With the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics coming around the corner, the whole world is eagerly awaiting to see who will rise to the top of the biggest sports stage. From gymnastics to swimming, the world will have their eyes on the most elite athletes. However, there is a niche sport in the Summer Olympics that takes just as much athleticism, but isn’t front and center.
Racewalking has been an Olympic sport since 1904. It’s a track and field event with race distances of 20 km for men and women and an additional 50 km for men. This sport receives far less attention compared to others, especially cross country and the typical track and field events. However, on the campus of a small liberal arts school in Poughkeepsie, New York, racewalking is up and coming. This year, Marist College has three women who have qualified for the Olympic trials that will take place in June in Eugene, Oregon.
Originally, Marist was a Division III college in the 1980s. At that time, the college had racewalking for men only. Once Marist became a Division I school, racewalking began to fade away due to the fact that it’s not an NCAA event at that level. One year, though, a recruit reached out to the coaches, inquiring specifically about racewalking.
Prior to this, Coach Pete Colaizzo and Associate Head Coach Chuck Williams knew about the sport, but had never coached a race walker before. The pair presented this idea to the administration to see if they would support this athlete. “They said yes, if she is fast enough, they will support because they know that it’s exposure for the school,” Williams said. 2017 graduate Kristi Licursie started the racewalk for Marist and this group of qualified girls has built the program since. “Once this group got going, we realized, hey, we could do some really amazing things here,” Williams said. “There is not going to be many colleges that can say that they have one athlete in the trials… and we have three.”
Katie Miale, Lauren Harris, and Kayla Shapiro have all been racewalking since high school — this is the typical time to start the sport, but have been running long before that. Both Harris and Shapiro are from Long Island, New York, where racewalking is a big part of track and field. Miale is from Orange County, New York, where racewalking is popular, but not to the Long Island extreme. “It’s only a high school event in New York during indoor track and in Maine, during outdoor track,” Miale explains. “Most of the top girls come from those states.”
Miale and Shaprio both developed an interest in racewalking through their respective coaches, while Harris, on the other hand, had an Olympic race walker influencer. “She was my mentor throughout high school and helped me really develop a passion for the sport,” Harris explained.
This mentor was not just any Olympic racewalker. It was Maria Michta-Coffey.
For context: Michta-Coffey is the top female racewalker in the United States. She is the reason that many racewalkers come from Long Island because she coaches at Sachem High School. “She is a multi-time Olympian and she still competes,” William said. “We have worked well together and now she is kinda hands-off. She says, ‘Lauren [Harris] is all yours. Whatever you are doing, it’s working.’”
Williams implements a hybrid style of training for the women that involves both walking and running. The women split the week, half involving walking and the other half is running. “By building on their running fitness, it builds their overall fitness, which makes them walk faster,” Williams explains. “I think that’s why we have been able to see the girls have such big jumps of improvements.” He went into detail on the athlete’s improvements; Katie Miale cut 16-minutes off of her first 20k-time, “Which is kind of unheard of in a year and a half.”
The distance the girls race varies by season. For indoor track, they race a combination of a mile, 3k, and 5k. On the other hand, for outdoor track, the girls race 5ks, 10ks, and 20ks. However, this year, the girls and Williams do not have racing as their primary concern. Training for the trials is on the top of their list and they will be picking a couple of races to participate in throughout the year. The Millrose Games is quite a historical event, and the women also wish to qualify for the US indoor championships (last year, Shapiro placed third in the country at that event). Following that, the girls plan to compete in another race in California.
In the Marist women’s experiences, they are among the youngest competing. “When they go to USATF Indoor National Championships, which they have all qualified for multiple times, it’s basically them and a bunch of pro athletes sponsored by Nike who run and also racewalk,” Williams explained. The women certainly have quite the competition, and clearly they are giving the other women a run for their money.
Or a racewalk, for that matter.
Racewalking is more prominent in countries outside the United States, such as Russia, China, and Mexico. “That’s why we don’t score as much or as high at the Olympics and Worlds,” Harris said. Even though the sport is not as well known in the U.S., it doesn’t take away from the competitiveness of racewalking. There are strict rules that the athletes must follow. First, one foot must be on the ground at all times and second, the racewalker cannot bend the knee that’s in contact with the ground. Unlike running, these two rules apply. However, like running, there is no body contact. “Everyone spreads out at the start of the race. You are not supposed to come into contact with anyone,” Shaprio elaborates. “It’s exactly like running in that way.”
Interestingly, the women stated that they all thought racewalking was harder than running. Harris spoke for everyone when she said, “Physically, it’s harder and works more parts of your body, but your heart rate is not as high as it is when you’re running.”
This is the first time all three women will be going to the Olympic trials. In order to qualify, a racewalker must hit or beat the time of 1:47:59 in the 20k race. Harris and Shaprio both qualified in March, while Miale qualified this past week. Their stomachs are filled with butterflies and they are still trying to process the exciting news. “I still have not wrapped my head around it. It’s pretty crazy,” Miale admits. “We all competed at [the] USA [races] this past year, but I feel like this is just another level. It’s very humbling.”
The Olympic trials will require the women to race for time in a 20k racewalk. Going into this once in a lifetime opportunity, the women are adopting a particular mindset.“They don’t want to just go there to say that they have made it there and competed there,” Williams said. “They want to go there and try to race really, really well because they are all thinking that they should see how close they can get this year… four years from now, maybe one of us has a shot to make it onto the team.
“They are ready for it. They are looking forward to the challenge,” Williams continued. “It’s going to be a really cool week for them and I know it’s something that they won’t forget.”
Throughout the country, the Marist women feel that much of the population is not well aware of racewalking. However, the women believe that there is more awareness that is being brought towards the sport, even at Marist.
Marist is continuously promoting racewalking through extensive social media coverage, especially through Twitter. “I think Marist is becoming more known for racewalking,” Miale explains. “Lauren actually found Marist because she saw me wearing a Marist singlet at a race and found her way here.”
Currently, Marist is the only Division I school that supports racewalking. USA Race Walking has been attempting to have the sport reinstated as a Division I event, though no further news has been heard of yet. “I would love that because we would have three of the best people in the country,” Williams says excitedly. “So we could go to Nationals and score a lot of points! But we are the only Division I school that supports it.”
Regardless of that fact, Miale, Harris, and Shapiro are all at Marist, meaning they’re but one step closer to achieving something both impressive and unique. Quite literally, they have the world at their feet and are eager to perform at the trials come June. It’s evident that these women are going places. Who knows, maybe even as far as Tokyo.
Edited by Will Bjarnar & Lily Caffrey-Levine