From Unproven to Untouchable: Heather MacLean's rise as one of UMass' most decorated atheletes BY Will Katcher

It’s sunny at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, but by this point — almost 6 p.m. local time — shade covers half the track.

As the home of the Oregon Ducks and birthplace of Nike, Eugene played host to the 2018 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships between June 6 and 9. By the start line of the track on this afternoon, 24 women, representing some of fastest middle distance speed in the country, gather seeking the coveted eight spots in 800-meter finals.

The University of Massachusetts singlet hasn’t seen much exposure to competition of this level, but today it’s worn by Heather MacLean, who steps into lane three of the track for the second heat of the 800 meter semifinals in what may very well be her final collegiate race.

As with every track race, this one begins with a blank fired into the air, and just like that, they’re off.

The eight runners are confined to their lanes until they hit end of the first curve 100 meters in, and by the end of the first 200, they have all cut toward the inside of the track.

At just around 29 seconds, the pack hits its 200-meter split, and it’s clear MacLean may have trouble on her hands. She’s thoroughly boxed in next to the guardrail, as four runners keep pace just ahead of her strides, while three prevent her from moving to the outside for more space.

At 400 meters an official rings a bell signaling one lap to go, and though the pack remains tight, MacLean is still at the back of it.

This is “the hardest part of the race,” comments one announcer on the ESPN broadcast, and she’s not lying.

At roughly one half mile, the 800 meters is considered by many athletes to be one of the most difficult events in the sport. For two laps, runners hold on for dear life. The strategy to win it, “go out hard, finish harder,” leaves no room to settle into a cruising pace.

The strain starts to show on these eight women, as the pack thins out and space opens up for runners to make moves. This is where the strategy of track and field kicks in, and experienced athletes make their moves.

At 600 meters, it's anyone’s race. Five runners hold the front pace, but Heather MacLean is moving up from the back, and doing so with determination.

It’s at points like this that runners must find another gear and empty the tank, and that’s exactly what the women in this race start to do. It’s full sprint, on Olympic Qualifiers pace, as four runners pull away and remain just out of reach, while MacLean fends off Clemson’s Kamryn McIntosh for fifth place.

And so, just over two minutes and three seconds after the gun went, Heather MacLean’s time as a Minutewoman has come to a close, a half second shy of qualifying for the 800 meter final. At the highest level of her career, MacLean left it all on the track, running to less than a fifth of a second off of her personal best. She went shoulder to shoulder with the best that American colleges have to offer, athletes fast enough to run for Team USA at the Olympics in two years.

This story ends on one of track and field’s biggest stages, but it began six and a half years ago on America’s opposite coast — and to do it justice, you need to travel north from Boston to the Massachusetts suburb of Peabody.

Peabody’s a city whose high school has its own unique claim to running fame: home of the Rocha family, well respected in the Massachusetts running community and known nationally for their success. The girls’ head coach for indoor and outdoor track for the last 18 years, until his retirement, was Joe Rocha, who ran for Boston College alongside his wife, Gina Braz-Rocha. Gina’s brother, Fernando Braz, was a 12-time state champion between cross country and track for Peabody High and also coached there.

And there’s Joe’s kids: Catarina, teammate to MacLean at Peabody and second at the high school cross country Foot Locker National Championships in 2012; Marcelo, cross country state champion his senior year, now competing for Providence College; and Claudio, currently a runner for the Peabody Tanners himself.

This is the environment where MacLean began. In many ways, Peabody High is the perfect place to start a storied cross country and track career, primed to deliver distance running talent.

Except Peabody’s distance team wasn’t the launchpoint for MacLean’s career — its sprinting team was. After playing soccer until freshman year and dancing after that, one of UMass’ most successful long distance athletes started off running the 300 meters for coach Rocha’s team during indoor track of her junior year.

