Sanford native Rachel Schneider poised for Olympic opportunity

May 30—A couple of Maine natives went for a training run earlier this month in the mountains of Arizona.

In a few weeks, both Rachel Schneider of Sanford and Emily Durgin of Standish will be competing at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, as part of the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials.

For Durgin, 27, it's a chance to get her feet wet, learn from the experience, and be prepared for the next Olympic cycle.

For Schneider, who turns 30 in July, it's all about qualifying for the Tokyo Games from July 23 to Aug. 8.

"I'm so excited to be at this point now," Schneider said by phone from Flagstaff, her home since 2016. "Training's been going really well. I'm feeling both fit and excited heading into these last couple weeks before Trials. It's a good place to be."

Raised in Sanford, Schneider attended St. Thomas Aquinas High in Dover, New Hampshire, before becoming an all-America runner at Georgetown University. She turned professional in 2014, missed qualifying for the 2015 World Championships by a fraction of a second, and saw her 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials bid end in the 1,500-meter semifinals.

"That was tough," she said, "but I learned a lot from that experience."

Schneider competed at the 2019 World Championships in Qatar and finished 19th of 29 runners at 5,000 meters, again falling short of the finals.

The pandemic wiped out much of her racing schedule last year, but in December she raced at 10,000 meters on a track for the first time. Not only did she win the race, held in California, but her time of 31 minutes, 9.79 seconds also achieved the Olympic standard (31:25).

Among U.S. women, Schneider is ranked seventh at 10,000 meters. She also beat the Olympic standards at 5,000 and 1,500. In the shorter race, her time of 4:02.26 from Monaco two years ago ranks seventh among U.S. Trials qualifying times for women. At another track meet in California two weeks ago, she ran a personal best of 14:52.04 in the 5,000 to improve her trials standing from 14th to ninth.

It marked the first time Schneider had broken 15 minutes in the 5,000.

"To be honest, we felt like I was capable of running sub-15 for the last three years," she said. "But whether from lack of racing opportunities or the pandemic or being injured, I just haven't been able to put that into a result. So it was gratifying to see the fitness that we knew was in there for a while and capitalize on it."

Schneider is sponsored by Under Armour. Mike Smith, the director of cross country and track & field at Northern Arizona University, is both her coach and her fiancé. They met when he began coaching at Georgetown her senior year. A September wedding is planned.

The U.S. Olympic Trials run from June 18-27, but the finals of the 1,500 and 5,000 are scheduled within an hour of each other on June 21.

"It's essentially impossible to double in those two events," Schneider said. "I'm definitely doing the 10,000, which is at the end of the trials."

Given a training regimen geared toward long distance — "Some of my friends in town joke that I actually do marathon training," she said — the 5,000 seems more likely, but Schneider isn't ruling out the 1,500. She said she's hoping to race that distance once more before the trials.

The top three runners in each race, assuming they have beaten the Olympic standard, will punch tickets to the Tokyo Games.

Already this year, Schneider has won a national mile title in Iowa in April and earned $12,000 by winning both the mile and 3,000 meters within an hour of each other at the Camel City Invitational in North Carolina in February.

Although she had been preparing for the trials in 2020, she said pushing them back a year because of the pandemic allowed her to work on areas that needed improvement.

"It was financially tough, in terms of not having as many opportunities to win prize money or bonuses or increased chances at world rankings," she said. "But there were some really awesome silver linings, of just getting to grow as a runner."

Plus, eliminating all the travel that typically accompanies both her schedule and that of Smith meant they could spend uninterrupted time together. They could go camping and paddle boarding, romp with their three dogs and explore Flagstaff and the Southwest region.

Schneider said she focused on things she could control, like recovering from an Achilles injury last summer and spending time with a nephew who recently turned 2. Her older sister, Kathy, and her husband relocated to Arizona.

"That's been the biggest gift of this crazy pandemic time is having them move to Flagstaff and just getting to see them so much more," Schneider said. "That's been a wonderful, wonderful thing."

She also started coaching during the pandemic as a way to connect with more of the running community. With no races, she was able to continue work on her endurance and strength. She said she actually enjoyed her first 10,000 race and looks forward to her second one, on June 26 at the trials.

Afterward, she plans on visiting Maine for the first time in more than a year and a half.

"That's by far the longest I've ever gone without getting home," she said. "I can't wait to get back."

Durgin will also run the 10,000 at the trials. She achieved the trials qualifying time but is a little under a minute shy of the Olympic standard.

"It's been awesome to see her progression over the past five years," said Durgin, who is also sponsored by Under Armour. "I try to view myself as being in her shoes four years ago. Look at her now. She's borderline one of the favorites to make the Olympic team."