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Sasha Gollish, a 33-year-old engineer who went back to U of T to do her doctorate and ended up being the top female athlete at the recent CIS national track championships, does her weight workout at the U of T gym in downtown Toronto on Tuesday July 7, 2015.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Life After: This is the first in a series of stories about personal transformation

This isn't your usual PhD program.

Last January, 33-year-old Sasha Gollish took an extended break from the workplace and began her doctoral studies in engineering at the University of Toronto with two related goals: to figure out a way to improve the teaching of math in engineering schools, and to turn herself into a world-class runner.

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She's halfway there. On Saturday, the civil engineer with a special expertise in road safety will line up for the final of the 1,500 metres at the Pan Am Games as the second-fastest Canadian woman in the event this year. Her sudden ascent through the ranks of competitive middle-distance running has amazed observers in the track world, and not just because she's done it while carrying a full-time load in a tough academic discipline.

What's astonishing about Ms. Gollish is that she only decided to pursue a career as an elite athlete last year. In her own mind, she had set aside her Olympic dreams when she retired as a burned-out U of T runner way back in 2002, after suffering severe stress fractures from overtraining.

Pan Am Games medal standings, updated daily.

"I hated going to practice, I didn't want to run and I didn't want to be in pain," she says between bites of a dense porchetta sandwich that she fits in after her morning ravine run and before her afternoon massage. "I was walking hurt, I was sleeping hurt, and I wasn't having fun any more. So I moved away from running and decided to become an engineer."

It's this life-changing decision that, belatedly and paradoxically, has brought her to the Pan Am start line and put the Toronto-born runner in the mix for the Rio Olympics next year. By soothing her stressed-out brain with engineering problems while seeking out high-energy distractions like Ultimate Frisbee, alpine skiing and road cycling that supplied fun as well as fitness, she turned herself into a top athlete whose true potential is still untapped. In April, 2014, she rejoined the U of T Track Club to socialize with a few old running friends, and in the 15 months since then has dropped her best 1,500 time from 4:28 to 4:07. If her rapid progress continues, she'll threaten the 30-year-old Canadian record of 4:00.27 well before you can call her Doctor.

Skeptics abound when a little-known older athlete suddenly starts outracing Olympians, and Ms. Gollish – who developed anti-doping policies as a director of the Ontario Cycling Association – has intervened in online discussions to justify her progress as an outlier. Most elite runners spend their entire careers around the track, but she's convinced her unorthodox approach has been much more helpful.

"I explain it by putting on my linear engineering hat," she says. "It's about long-term athlete development: Maybe I didn't run specific workouts, but I never stopped training, I was always building aerobic capacity, and I was always working on speed. At the same time, I gave myself mental breaks – I let my mind fully recover."

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During her extended retreat from the track-centred life, she qualified as an Olympic-level coach, specializing in the mental training of entry-level athletes. Her decision to improve her running performance via a doctoral program perfectly fits her mind-body balancing act.

"The PhD program is the way I'm best able to train. My mind doesn't like to sit still. I wouldn't be an effective athlete as a full-time athlete – my brain would always be craving something more. And at the end of the day, I'm going to be an engineer, which removes a lot of stress: I don't have to think about how much money I need to make in a race."

When she started engineering studies in 2002, fresh from a degree in commerce, there was no time to run seriously. So she shifted to weight training, squeezed in between classes, and coached alpine skiing to pay the bills. After graduating, she took up Ultimate Frisbee because her then-boyfriend played – she didn't know how to throw the disc, despite being an engineer, so she simply outsprinted everyone to the end zone and waited for the Frisbee to find her.

The process had begun. When the team and the relationship dissolved, she switched to road cycling – which built up the aerobic capacity to complement her Frisbee speed, though she also got hit by a taxi on a training ride and tore her hip flexor. She ran local road races for fun and won a few. She was invited to the Maccabiah Games, a competition for Jewish athletes, and entered an event that combined a 26-kilometre cycling time trial, a half-marathon run, a five-kilometre open-water swim and a triathlon, spread out over nine days.

She won that too, and then competed in the world duathlon championships before mental fatigue overwhelmed her again. "I decided I was done for a while – winter came along and it was snowshoe and beer time."

She worked long hours, made some money and delighted in a sports car she called Xena the Warrior Princess. By the spring of 2014, her body and mind felt better and she started running again with the U of T club. And that's when she discovered something had changed.

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"There was this massive training effect. To some people I'm a surprise, but I'd put the work in."

With only two-and-a-half months of proper training, she competed at the Canadian national championships and finished fifth in the 1,500. She went to Belgium and ran a personal best of 4:13. Her mother, contradicting all the vocational advice she had ever given her children, told her to quit her job and become a full-time runner.

A year later, having won a spot in the Pan Ams with a come-from-behind sprint on the last qualifying day, she's as full-time as you can be when you're also a PhD student figuring out better ways to teach math to engineers – make it fun, she would say, putting on her non-linear runner's hat.

Where other runners are dead-serious on the starting line, Sasha Gollish always seems to be smiling. She's chasing the dream of going to the Olympics, and every race lets her test her boundaries.

"I'm one year into this process of being an athlete," she says. "My training age is so young, I have no idea what I'm capable of. So my attitude is, Let's go play and see what happens."

And if it doesn't work out, she gets to do doctoral research – who wouldn't be happy with that?

Countries are sorted by most gold medals

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