Like most athletes new to the sport, it took some time for MacLean to learn the ins and outs of track and field. Before her first race, she showed up late to coach Rocha’s team meeting. Her delay? Getting cookies with a friend at a convenience store down the hill from Peabody High.

But once MacLean stepped on the track, it didn’t matter. She not only won her first race, the 300 meters; she cruised to first in style.

“I wore trainers for it because I didn’t know what spikes were,” she said. “Straight, bulky $10 trainers.”

As a distance runner, MacLean was a “late bloomer,” Rocha says, and her high school record backs that up. After success running the 300 meters her junior indoor season, she began the slow rise up to longer races.

First it was the 400 meters during outdoor track, mixed in with a few 4x800 meter relays. Then it was her lone cross country season of high school in the fall of 2012, which, on a team led by Catarina Rocha, finished with a state title for Peabody.

Slowly but surely, MacLean got the basics down, from how and when to eat prior to competition, to what to wear in a race. She dropped the trainers for spikes, moved her schedule and job around to accommodate more practices and dove into her training.

It was about this time that college coaches started looking into signing her to their teams. As she was relatively untested, with only a few seasons under her belt, few major Division I schools pursued the athlete who, a few years down the road, would go stride for stride with their stars.

It was at the end of her junior year that MacLean first spoke to then UMass track assistant coach — now head coach — David Jackson about sprinting for the Minutewomen. But after her successful cross country campaign, it was women’s head coach Julie LaFreniere who took notice.

LaFreniere heard word from a former Minuteman athlete, who was now working for the Peabody team, of this unproven Eastern Massachusetts runner who he described as the “real deal.” With MacLean looking mainly at Division II and III schools, LaFreniere began recruiting her.

Meanwhile, Rocha watched with his fellow coaches as MacLean became accustomed to longer runs and adapted to the off-road, extended competition of a cross country race. He watched as she found success in the 600 meters her senior indoor, blazing a 1:34.27 to win the MIAA Division I state title, and decided that come outdoor track, he would move her up to the 800 meters.

Despite its grueling nature, the 800 seemed to be MacLean’s ideal event. She thrived in it senior year, taking first at the Andover Invitational and Eastern Massachusetts Division I Championships, on her way to being the runner-up in the event at the All-State meet in a blistering 2:11.44.

More large colleges took notice, but by this time, LaFreniere had a head start. She was unsure at first, with only a few seasons to look at, if MacLean was up to the challenge of a collegiate running program.

“I knew she had a huge upswing and potential,” LaFreniere said, “but I wasn't sure about her mindset, determination, work ethic, maturity and commitment.”

But after getting to know MacLean further and seeing her run, LaFreniere saw what Joe Rocha already knew.

She was looking for a devoted athlete, someone who could buy into the tight-knit culture of the UMass team and someone who took herself seriously both on and off the track.

That was exactly what she found.

LaFreniere knew MacLean would be right for her team. All that was left was to show MacLean why UMass was right for her.

For MacLean, it was the campus visit that sealed the deal. Once there, she says she understood that she’d be able to get the support she needed, not just as an athlete, but as a student as well. Off the track, she would be at a top tier public research university; on the track, there would be room to reach her full potential. At most Division II or III schools, MacLean likely would already have been the best on the team, but at UMass, she’d have to push herself to reach that spot.

“I was able to convince Heather that UMass was a terrific place to excel in academics and athletics,” LaFreniere said. “That we promote a family atmosphere and that we are a Division I program that ‘does it the right way.’”

MacLean would “get a great education and develop her talent in a healthy environment,” LaFreniere said. In her words, UMass was more than a “meat factory.” They look out for their athletes and put their health above their trophies. “I promised to take very good care of her,” LaFreniere said.

That was all MacLean needed to hear.

“I didn’t want to go into a program where I was just going to be beaten up and if I got injured I was going to be kicked to the side,” she said.

Having struggled with injuries throughout her career, MacLean wanted to know that her coach had her back, and that’s what she found in Julie LaFreniere.

