Heather MacLean in her Olympic qualifying heat

Olympics Bound

UMass Amherst athletes head to Tokyo to compete in the Summer Olympics.

When runner Heather MacLean ’17, ’19G packs her bags to compete in the 2021 summer Olympics in Tokyo, she’ll bring along a pin that depicts a winged angel running in track shoes—a gift from her retired UMass coach, Julie LaFreniere ’77, ’86G. “It’s a little reminder that so many people are there to support me and I’m not doing this on my own,” MacLean says. “I’m happy I can make UMass proud, because I could do nothing without UMass.”

MacLean, aged 25, was one of three women to qualify in June 2021 to run the 1,500 meters for Team USA, clocking a personal best of 4:02.09. After she crossed the finish line at trials and saw the Olympic rings beside her name on the scoreboard, she thought, “Somebody slap me across the face! I can’t believe that just happened!” She called her mother to celebrate; her next call was to her second mother, Coach LaFreniere.

MacLean isn’t the only athlete from UMass Amherst heading to Tokyo this summer. Two field hockey players—Sarah Hawkshaw ’17  and Marlise van Tonder ’22 —will compete as well. Hawkshaw, a four-time Atlantic 10 All-Conference honoree at UMass, has continued her playing career in Ireland with Railway Union Hockey Club and will represent Ireland in the Olympics. Meanwhile, van Tonder, a 2019 Atlantic 10 All-Conference honoree whose Spring 2021 season was interrupted by pandemic-related travel restrictions, will represent her home country of South Africa as a traveling reserve on the national team at the Olympics. The Irish and South African field hockey teams will face off for their respective first games on July 25, 2021.

In the case of MacLean, LaFreniere saw her potential early, recruiting her from Peabody High while other programs overlooked her raw talent. MacLean got better and better as a Minutewoman and became an All American in cross-country, indoor track, and outdoor track.

She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a master’s degree in higher education administration, and seven school records—in the 800m, 1,000m, 1,500m, and mile—on the UMass indoor and outdoor lists and a share of the program's indoor relay records.

In the Olympic trials, MacLean ran from behind, much as she overcame emotional and physical adversity on the UMass track. Growing up as the fourth of eight children in a low-income, single-parent household, she was the first to attend college and felt conflicted about leaving her mother and younger siblings. While she was at UMass, her father, with whom she had reconnected, passed away from lung cancer. MacLean had injuries and illnesses—tendinitis, a hip problem, and two bouts of pneumonia—that sidelined her during some important track meets.

Nevertheless, while competing in the fall, winter, and spring, she plunged into campus life. She conducted neuroscience research and interned at the Hampshire County House of Corrections and the Veteran’s Administration Hospital, and served as president of the UMass Student Athlete Advisory Committee. “She was always volunteering for everything—working with kids, working with prisoners,” recalls LaFreniere. “On Friday nights, she’d be playing cards with the vets. Her days were completely filled.”

MacLean took her academics seriously and was honored by the Atlantic 10 collegiate athletic conference three times for her work in the classroom. For her master’s program, she researched equal opportunity in higher education. “I was super grateful to have the opportunity to attend college on an athletic scholarship and hope that others can get the chance to attend. It can be instrumental in changing your life and breaking the cycle of poverty for many students,” she says.

After MacLean completed her bachelor’s degree, another UMass alumnus, Paul Doyle ’94, ’98G, one of the country’s top track-and-field agents, connected her with Team New Balance Boston. Doyle had seen MacLean compete and admired her graceful, natural stride. But it was the UMass logo on her shirt that made him eager to represent her. “There haven’t been many runners on her level from UMass or even from Massachusetts,” he says. Once he came to know MacLean, he was awed by her work ethic and warmth. “She is the type of girl everyone wants to room with when we’re traveling the racing circuit,” Doyle says.

For MacLean, one of the best perks of her “weird job” as a pro runner is access to all the shoes she needs. “It’s totally wild!” she says. “Growing up, I had one pair of sneakers. You wore those shoes into the ground and put duct tape on the bottom. Sometimes I have trouble asking for shoes; I’m not used to all these options.”

MacLean’s first Olympic race is scheduled for August 2, 2021. Until then, she’ll focus on her mental preparation as much as on her running. “I’ll be telling myself, ‘Believe in yourself. Put yourself in the race,’” she says. “Even though I have amazing workouts and everybody believes in me, it can be hard sometimes for me to believe in me.”

The UMass community believes. Athletic Director Ryan Bamford says, “It’s spectacular watching Heather go to the Olympics. She’s an amazing athlete and a great leader who personifies what our department is all about with her perseverance and hard work. She came from humble beginnings and found a second family here at UMass. Heather has a lot of success ahead of her.”

The full Olympic competition schedule is available online.