For four Maine natives with Olympic aspirations, 2020 was supposed to be their time to shine.

They had set their training calendars months, if not years, in advance. They had adjusted their lives and focused their mental and physical energies toward a singular goal – to qualify for Team USA and compete against the world’s best in Tokyo.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic. In late March, after nearly every professional and college sports league had already closed shop, it became official: the Olympics and Paralympics scheduled for July and August would be postponed until 2021. By then gyms, and training centers had mostly closed their doors. Outdoor tracks were off limits. Competitive outlets dried up to a tiny trickle of informal, low-key, last-minute events.

Long jumper Kate Hall-Harnden of Casco, 800-meter specialist Isaiah Harris of Lewiston, middle-distance runner Rachel Schneider of Sanford, and para-cyclist Clara Brown of Falmouth still have the same goal – to make their first Olympic or Paralympic team. But they’ve had to adapt and adjust.

“It’s been a crazy year,” said Schneider, who now lives and trains in Flagstaff, Arizona.

And each – for different reasons – feel the extra year of preparation will end up being to their benefit.

Casco native Kate Hall-Harnden won the indoor national title in the long jump in 2019, and finished second at nationals in 2020 with her best indoor jump as a pro – 21 feet, 11 inches. Kevin Morris photo

KATE HALL-HARNDEN

Kate Hall-Harnden had been focused on going directly from the indoor track season, where she placed second in the USA Championship in the long jump in February with her best indoor jump as a professional of 21 feet, 11 1/2 inches, to prepping for the U.S. Olympic trials.

Once the pandemic hit, she and other athletes waited anxiously before the Tokyo Games were postponed in late March.

“The hardest part for me was all the unknowns. Whether we would compete. Would (the virus) all go away? Not having a plan is not something I like. I thrive on structure,” she said.

The year has brought other changes. She and longtime boyfriend Tyler Harnden got married on Oct. 3. They had planned to wait until next May, but the Olympic trials are now scheduled for June 18-27 in Eugene, Oregon.

“Because we thought the Olympics would be this year, but when it got postponed, then we figured we can’t be getting married a month before the trials,” Hall-Harnden said.

After winning two NCAA long jump titles at the University of Georgia (outdoors in 2017, indoors in 2018), the former Lake Region High star turned professional before her senior season and moved back to Maine to renew her training regimen with personal coach/trainer Chris Pribish of Performance Momentum in South Portland. The reunion seemed to be working, as Hall twice popped jumps of 22-3 in the summer of 2019 – her best outdoor marks as a pro and trailing only her national high school record of 22-5 set in 2015.

Now 23, Hall-Harnden has spent the summer and fall of 2020 focusing her energy on training and altering her approach on the sprint to the take-off.

“There have been some benefits. I wouldn’t look at (the delay) as a bad thing,” Hall-Harnden said. “I’m not even at my peak age yet. That’s usually around 26, 27, 28 for the long jump, so this was just another year to get stronger and get better.

“One thing is, we have been wanting to change my approach a little bit, make it longer by one step,” Hall-Harnden said. “It doesn’t sound like much, but it can totally change your approach.”

She has not competed since the indoor season. In fact, she said, she hasn’t even done a long jump in practice sessions since the spring.

“It is weird, but jumping is really hard on the body, so if I’m not in a season, it makes more sense to focus on approach work rather than jumping all the time,” she said.

She’s hopeful to be back in competition mode during the indoor season. But that is still in flux. Dates and locations for pro meets, even the U.S. championships, have yet to be set.

“I’m just waiting because it’s coming up fast.”

Isaiah Harris finished second in the 800 meters at the national indoor championships last winter. He had to shut down his track workouts for a while during the summer and fall after being diagnosed with tendinosis, but he’s confident he’ll be ready in time to try to qualify for the 2021 Tokyo Games. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

ISAIAH HARRIS

For Isaiah Harris, not having to try to qualify for the Olympics in 2020 might have been “a blessing in disguise.”

Coming off a successful indoor season that included a second-place finish in the 800 meters at the national championships, the Lewiston High grad and 2018 NCAA outdoor champion while at Penn State felt he was approaching peak form. Even after the Olympics were postponed, Harris was itching to get in some competitive races.

“If you had called me in April or May, even into early July, I felt I was in the best shape of my life,” said Harris, who recently turned 24 and is living in College Station, Pennsylvania, training with his college coach, John Gondak.

A Nike-sponsored athlete, Harris entered a low-key race set up near Washington, D.C., in July. He had been dealing with some annoying pain in his Achilles’ heel. By the time the race was over, Harris said he knew what he had been dismissing as normal pain was an injury.

Diagnosed as tendinosis (a more chronic condition compared to tendinitis), Harris had to shut down his track workouts.

“There were some other potential options to fix it. If the (Olympic) trials had been coming up and I couldn’t miss it, I probably would have gone that route, but since I had the time to let it naturally heal, ultimately that’s the route we went,” Harris said.

Only in the last month has he begun to ramp up his workouts.

“If there are (indoor) meets (scheduled for) January or February, I’d be ready by then,” he said.