At UMass, MacLean got off to a rocky start. “I could see her drive and determination,” LaFreniere said, “but she actually suffered from Achilles tendon problems and I stopped racing her after September.”

In the long run, that decision only helped MacLean’s career. By halting racing and declaring a redshirt season, she bought herself another year of cross country four years down the line.

After the initial worries in her freshman cross country season, MacLean exploded on the track. She was setting personal and school records, LaFreniere recalls, and beating some of the top competition in the Atlantic 10.

Something clicked for MacLean. High school success can sometimes be misleading as an indicator for the future, and often runners who break out early in their career fizzle as they mature. But MacLean, in Joe Rocha’s words, was a late blooming runner. Whether it was her own determination and devotion to improvement, or LaFreniere’s training techniques, honed over the course of a 30-year coaching career, something began to break very right, and MacLean began a slow but deliberate climb toward the top of the A-10.

Throughout, she reminded LaFreniere that she was “just an 800-meter runner,” not anything more than that, and certainly not a cross country runner.

But she stuck with cross country, trained throughout all three seasons and made tremendous progress in her first two years. She did the workouts, covered the miles, listened to her coaches and bit-by-bit knocked the seconds off her times.

By junior year, riding her natural speed, MacLean had and solidified her long distance base, coming second at the A-10 Cross Country Championships that fall.

Slowly but surely, MacLean had established herself in the conference and on the northeast collegiate running scene, breaking through barriers faster than she knew she could.

Come the indoor season, MacLean moved up from the 800 meters to the mile, at LaFreniere’s encouragement.

“I told her what she could do in the mile, she didn't believe me, but she ran exactly what I predicted she would,” LaFreniere recalls. “The next mile I set the goal a little faster and she met it again.”

That second mile during her junior year gave MacLean the 16th fastest time in the country, and she rode that success all the way to the 2016 NCAA Indoor Championships, her first appearance at nationals, where she ultimately placed ninth overall to earn All-American status.

Like most runners, MacLean dealt with her fair share of injuries during her career, the most notable being tendinitis in her knee junior year. After her nationals appearance indoors, the injury derailed her outdoor season, the second redshirt of her career. Though this allowed her to return to compete this past spring, the injury cost her the chance to hit the Olympic qualifying standard in the 800 meters.

But even with the injuries and medical difficulties came some of the moments that MacLean’s coaches remember best. Battling pneumonia, she ran the 800-meter semifinal at the 2017 Atlantic 10 Championships on Saturday and qualified for the final the following day. On Sunday she returned to win the 1500 meters with a come-from-behind effort an hour before the 800-meter final.

In the medical tent after the 1500, with MacLean on her nebulizer, the medical staff made the call that she would have to drop out of the 800 meters. “She would not make that decision [herself],” LaFreniere said.

For MacLean, though, it wasn’t about individual glory; it was simply about scoring points when the team needed them most.

It’s likely that her coaches were barely surprised by MacLean’s intentions. They had, at this point, grown accustomed to her putting above-and-beyond levels of effort into her races.

Two years earlier, as a sophomore, MacLean broke a 28-year-old New England Championships record in the 800 meters, running 2:06.45, at the same time setting a personal best and a then-UMass record. Less than an hour later, she returned to the track for another 800, this time in the 4x800 meter relay.

Against a tough New Hampshire team, MacLean anchored the UMass relay with another 2:06 to win by a second and bring home the gold.

By the end of her fourth year at UMass, MacLean had amassed enough redshirt seasons — she also redshirted during indoor track in 2017 — to return for an entire fifth year.

In this past cross country season, there was little doubt who would be the conference champion. At the A-10 Championships in October, several runners attempted to stick with MacLean for the first half of the five-kilometer race, even as she opened up a seven second lead.

In the second half, as her nearest competitors faltered, MacLean pulled away, pushing her lead to nearly 30 seconds and crossing the line with no challenger in sight. It seemed that all her fellow runners could do was fight for second.

