When Wadeline Jonathas decided to attend UMass Boston, former track and field coach Consandria Walker was shocked.
Jonathas was one of the best 400-meter runners in the nation. As a senior in 2016 at Doherty Memorial High in Worcester, she was the outdoor state runner-up and finished sixth at the New Balance National Outdoor Championships.
“Based on her times, it was very unusual for someone like her to have not gotten a scholarship or looked at other schools,” Walker said.
Jonathas ran many of her fastest times late in the season when many schools had already wrapped up recruiting for graduating seniors. She said UMass Lowell had interest but eventually backed off. UMass Boston ultimately made the most sense for her financially
In one of their first conversations, Walker asked Jonathas about her goals in track and field. The freshman replied, “I want to go to the Olympics.”
“I laughed at first, and I was like, ‘No seriously,” She said while laughing. “She was like, ‘No, I’m serious, I want to go to the Olympics.”
Walker laughed because typically athletes at the Division 3 level don’t go on to compete for Team USA, and while Jonathas was talented, the Olympics still seemed pretty far-fetched.
Almost five years later, Jonathas, 23, may have the last laugh.
Jonathas heads into the US Olympic Track Trials, which run through June 27 in Oregon, with the 10th fastest women’s 400-meter time in the country. Jonathas — who has already represented the United States at the World Championships in 2019 — is focusing on confidence and is as determined as she’s ever been.
Seven years ago, Jonathas didn’t even know what track and field was.
Then a high school sophomore, Jonathas, who moved from Haiti to Malden before later moving to Worcester, played on the women’s basketball team at Doherty High. One day, a coach approached her about joining the track team.
“I remember asking him, ‘Well, what is that?’ and he was like ‘Oh, it’s just running,” she said while laughing. “My only thing was I didn’t have running shoes, but he told me I could wear basketball shoes.”
She quickly ditched her basketball shoes for track spikes, and just four years later, she put on a spectacular performances.
As a UMass Boston sophomore, she led the Beacons to an indoor national championship by winning the 60, 200, 400, and long jump titles, scoring 40 points to single-handedly outscore the second-place team, Williams. To add to her dominant day, she broke her meet record in the 400-meters with a time of 54.26.
At the meet, an athlete from another school approached Jonathas and said, “Why haven’t you gone Division 1 yet? What are you scared of, losing?” The comment upset her.
“When he said that, it was a wakeup call for me because a lot of people must’ve been thinking that, but I didn’t know anything about other divisions,” she said.
Jonathas led UMass Boston to another national championship in the outdoor season, then transferred to Division 1 South Carolina. When she began competing at South Carolina, she ran faster than she’d ever run, but also lost more than she’d ever lost. Nevertheless, the experience taught her a lot.
“Running fast is one thing, but running fast and getting beaten is another thing. It humbles you,” she said.
Jonathas said the transition to South Carolina was challenging at times, but she made it look seamless. At the 2019 NCAA Outdoor National Championships, the junior won the 400-meter national title, finishing in 50.60. Later that day, she helped South Carolina’s 4x400 relay team win gold.
A month later, she finished third at the USATF Outdoor Championships, earning her a spot on Team USA at the World Championships. At the World Championships, she smashed her personal best, running 49.60 in the 400 to finish fourth in the world. Jonathas then ran the anchor leg for Team USA’s gold-medal 4x400 relay.
“I was happy with the time that I ran, but I was frustrated that I didn’t medal. So that made me hungry for more. I wanted to be on that podium,” she said.
Jonathas is using that hunger as motivation to make the Olympic games, which take place this summer in Tokyo from July 23 to Aug. 8. To make the team, athletes have to finish in the top three at the Olympic trials.
“I want to make the team really bad. If I have to crawl, if I have to dive, whatever I have to do, I will do it to get top three,” she said.
Jonathas’s training has become increasingly challenging, and she described it as “hell.” Her training partner is Aaron Anderson, a volunteer coach at South Carolina, and he said Jonathas’s drive makes her special.
“When you see athletes with her dedication, her professionalism, who want it so bad, it’s hard to not get on board,” Anderson said. “Her track I.Q. is off the charts. You really have to bring your ‘A’ game every day. She’s a smart athlete, she asks great questions, and it’s a pleasure to work with her every day.”
Jonathas said her biggest focus heading into the Olympic trials is confidence.
“Nothing beats confidence. If you’re not confident, I don’t care how prepared you are; you aren’t going to make it out there,” she said. “Confidence is one thing I am looking to master, and it’s tougher than it looks. You know we all look very confident, but deep down, everybody’s scared. I want to be fearless.”
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Kris Rhim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.