Two days before the women’s 1,500-meter final at the US Track and Field Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., all that stood between Heather MacLean and Tokyo were 3¾ laps of the track — and $100 in cash.
MacLean hadn’t made the final outright, finishing outside the qualifying spots in a chaotic semifinal. With 600 meters to run, she was biding her time on the outside when Adidas’s Lauren Johnson was clipped from behind, veering straight into MacLean’s path. She darted to the left to avoid the stumbling Johnson, losing all her momentum just as the pace picked up.
”As soon as I finished, I blamed myself,” MacLean, a Peabody native said. “And I really gave that race everything I had. I was just completely devastated.”
Her agent, Paul Doyle, was quick to act. MacLean, Doyle, and coach Mark Coogan scrambled to cobble together the $100 in cash required to lodge a protest, and Doyle successfully argued that his client had been impeded. A reprieve — a 13th spot in the 12-athlete final — was granted.
The final was more straightforward. Elle Purrier St. Pierre, MacLean’s New Balance Boston teammate, took control from the gun and stormed away from the field in a trials-record time. MacLean — having gotten the $100 back — was fifth when the bell sounded for the final lap.
”We could see her coming,” said Coogan, who sat right at the finish line. “We stopped watching Elle, just started watching Heather. She’s doing it, here she comes.”
MacLean, 25, reeled in four-time NCAA champion Dani Jones on the back straight, glided past six-time All-American Shannon Osika on the far turn, and made her run for home.
From there, things went quiet; MacLean felt something of a flow state as she came down the home straight that she’d visualized so many times, the stadium silent, empty. She crossed the line and clasped her hands — “Oh, you bet I was praying,” she said — eyeing the scoreboard. Her name appeared in third place, with five unmistakable rings alongside.
On Sunday, she cruised through the first round of the women’s 1,500 meters at the Tokyo Olympics, taking fifth in her heat and just missing a personal best.
Dana Giordano, MacLean’s roommate and fellow pro runner, was so thrilled for her friend that day that her Garmin watch asked if she needed to reach an emergency contact, such was her elevated heart rate.
”We all do the same thing, we all have the same goal,” Giordano said, “I had no jealousy at all, because there’s not a person that deserves it more than Heather. How could you not want someone like her to achieve that goal?
”Her childhood was not easy. At all. And it’s pretty much a miracle that she’s made it to this level.”
‘Things were very, very tough’
MacLean grew up the fourth of eight siblings and the first-born girl in what was mostly a single-parent household. Her mother, Michele Maurice, did everything she could to keep the kids fed and housed, but MacLean took on plenty of responsibility at an early age, functioning as a parent for her younger siblings.
With seven kids under her roof, Maurice was working multiple jobs to make ends meet, packing meals and shuttling the kids to sports between shifts, trying to make it all work.
”I had one job working at the school, then sometimes two working retail,” Maurice said. “I’d need to go from one job to another, ask for weekends off to take the kids to sports. It was difficult to try and juggle everything.
”Things were very, very tough back then.”
MacLean got a late start in running, joining the track team as a junior largely because her best friend Mary Leach, with whom she worked at Market Basket, was on the team and could provide transportation.
She thrived at Peabody, if not quite logging the eye-popping times to attract college coaches.
She won the conference title in the 300 meters indoors and qualified for the All-State meet by the end of her first season, then repeated both feats for the outdoor season. It was her senior cross-country season when she started turning heads — among them UMass coach Julie LaFreniere.
MacLean had made huge strides, taking 16th at the All-State meet on a grueling 5,000-meter course, more than tenfold the distance over which she was winning conference titles on the track.
Still, MacLean’s path to college was unclear — her older siblings hadn’t gone to college, the finances seemed unrealistic as she handled her own FAFSA forms, the aid packages from schools made clear she’d be in over her head. She filled out applications at the school library because she didn’t have WiFi at home.
Then she got a call from LaFreniere, who told MacLean she could go for free to UMass — a school at which she felt wanted.
”That was the best news I’d received in my life,” MacLean said. “I felt like I’d won the lottery.”
‘Burning the candle at both ends’
By the time she graduated high school, MacLean had become one of the state’s best middle-distance runners. She won Division 1 state titles at 600 meters indoors and over 800 meters outdoors, and qualified for nationals in the latter event. Other college coaches poked around, MacLean’s talent no longer a secret, but LaFreniere had already staged her coup.
MacLean was “a sponge” in LaFreniere’s view, soaking up everything she could when she arrived in Amherst in the fall of 2013. The academics, the extracurriculars, the opportunities — MacLean found the unlimited dining hall Cheerios a revelation — she dove in headfirst. There were flashes of her talent: school records, Atlantic 10 titles, regional championship appearances. With some resistance, LaFreniere pushed MacLean into longer and longer races, and MacLean responded by ripping a 4:37.80 mile in February 2016, fast enough to qualify for NCAAs (where she’d earn her first All-America honors in March) in her second race over that distance.
