Marist Racewalkers are Still Looking Toward Olympic Goals

Thursday, March 12, 2020: Adam Silver announced the NBA has postponed its season until further notice. 

The following day, the NHL put a stop to its season, the MLB postponed spring training and pushed opening day back, the NCAA canceled its winter and spring championships, including March Madness. All the excitement built up for the coming weeks in sports abruptly just vanished.

Lauren Harris’s mind went, “Oh God…the Olympics.”

Three women on the Marist Track and Field team qualified for the racewalking Olympic trials that were set for June 27 in Eugene, Oregon. Junior Harris, junior Kayla Shapiro, and fifth-year Katie Miale have been training all year under Coach Chuck Williams, chasing this dream.

The coronavirus had other plans. 

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was insistent on hosting the games this summer. Canada and Australia both pulled their athletes’ plans to attend the Tokyo games, even if they were held. USA Track and Field (USATF) and USA Swimming also sided with them in petitioning to postpone the games. Athletes were pushing the IOC’s buttons, emphasizing the health risks and difficulties in training to perform their best come July.

“Not my specific event, but other events, they’re not going to be able to have access to equipment and stuff they need to train properly,” Harris said. “I don’t think everyone’s going to be at their best performance if we were going to go this summer.”

At that point, the Olympic torch’s flame dwindled, but the IOC refused to believe their fire was out for quite some time. On Tuesday, March 24 the Summer 2020 Olympics were finally postponed to the following year and were recently scheduled for July 23, 2021.

Nearly the entire world of sports as we know it, gone. 

“At that point, I hadn’t canceled their travel plans for the trials. So now I’m dealing with that this week,” said Williams. “They could have called it sooner because they saw the numbers. Not just in China, in that part of the world, but numbers were spiking all over and they knew it was going to get worse before it got better.”

While the sports drought had officially begun, the women saw it as a step that needed to be taken during this time of uncertainty. The question that is left to be answered: what now?

A great number of Olympians have already secured spots on their given teams, and there were still a number of trials to be held. The IOC stated those that have secured spots, will get to keep their place. However, will everyone stick to this plan? How “secure” are these spots?

“It’s hard because I know [for] a lot of my competitors this was kind of going to be their last hurrah. This was supposed to be their last Olympic cycle,” Miale said. “They plan their lives around it, their children, marriages, and everything, so it puts them in a weird predicament. It’s like ‘Do I stick this out for another year and see if I can keep pushing?’”

Not only are the athletes that were scheduled to head to Tokyo in question, but also those that did not make the cut. Marathon trials occurred in February and the team has already been formed. However, some athletes may petition to argue they were not healthy or were facing an injury, and that they should rerun the race.

“As a coach, I could see both sides of the argument. I could see the argument for those that ran the trials and secured their spots,” said Williams. “There’s a lot of people who just missed this year, but maybe next year they’re faster, they’re stronger, and they’re healthier. So, I don’t know what they’re going to do with the marathon. Everything else is just the status quo.”

Careers are in question for every athlete, spot secured or not. Harris, Miale, and Shapiro qualified for the trials, but who is to say if they will have to qualify again for that race?

The racewalking trials are still expected to take place in Eugene due to the newly renovated Hayward Field. As for the date of this trial, and the big unveiling of the new field, it’s unknown. For this niche event, part of this answer will come from USATF and the other part comes from the Racewalking Committee.

While another year may seem like a quick turnaround, to an Olympic athlete, his or her body and life completely transform in a year.  For fifth-year Miale, this means she will no longer be in Marist singlet for the remainder of her racewalking career.

“That’s really heartbreaking because this is why she came back this year,” Williams said. “The amount of time she’s improved in the last two-plus years is remarkable because she was so determined to get there and she wanted to do it with her teammates in America. So, I think that’s the only thing that really is heavy on my heart.”

Miale soon will be starting her career outside of college and will not have the luxury of training regularly, like current juniors Harris and Shaprio will. Throwing off their strict schedules, it sets the track back for all of the women.

