The name Harvard doesn’t exactly evoke thoughts of athletic prowess. But among track and field circles, that may be starting to change.
Throughout the beginning of the summer, the Crimson track and field team sent five athletes to the NCAA Outdoor Championships and qualified four for their respective junior national teams, representing the nations of the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany.
In the U.S. junior national championship meet, rising sophomores Judy Pendergast and Eliza Rego competed in the 3000-meter run and 3000-meter steeplechase, respectively. While Rego placed eighth, Pendergast clocked a 9:49.97 to place second and qualify for the U.S. team at the Pan America Junior Championships in Lima, Peru. Jacob McLennan was tabbed by Canada to compete in the same meet but in the 400-meter hurdles.
“Being able to represent my country is something I have dreamed about since I was a little kid,” McLennan said. “Moments like these are so special because it gives me the chance to look back at all the work I have put in thus far. This opportunity definitely increases the momentum going into next season. Though I was able to make significant improvements this year, I am not satisfied by my performances, and I hope to keep building off the many things I learned this year from coaches and teammates.”
Across the pond, two more Harvard rising sophomores earned spots on their national teams. Lisa Tertsch of Darmstadt, Germany, grabbed the German nod with her 10:22.76 time in the 3000-meter steeplechase earlier this year at the Stanford Cardinal Classic. In the same race for the men, Will Battershill qualified for the U.K. team. At the European U20 Championships held in Grosseto, Italy, Battershill placed third overall in the qualifying round. Though he did not start the final round, his bronze medal qualifying time of 9:07.97 would have been the eighth-fastest time.
Earlier in the summer, several of the program’s athletes capped the outdoor season in Eugene, Ore., at the NCAA Outdoor Championships. Among the top programs in the nation, the Crimson’s route to the competition was not easy. The team carried with it Ivy League championships in cross country as well as indoor and outdoor track. Harvard left with five All-American honors and 29th place as a team.
Sophomore Gabby Thomas and senior Jade Miller highlighted the weekend. Thomas brought home third in the 200-meter and 22nd in the 100-meter, while the veteran, Miller, grabbed sixth in the 400 meter hurdles. Men’s co-captain Efe Uwaifo claimed 15th in long jump as classmate Nikki Okwelogu took 23rd in discus.
The second day of the four-day meet showcased the woman runners, and it was Thomas who took to the blocks first. Racing in the first heat of the day, the Florence, Mass., native clocked an 11.54 second race. The time, good enough seventh in the heat, placed her 22nd overall. While the sophomore did not medal, she represented the first female Harvard sprinter to even compete in the event. For her effort, Thomas was given USTFCCCA All-America Honorable Mention honors.
Miller was up next. The senior was no stranger to the national stage, as this was her fourth time in as many years to advance as far. The veteran raced in the third heat of the 400-meter hurdle semifinals to claim the second spot. Miller’s 56.98 second race was the sixth fastest overall and was behind just USC’s Anna Cockrell, who clocked the second-fastest time of the day.
Thomas then took the track to compete in her most prolific event, the 200 meter hurdles. In the event for which she holds the school record—and for a time the fastest time of the season globally—Thomas placed first in the third heat and fifth on the day. With her time, 22.821, the sophomore came out just .001 seconds of the second place finisher, Aaliyah Brown of Texas A&M.
“The finish of that race was important because it would determine my lane for the finals, and my intentions were to save some energy in prelims for the final,” Thomas said. “But towards the end it was too close for comfort so I had to grind for those last ten meters to get the first place spot. It was close, so I wasn't sure, but I was excited to see that I was the heat winner.”
Uwaifo was the lone Crimson participant on the third day of competition. The triple jumper leapt 15.65 meters on his second jump to secure the 15th position, a career high place at the national meet. For his efforts, Uwaifo was awarded USTFCCCA Second Team All-American honors, becoming only the second male student-athlete in Harvard history to earn the All-America distinction in the event.
The final day of competition began with another seasoned veteran for the Crimson. Okwelgou competed in the discus throw. The senior finished the event 23rd nationally with a 43.85-meter toss. She was awarded USTFCCCA All-America Honorable Mention for her effort, the final of a prolific career as a Harvard thrower.
Miller, another giant for the program finished up in the 400 meter hurdle finals soon after. Competing in her second career finals race and first since 2015 when she placed fifth, Miller clocked a time of 56.61 seconds. The time would be good enough for sixth place and USTFCCAA First Team All-American honors.
Not 15 minutes after, Thomas was competing for her own national title. This was also Thomas’ second time to make the national finals in the race in as many years. In the 2016 season, the then-freshman placed third. This year, a 22.61 second race achieved the same feat. The time, just .01 seconds above her school record. Racking up USTFCCCA First Team All-America honors, the finish ties her effort last year for the best finish of any Crimson student athlete in a sprint event.
With Thomas and Miller racking up the team’s nine points for the meet, Harvard placed 29th as a team, the highest of any Northeast region school.
“It's exciting and a great feeling to know that I am doing something that nobody has done before,” Thomas said. “But I also hope it puts Harvard on the map and lets everyone know that this program can be academically excellent as well as athletically. I want people to turn on the TV and see that it is possible for them, and even for my teammates to understand that this is the standard that the Harvard program is working towards.”
—Staff writer Cade Palmer can be reached at email@example.com.
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