Apr. 11—For almost everyone, the pandemic lockdown last year was no fun.
Certainly, UMass Lowell senior Jenna Solimine of Haverhill would agree with that.
But Solimine, like others, decided to use the extra time to her benefit, and the result has been impressive.
A solid if not spectacular Division 1 runner in both cross country and track, Solimine was determined to not only continue her training while competitive sports were shut down in March of last year, but to enhance it.
"I didn't let up my training during the pandemic," said Solimine. "It was a good time to get back to consistent hard training.
"I did a lot of the training by myself and probably ran more than usual. I kind of enjoyed it. It made me appreciate why I like running."
When Solimine returned to UMass Lowell in September, she was in excellent shape. And while there was no competition in the fall, veteran coach Gary Gardner took notice.
"Most of that work she did was on her own from March until she was able to return to practice in September and she returned as a completely different athlete," said Gardner.
"She did a phenomenal job over the past 12 months of really taking her running to the next level. Jenna is running better than she ever has."
With no fall competition, Solimine's improvement wasn't completely apparent. But when cross country meets began in February, it was obvious.
While previously she wasn't always even a scorer, she became a solid No. 4 runner for the River Hawks, who became one of the top cross country teams in the East.
It all came to a peak at the America East championships at the Seaview Country Club in New Jersey on March 5. Despite running into a stiff wind for half the race, Solimine finished 10th overall with a personal-best 5K cross country time of 18:19.25.
Solimine's strong finish helped the River Hawks capture the league title, marking the first time a UMass Lowell women's team had won a championship since becoming Division 1 in 2013.
"I could have gone faster if it weren't for the wind, but it was still really exciting," said Solimine.
Then, jumping right into track, Solimine shined at a dual meet against UNH, running a PR 17:34.45 for 5,000 meters and ran a solid 17:35.8 in the same event at the George Mason Invitational.
"I'm in good shape but the first track meet was a shock to the system coming right after cross country," said Solimine. "But, after last year, I'm just excited to have a track season.
"I'm hoping to keep improving. Gary (Gardner) wants me to hit 17:10 in the 5K and if he thinks you can do something, you usually can. And I'd like to break 5 (minutes) in the mile."
And, if Solimine doesn't hit those marks — and others — this spring, there is always next year. She has a year of eligibility left in both cross country and track and she plans on using them as she pursues a master's degree in business.
By the time she's through, there's no doubt that there will be fewer references to older sister Jackie, who set various records at UMass Lowell and was a 5,000 and 10,000-meter America East champ.
"Obviously, Jackie had a great career at UMass Lowell, but Jenna has never let that interfere with her time on the team and certainly has blazed her own path," said Gardner.
The third Solimine
Following sisters Julie (Providence) and Jackie (UMass Lowell), who had great careers at Haverhill High and then in college, wasn't always easy, but Jenna Solimine has benefited.
"It was tougher in high school. Some people expected me to be just like Julie and Jackie . But I've always gotten a lot of support, too," said Jenna. "And it hasn't been a real concern in college except the first day when some people thought I was Jackie.
"It's actually been good. I look up to Jackie. She's my biggest inspiration. And I can always say to her that I'm part of something she wasn't, on the first (Division 1) championship team."
Jenna's best times
1,500 — 4:56.26
Mile — 5:09.40
3,000 — 10:24.19
5,000 — 17:34.45
5K (XC) — 18:19.25
"Most of that work she did was on her own from March until she was able to return to practice in September and she returned as a completely different athlete."
UMass Lowell coach Gary Gardner