“Obviously, you know we’re all frustrated. They worked really hard for this, and they have earned this opportunity to represent Marist and to go to the Olympic trials in their singlets. So to have to put it off a year is kind of deflating,” Williams said. “So now we’re just going to wait for answers. Then just like we said there’s nothing that we can do, which is control what we can control at this point.”

Williams, and those he coaches, are looking to take this extension to their advantage in looking to bring in faster times and heal injuries that need attention.

In January, while the women were at a racewalking training camp for the first time in San Diego, Harris injured her Achilles. Specifically, the injury is an Achilles tendinopathy and she suspects the injury was one that developed over time before the camp. 

“I think just overuse. I’ve had some problems with my Achilles and I tried to back off,” Harris said. “Now with the Olympics being postponed, I am letting myself rest and make sure to recover before I actually start crazy training.”

Harris’ high school coach, multi-time Olympian and the current top American racewalker, Maria Michta-Coffey, had a similar type of situation at one point in her career. She tried to push through, but she ended up tearing her Achilles. “We kind of had to shut it down because it was just too much. We’re kind of lucky that Lauren didn’t push through because it would be an even longer recovery,” said Williams.

Right now, Harris is using her time wisely to heal, while also training herself back into a routine. She runs three days a week and racewalks three days as well. Harris averages about 50 to 60 miles a week and is focusing on cross-training until she feels able to take on more.

As for Miale and Shapiro, they’re focusing on effort based training under Williams’ guide. The workouts consist of high mileage, but at a significantly lower degree of intensity than usual. It’s time used to stay in shape, but nothing out of proportion. “We’re doing more effort-based stuff because we just don’t know,” Williams said. “I don’t want them drilling themselves into the ground and then getting burnt out before it’s time to compete.”

Miale still plans to be training for the games, not letting this set back in her dream of competing on the biggest sports stage in the world. Her goal has been more centered towards the 2024 and 2028 Olympics, and she appears to be unfazed by all of the chaos. “My goals always been long term I think, even though I’m a fifth-year and I’m 23. I think I’m relatively young in endurance running and endurance walking in the track world. I’ve always had kind of a long-term view…2020 was just going to be more to kind get my feet in the water, see what it like feels like to compete at that level.”

There is no easy answer for how to move forward. We are living in a new world full of unknowns. The best we all can do is to take each day as it comes. Granted, this is easier said than done, especially for Olympians. They have to prepare physically and mentally for an extended amount of time for a few races that will determine the rest of their athletic careers.

“It’s just a lot mentally I would say. This year was our biggest year and all semester we really focused, knowing that we had trials coming up,” said Harris. “I think that we just have to put ourselves back in that mindset. It’s a lot physically and mentally to train at that level another year.”

Harris and Williams’s goal together was obtaining a spot in the top five at the trials, while the top three go to the Olympics. According to Williams, this year for the usual top three was to be their “swan song.” Come 2021, Harris may have more of a chance to head to Tokyo if those women chose not to compete.

There has also been talk about the Olympics that may include a second racewalk event, Williams informed. There would be a race on the track and another on the road. This would throw an additional curveball in training for the women.

“That could gear which one the girls go for. Something on the track will be geared more for Lauren, or something longer for Katie, and then Kayla, we tend to see which way she goes,” Williams explained. “I think all of them were primed and ready to go to walk huge personal best times in June. They all have really big goals and Lauren’s goal to finish in the top five that would be really good for all of them, considering it’s their first trails and they’re not even close to their peak in sport. They get a lot of time to really get faster.”

Time is a hard thing to grasp, but these women have it in their hands. Rather dread on the time put into for the original scheduling, the women look forward to using the extra year to set them up for Olympic success.

“I just want to see all of them get in line at the trials and fulfill a dream that they all had when they first started out when they first took on the sport,” Williams said. “I think this is just the beginning of their journey and I think they all have so much potential to really move forward with this sport, not only in their time at Marist, but their time beyond [Marist].”

Miale, Shapiro, and Harris have their front leg toes on the line at the trials and their other foot back in the qualifying round. The sound of the gun is just out of reach, but the echo can almost be heard. A faint sound of familiar rhythm follows, leading to the cue of the trumpets. 

The race to 2021 has begun.

Edited by Lily Caffrey-Levine

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