Cross country was MacLean’s second nationals appearance, and she rose to the occasion, running 20:03 for 6k, a personal record and a faster pace than her best time over 5k. She was named an All-American for the second time in her career, the first in UMass women’s cross country history.

The 2018 indoor season was lost to pneumonia, but by the time spring track rolled around, there was a clear goal in mind to finish on: the NCAA Outdoor Championships.

At a home meet on April 28, MacLean, in her first 800 meters race in over a year, ran a personal best of 2:03.45. The result put her at second in the event in the NCAA East region, enough to send her to the East’s preliminaries with a trip to the NCAA Championships on the line.

Four weeks later, MacLean advanced through the two opening rounds of the NCAA East competition, running 2:05 and then 2:04 to punch her ticket to Eugene, Oregon.

Two weeks later, 3,000 miles from Amherst, on a track at the University of Oregon, MacLean’s time in a maroon uniform concluded over the course of two minutes and three seconds in the 800 meter semifinal.

“I kept telling some of these Division I coaches to give her a chance,” Joe Rocha says. “She started late, but made a name for herself, improved quickly and found a home at UMass. She just needed someone to give her a chance to prove [herself].”

That someone was Julie LaFreniere, the coach who MacLean would describe four years later as her “second mom.”

To LaFreniere, MacLean is a “fierce competitor,” but she means more than just that to her fellow runners and to the program.

“She takes an interest in her teammates,” LaFreniere said, and she “wants her teammates to be successful.”

This is no different than how Rocha still speaks of her. Even as one of the best young runners in Massachusetts, MacLean “was humble about her success.” Starting at Peabody with no experience on the track, Rocha says “she never complained, she embraced the training, she embraced her teammates.” In the end, those are the types of runners coaches want on their teams.

MacLean went from flying under the radar to outright flying on the track. “I didn’t even know what the NCAA level was,” she says. “I was just hungry to compete.”

Next fall, UMass will be without MacLean for the first time in five years. The program will go on, and eventually a new runner will fill her spot at the front. The same process will be repeated at the dozens of other schools across the country losing athletes who have done so much for their team.

But what remains different about UMass is that the Minutewomen, and Minutemen too, rarely find themselves competing on the national stage. In other sports — hockey, softball — UMass sees success in the northeast and in conference play, and strives toward breaking through to the next level.

Lacrosse made its mark this past spring, but apart from that and other periodic occurrences, it’s rare that a UMass athlete winds up in a major tournament going toe-to-toe with the best in the nation.

NCAA Nationals was both a trailblazing trip and a return to normalcy for Heather MacLean: she is one of only a few UMass athletes to reach the highest level in collegiate running, and it’s unclear when we may next see a maroon uniform in Eugene.

But at the same time, MacLean wasn’t exactly unfamiliar with the spectacle of a national track meet. She had been to this level twice before and the 800 meters is the event she came to UMass looking to compete in. She has been comfortable with this event since well before her collegiate career.

When you’ve been on the track as long as MacLean has, home field advantage seems to become less of an effect than in another sport. A runner may get a boost at the oval they feel most at home at, but if you’ve seen one track, you’ve seen them all. No matter where you go, Oregon included, an outdoor track is exactly the same distance around: 400 meters.

So for a runner as experienced as Heather MacLean, stepping on the track is like muscle memory. There’s no shallow right field fence to be aware of, no wind tunnel that only the home team knows. There’s only the straightaways and the curves, and everyone runs the same course.

So when the gun went off on MacLean’s final race, she did what she has mastered over the last six and a half years, 17 seasons of cross country and track: commit her full effort for herself and her team, trust her training and her coaches, run hard and lean at the line.

Will Katcher can be reached at wkatcher@umass.edu and followed on Twitter at @will_katcher.

(All photos courtesy of UMass Athletics.)

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