The injury setback reminded Harris that “understanding your body is literally the most important aspect of the sport.” That means more focus on preparation for workouts, eating better, and specific training to increase strength in the small, supporting muscles that promote better running form and overall stability.

The pandemic, and subsequent disruption of a normally well-structured calendar of events has reminded Harris to not “take it all for granted,” and “how to stay mentally focused through uncertain times,” he said.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the end goal.

“Olympics 2021 is the big goal. That’s the ultimate goal. That’s what I’m focusing every day on in practice,” Harris said.

The pandemic has created hardships for Rachel Schneider, far right, and other athletes. “It was shaping up to be one of my best financial years of my life, potentially, and definitely in my sports career,” she says. “To have it all turned upside down was not a small financial hit.” AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

RACHEL SCHNEIDER

Sanford native Rachel Schneider was planning on 2020 being a breakthrough year.

The 29-year-old has gradually built her resume and her profile in the running community. After setting New Hampshire high school records at St. Thomas Aquinas in Dover, Schneider was an eight-time All-American at Georgetown. But, unlike Hall and Harris, she was not a collegiate champion. Turning professional in 2014, she ran unattached and unsponsored for a year before signing with Under Armour.

In 2019, Schneider made her first U.S. World Championship team (in the 5,000 meters) and posted a PR in the mile by more than six seconds (4:20.91), making her the fifth-fastest American woman in the mile.

Schneider, who competed in the 2016 Olympic trials in the 1,500 meters, was building a case that she could crack through an increasingly deep field of U.S. middle distance runners for an Olympic spot in either the 1,500 or 5,000. That type of success would have triggered performance bonuses.

Like almost all of the world’s track athletes, the extra income earned directly through competition has not been available in 2020. Schneider has not competed since the indoor season.

“Obviously, I’m very aware that there are many people in tough financial situations because of the pandemic, and I’m fortunate to be secure and supported through this by Under Armour, but a lot of a pro runner’s income comes from prize money and bonus money and appearance fees, and for those with less support, it’s been hard,” Schneider said. “It was shaping up to be one of my best financial years of my life, potentially, and definitely in my sports career. To have it all turned upside down was not a small financial hit.”

Schneider is not one to dwell on negatives, though. She has a genuinely positive disposition.

Like Harris, she also may have caught a break to have extra time to recover from an Achilles’ issue that flared up in midsummer – right about the time the Summer Games should have been taking place.

“The injury has allowed me to work on some form,” Schneider said. “It’s helped me to realize some other mechanical things to help with efficiency and injury prevention down the road. Now I feel like I have come out stronger and more efficient and I’ve been back training the last three months and gearing up for some track races – hopefully – on the horizon.”

In February, para-cyclist Clara Brown of Falmouth earned two golds and two silvers on the velodrome at the world championships, a performance that all but guaranteed her a spot on the U.S. Paralympic team. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Falmouth native Clara Brown was relieved that the Paralympic Games were postponed, even if she didn’t immediately recognize that.

Brown had been on a two-year whirlwind of international travel and competition after a chance meeting with George Puskar, a USOC Paralympic Advisory Committee member, in May 2018 while Brown was working as a guide for a bike tour operation.

In short order, Brown, 25, was wearing the red, white and blue. In barely a year, she went from an unattached rider to living in the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to winning three gold medals and one bronze as a para-cyclist at the Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru. In February 2020, she earned two golds and two silvers on the velodrome at the track world championships, a performance that all but guaranteed her a spot on the U.S. Paralympic team.

“It was a really fast-paced two years going into the (2020) Games and I remember it being a year out, in Lima, and it didn’t really register,” Brown said. “Even at the track worlds in February, I just didn’t really process how fast everything was happening and I was never really mentally ready to be on the start line in Tokyo.”

Once a competitive gymnast, Brown was paralyzed at age 12 after a fluke fall in the gym resulted in a compression fracture of two vertebrae. Over a period of years, surgeries and extensive rehabilitation, Brown regained the vast majority of her motor ability except “my right hand is pretty much paralyzed,” she said.

“I’m pretty well passing as able-bodied unless you go to shake my hand,” Brown added. She said because her disabilities are not obvious, she had never considered competing as a para-athlete until meeting Puskar.

Now Brown is a full-time professional athlete. She and her boyfriend, Noah Middlestaedt, also a member of the U.S. para-cycling team, moved to White Fish, Montana, shortly after the Tokyo Games were postponed.

“It made sense to move once the (Olympic Training Center) facilities started to close down, and I thought I would get more out of training,” she said.

Instead of traveling to races across the globe, the focus has been on training and recovery. Brown is confident that will pay dividends when it is time to race again, particularly at the Paralympic Games, scheduled for Aug. 24 through Sept. 5. She plans to compete in the 3-kilometer pursuit and 500-meter time trial on the track. On the roads, there will be a longer mass-start race and an individual time trial.

“I feel like I’m a different rider than I was even at the World Championships in February just because of all the training gains,” Brown said. “I have no idea what my competitors have done with all this extra time, but I’d like to at least podium in all four of my events, two on the track and two on the roads, in Tokyo. Ideally, I’d like to win on the track in pursuit. That is my main goal.”


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