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University made: Heather MacLean is two laps away from a trip to the NCAA championships

  • UMass redshirt senior Heather MacLean is two laps away from a trip to the NCAA Track & Field Championships. MacLean, who was the first in her family to earn a college degree, has taken full advantage of her time at UMass. THOM KENDALL FOR UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass redshirt senior Heather MacLean is two laps away from a trip to the NCAA Track & Field Championships. MacLean, who was the first in her family to earn a college degree, has taken full advantage of her time at UMass. THOM KENDALL FOR UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass redshirt senior Heather MacLean is two laps away from a trip to the NCAA Track & Field Championships. MacLean, who was the first in her family to earn a college degree, has taken full advantage of her time at UMass. THOM KENDALL FOR UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass redshirt senior Heather MacLean is two laps away from a trip to the NCAA Track & Field Championships. MacLean, who was the first in her family to earn a college degree, has taken full advantage of her time at UMass. THOM KENDALL FOR UMASS ATHLETICS



@MattVautour424
Monday, May 21, 2018

AMHERST — Heather MacLean doesn’t need to shine one more time.

No matter what happens on the Tampa, Florida, track Thursday, she’ll complete her UMass career loaded with superlatives.

MacLean has already won conference titles and academic honors. A redshirt senior in competition and a graduate student in the classroom, she’s been singled out for praise by the president of the UMass system and one of the nation’s most recognizable senators. She’s the first person in her family to earn an undergraduate degree and is a year away from a similar distinction with a master’s degree.

But on Thursday, she’ll arrive at South Florida with one more goal — to qualify for the NCAAs. Her stage is set perfectly. She’s ranked No. 1 in the 800 meters in an NCAA Regional field that will send 12 to the NCAA championships. She doesn’t need a great day by her standards, just a good one to extend her career another week.

Weeks of adding Emergen-C to her daily oatmeal has helped her avoid a bout of what MacLean, a regular pneumonia sufferer, calls “the plague.” There’s no sign of the tendonitis that once slowed her knees. No schoolwork to worry about and no job. Just two trips around the track for a shot at a trip to Oregon. She’ll kiss her ring for good luck and be off.

“There’s still more work to do. All that matters is how I race at regionals,” she said. “It’s more pressure on myself. I really want to make it to NCAAs. I know I’m capable of it now. Before it wasn’t the same feeling. Whatever happens happens.”

Unlikely standout

Growing up in Peabody, this success would have been hard to predict. MacLean was a good runner in high school. She set a bunch of school records and finished second in the state in the 800 as a senior. But she wasn’t so good that schools were beating down her door to recruit her.

College was never a certainty. Nobody in her family had ever earned a degree before. As the fourth of seven children in a single parent household, MacLean got good at figuring things out.

“Growing up this wasn’t something I had to model after. I didn’t see someone going to college,” MacLean said. “I applied for colleges on my own. I filled out the FAFSA and all that. It wasn’t something that was always in my sight when I was little.”

Once she got to UMass, she wanted to maximize the total experience. She threw herself into her psychology major. She studied sleep patterns, and interned at the Hampshire County House of Corrections and the Veteran’s Administration Hospital. She worked a desk job at UMass School of Public Health and somehow found time to win races — a few as a freshman and more every year that followed.

“I’m so focused on so many things at once that I overstress myself,” MacLean said. “I’m always putting so much on my plate.”

A year ago she had to scale back. Her father Bobby MacLean lived in San Diego and they hadn’t been close since she was younger. They reconnected while she was at UMass, but he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.

“My dad had become a really big supporter for me over the last few years,” she said. “When I found out he had cancer I was visiting every few month. It gave me the chance to get really close with him.”

He died in February 2017, the lowest moment in a tough year marked by illness and injury.

“It brought us closer together. It was really sad, but maybe I wouldn’t have had those experiences with him if it hadn’t happened,” she said. “I just wish I had him for a longer period.”

Drawing inspiration

As a senior she’s found inspiration in finding ways to stay connected to his memory. She incorporates him into her routine. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, one his favorite bands, are prominently featured on her pre-race mix. Before she runs she’ll find a quiet moment and look skyward and talk. The chats are like a one-sided phone call. She feels his presence even without hearing his thick Boston accent, but they bring MacLean peace and perspective.

“I’m like ‘Hey dad, guess what?’” MacLean said smiling at the memory. Occasionally the talks venture toward casual prayer. Standing in the grass near the track before the 2017 Larry Ellis Invitational, she asked him for luck.

“I said ‘Dad, can you show me a four-leaf clover?’” she said.

Moments later one appeared and after that she broke UMass’ school record in the 1,500 meters in 19 minutes, 19 seconds.

On that day and every race since, she kisses the gold claddagh ring with the peridot heart on her right hand right before she runs. It was one of the last birthday presents her dad gave her.

Whether it was the distance from San Diego or his health preventing Bob MacLean from seeing his daughter run, the ring let him be there in spirit.

“He would tell me to kiss the ring,” she said. “It’s calming in a sense.”

Despite everything she was dealing with personally, MacLean might have reached the NCAA outdoor championship last year, but she contracted pneumonia a week before the Atlantic 10 Championship. She won the 800 anyway, ditching the field behind her in the final 200 meters.

“She literally was running with one lung,” coach Julie LaFreniere said.

The win finished her off. She wasn’t herself at the NCAA Regional meet and was eliminated in the second round.

As a consolation prize she was able to attend graduation where she was honored as a 21st Century Leader and sat with Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Her difficult redshirt junior year has been followed by a much more fulfilling senior year. She was the program’s first ever All-American in cross country while beginning her master’s degree. The girl who once wasn’t sure she’d ever go to college is now a woman pursuing a degree in higher ed administration. She’s thankful for who she’s become and gives UMass and the athletic department a lot of credit for it.

“The last five years have been awesome,” she said. “Being able to help this program grow is important to me. I don’t want to set a record that will never be broken. I want people to come after me and improve as much as I did and have the experiences I did so our team is getting better and better.”

LaFreniere gushed with pride.

“She’s been nothing short of a treasure,” the longtime coach said. “She took advantage of everything UMass has to offer and bettered herself every chance she could, academically and athletically. UMass is her family and her support system.”

For now, MacLean is happy to keep the future at arm’s length.

“It’s kind of weird to know I won’t be running for UMass anymore,” she said. “I’m glad I’ve had a great year so far and that I’m very healthy right now. I’m really trying to savor every moment.”

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