At some point, it became too much. She was a student-athlete, conducting research with the neuroscience department, representing athletic committees, interning at a local prison, playing cards at the VA hospital on Friday nights; “Burning the candle at both ends,” LaFreniere said.
The tipping point came at the start of her senior year in fall 2016. MacLean had reconnected with her father, living in San Diego since she was 8, and Bobby MacLean was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer that summer.
Within the next few months, she dealt with the loss of her stepfather to cancer just before her 21st birthday, multiple bouts with pneumonia, and her father’s illness, shuttling between Amherst and Peabody and San Diego, squeezing in workouts while planning visits and funerals.
She raced on the day of her stepfather’s service in August, and flew out to California to see her father in November, accompanying him for a scan that revealed the cancer’s spread to his bones — days after gapping the field by 13 seconds to win the 2016 A-10 cross country title.
LaFreniere could see the toll it was all taking. After MacLean struggled at the regional cross-country championships, the two took a walk around Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, MacLean shoeless and crying, when LaFreniere decided to pull the plug.
”That’s when I realized that she needed a break,” LaFreniere said. “She was in no condition to have an indoor season. She needed to take care of Heather. She needed to take that time off and heal.”
MacLean flew back to San Diego as her father reached his final days. He died in February, and she didn’t compete again until April 2017 while still battling pneumonia.
”That was a bad, bad period for all of us,” Maurice said. “We were all burnt out by the end of it. It was very tough on my kids, losing both [MacLean’s father and stepfather] in a short period of time. It was just a horrible, horrible time for all of us.
”Heather was very strong through that, but it was very tough on her. Luckily, Julie was really there for her.”
LaFreniere preaches about “the tip of the iceberg,” a term she and MacLean use often — a focus on the big picture, understanding that collegiate success was only the beginning.
With time to heal — physically and mentally — MacLean returned for a fifth year in 2017, finishing 30 seconds clear of second place to defend her A-10 cross-country title in October.
She opened the indoor season with a blazing 9:03.03 over 3000 meters in December 2017, before another bout with illness limited her to just two more races. Pneumonia — she calls it “the plague” — wouldn’t relent and she had to drop to 800 meters just to have a shot to reach NCAAs, unable to log the sort of aerobic training needed to compete at longer distances.
MacLean finished her college career knowing she’d left plenty on the table.
‘You can make it’
Coogan first spotted MacLean at an indoor meet at Boston University, and she checked all the boxes for the sort of athlete he wanted at New Balance Boston: tough, talented, New England roots. He got in touch as soon as MacLean was done in Amherst.
He found he inherited an athlete full of untapped potential, a “beautiful runner” — powerful, fluid, smooth, explosive. She had a handful of impressive performances suppressed by illness and injury and stress and turmoil.
Much like MacLean’s college coach, Coogan brought her along slowly as she adapted to professional running. His training methods are more about the accumulation of solid, steady work over time rather than big, flashy workouts, and MacLean took to it.
Her ascension started after COVID-19 nixed much of 2020′s schedule. MacLean was ripping time trials at Wellesley High School, clocking personal bests without real competition, running right on the shoulder of teammates such as Purrier St. Pierre, one of the country’s best. Coogan started floating some lofty aspirations.
”I started talking to her, I started saying like, ‘You’ve got to think about making this [Olympic] team,’” Coogan said. “You can make it, and you have to think you can make it.”
MacLean entered the indoor season an unknown and exited a contender for an Olympic spot.
Her 4:27.54 in the mile in February was the fastest time in the world indoors and she proved her racing credentials by running away from the field at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix, beating a handful of top Americans in the 1,500 meters for her first major professional win. From there, it was the Olympic Trials in late June, and then, Tokyo.
Giordano could see MacLean growing in confidence ahead of the races in Eugene, crushing workouts in the buildup, a “fire under her breath” talking about sticking with Purrier St. Pierre, a medal contender for Tokyo. LaFreniere agreed.
“Honestly, Heather’s still behind, still has so much room to grow in her fitness and her confidence,” LaFreniere said. “Trust me, what you’re seeing right now is just the tip of the iceberg.”
MacLean is 25 now, living on her own, in the best shape of her life, her only responsibilities herself and her career.
”I’m at this really weird point in my life where I have no one to take care of but myself,” MacLean said. “And I realize, like, part of me was neglecting taking care of my own needs because I was so used to taking care of other people’s needs. It’s made all the difference in my personal life.”
When she lined up for the first round of the women’s 1,500 in Tokyo, the stadium really was empty; not just in her perception like the closing stages in Eugene.
The goal, according to Coogan, is to get through the rounds — she’s already through to Wednesday’s semis — and make the final, and see what happens from there.
And even that — an Olympic final — may only be the tip of the iceberg.
Amin Touri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.