Olympics: UMass grad Heather MacLean proving she belongs in Tokyo

  • Heather MacLean was a two-time All-American runner at UMass and is the program’s first Olympian. COURTESY UMASS ATHLETICS

  • Heather MacLean was a two-time All-American runner at UMass and is the program’s first Olympian. COURTESY UMASS ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/30/2021 5:53:11 PM

Heather MacLean belongs at the front of the pack.

Julie LaFreniere, UMass’ longtime director of women’s track and field and cross country, screamed as much at her during the U.S. Olympic Trials. 

“Of course, I was screaming at my television. At these Trials, everybody’s playing games,” LaFreniere said. “They get out slow, nobody wants to take the lead. It’s nerve wracking playing that game. It bit her in the butt.”

MacLean finished sixth in her semifinal heat of the 1,500-meter run last month in Eugene, Ore. The top five from each semifinal plus the next two fastest runners advanced. She didn’t make the cut.

“She didn’t get out and protect herself. She goes and hangs out in the back third of the group. And then she likes to start picking them off,” LaFreniere said. “I think that’s a matter of confidence for her, for her to truly believe that she belongs there. I think there’s many of us that know how good she is. We know it, and I think she’s still learning how good she is. She doesn’t need to be afraid to lay it out there because there’s a lot to lay out.”

MacLean and her coach Mark Coogan protested the result saying she was tripped. Referees agreed and advanced her to the final. She didn’t waste the second chance. Even though MacLean wasn’t in the front half of the pack at the race’s halfway point, she worked her way up over the final 800 meters, bridging a gap to reel in a breakaway group. MacLean was in fifth at the start of the final lap but chased down Dani Jones, a former national champion, around the final curve and held off Shannon Osika at the line to finish third in 4 minutes, 2.9 seconds. Elle Purrier St. Pierre, MacLean’s Team New Balance Boston teammate, won in 3:58.03, hugged her after they crossed the finish line and said, “Heather, we did it.”

“I’m training with (Purrier St. Pierre) every day. If I can keep up with her in all of these workouts and train with her at this level, I know I’m just as capable even if other people don’t see it yet,” MacLean said. “Because I’m not one of those household names in the sport, it was a little unpredictable or what seems to other people like unrealistic that I would make the team. It made it all the more special even though it was definitely hard at times. No one was predicting me to be there.”

She’s the UMass track and field program’s first Olympian. The 1,500 heats begin in Tokyo at 8:35 p.m. (Eastern time) Sunday. The semifinals are at 6:40 a.m. Wednesday, and the final starts at 8:50 a.m. Friday.

“It’s not something I’ve been thinking my whole entire life. This is something I’ve made a goal of mine for the last two years in particular and believed and imagined myself being there,” said MacLean, 25. “As far as the Olympics go, I don’t know what to expect. I’m trying to live in the present and not look too far ahead.”

At UMass, MacLean was also a finalist for the NCAA Woman of the Year and helped the Minutewomen post the best team grade point average on campus. 

She thought she was a sprinter when she arrived in Amherst. MacLean, who grew up in Salem but eventually moved to Peabody, held the Peabody High School records in the 400, 600 and 800.

“The first two years, it was a lot of ‘I can’t do that Coach Julie. I’m a sprinter, I’m not a distance runner,’” Lafreniere said, chuckling. “But I knew she could do it. From the little bit she did in high school, I knew she wasn’t a sprinter. You have to be mentally ready to do what it takes to develop into a national caliber athlete.”

MacLean built that mental resilience earlier than anyone should have to. She was the oldest girl among seven siblings raised by a single mother.

“I become the second mom in the household pretty much at a young age. We were from a low-income family,” MacLean said. “It took its toll having to grow up so fast.”

Her father passed away while she was in college, and she battled several bouts of pneumonia that halted promising running seasons before they could really start.

“That was very hard on me emotionally. It took me a while to recover from those circumstances,” MacLean said. “Now I’m in a position where I’ve been able to let go of those stressors that were previously in my life.”

She still carved out a standout UMass career from 2013-18. MacLean was the first cross country All-American for the Minutewomen and won an Atlantic 10 title as a senior. She also added an indoor All-American mark in the 3,000 as a junior and several New England Championships.

“I was a decent Division I athlete, but I was never national champion, I was never a 100-time All-American,” MacLean said. “I was never the person people were looking out for.”

Instead, she spent her time looking after other people. Often, when UMass arrived home from Friday track meets, MacLean would go visit and play cards with veterans at the Northampton VA Medical Center. She had an internship where she worked with a prisoner scheduled for release to help him have a successful release. That’s on top of earning a master’s degree in higher education administration with a focus in sports administration and aiding professors with research.

“She did probably too much. As a coach, I’m looking at, ‘hey you’re taking a lot credits.’ She wanted to do it all and gave back in our team and in our program,” LaFreniere said. “To know Heather is to love her. She gives. She’s very caring, has a lot of empathy – maybe too nice. You can’t be Mr. Nice Guy out there at the Olympics. I always tell her she has to be a beast.”

MacLean didn’t even consider professional running as a career until she was in her master’s program. She started running for Team New Balance Boston in July 2018 and quickly discovered the amount of work that took.

“In the beginning, it was really tough for me. I had a few tough races, and I got humbled a lot and I think ultimately it helped me a lot in the end because I know everyone’s human,” MacLean said. “Everyone’s capable of bad days, but also people are capable of overcoming a lot and having really, really great days. With all I’ve been through in my personal life, I knew I was capable of overcoming a lot.”

She learned how to take care of her whole self: body, mind and soul. It took her time to understand she could put herself first and tend to her own needs rather than putting others first.

“I don’t have anything to take care of except for myself and it feels weird to me sometimes. I had to work hard on mental training and making sure I’m stress free in my personal life and doing the things that make me a healthier individual emotionally and mentally,” MacLean said. “Whether that’s taking time for myself or meditating or getting extra sleep at night or not putting too much on my plate, those are the things the past few years that I’ve really prioritized that I didn’t prioritize in the past in order to compete at that level.”

Old friends, classmates, teachers and friends reached out after her Olympian-minting run. They told her stories about seeing her race on in a bar and going inside, the Trials being on TV at dinner or organizing watch parties.

“A lot of people who I came across at one point in my life, whether in college and we did a class together or a group project together, or I work for them or something like that, how many people took the time out of their days and their lives to watch my race,” MacLean said. “I’ve never, ever in my whole life felt that level of support. It brings me to tears still to think about how many people supported me in that moment. I’m going to save them for the rest of my life and remember every bit of it.”

And she still has to compete in the Olympics. MacLean has kept her achievements in perspective knowing the real test is still to come. Friends kept telling her to update her social media and add “Olympian.” She decided to wait until after she gets to Tokyo.

“My work here is not done. I still want to compete to the best of my ability. I’m prepping in the same way I prepped for the Trials,” MacLean said. “Making it [to the Olympics] was a huge accomplishment in itself but when I get there, I want to make the most of it and show I belong.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.
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