team in the marathon in 2020 and beyond. “The U.S. has crazy depth right now, and I think there could be as many as 20 women on that day that have a shot,” she says. “I want to be one of those women.” To reach those goals, Devore and Mott are fully committed to the elite runner lifestyle, which is a demanding routine of workouts, naps, meals and stretching.

Most evenings, they watch Netflix and go to sleep by 8:30 p.m. so that they can rise again early the next morning to do it all over again. “I just want to keep living this dream together,” Devore says. “I don’t want to take a single day for granted. I feel so unbelievably lucky.”

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