Maria Michta – Never Say Die
When MRI scans in April revealed that Maria Michta had injured her anterior tibialis at the top of her left foot, her plan to compete in the Olympic trials July 1 and qualify to represent the U.S. in London this summer almost came to a screeching halt.
But her dream to be an Olympian is what kept the race walker going, even if that meant withdrawing from the Russian World Cup in May. Sixteen years ago, when she watched the games for the first time, Michta knew she wanted to compete in the Olympics one day—and she wasn’t going to let this minor injury stop her.
“That’s kind of scary when I think back and how close it came to not happening,” the 26-year-old says. “But every day it was the determination that I’ve come this far, I’m not going to let it go. I’m going to give it my all.”
After rigorous cross-training in the pool, Michta was back to race walking by the middle of May. She went on to the trials in Oregon with no complications, and is now ready to take this opportunity and go with it.
“It’s been a dream since I was a little girl at the age of 10,” Michta says. “I’ve finally made that dream come true after all these years of training hard and striving for that. It’s just unbelievable to actually have achieved it.”
Michta started race walking on the track team at Sachem High School when she was 14. The sport requires both feet to be on the ground at all times and prohibits walkers from bending their front knees. Michta says the technique came naturally to her, and within her first year she made it to the high school nationals.
“She’s always been very serious, very focused,” says Pete McNeill, one of Michta’s high school coaches. He says Michta began expressing interest in making an Olympic team her junior year, but “knowing Maria, it wasn’t so much of a dream. It was a plan.”
Since then, she’s competed in 11 different countries and earned countless titles—she’s a three-time U.S. champion in the outdoor 20-kilometer race (which she’ll be competing in this year) and the indoor 3,000-meter race.
She’s won national titles in the 15- and 40-kilometer races, and she also received silver and bronze medals in the U.S. junior outdoor 10-kilometer race.
“I’ve seen her grow up,” says Tim Seaman, a former Olympic race walker who grew up in Babylon and has been Michta’s coach since 2009. “It’s been great to see that progression.”
But to be an Olympian means to train like an Olympian, and even though race walking comes naturally to Michta, she insists it’s not easy by any means—physically, academically or socially.
“It’s been a long road and it hasn’t been easy,” she says.
Michta trains between one to two hours a day. In the past she’s had many injuries, the most recent being hamstring issues before her foot injury. She took a leave of absence from her graduate studies at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan, where she’s working on her PhD in biomedical science, to focus on training. She had to miss both her high school and college graduations to compete in races, and she had to record her valedictorian speech for the C.W. Post Class of 2008.
The days leading up to Michta’s London-bound flight have been anything but dull. Members of her community, along with Suffolk County Legis. John M. Kennedy (R-Nesconset), have held numerous fund drives to raise money to help pay for her family’s expensive trip overseas so they can watch her compete. Just one week before her departure, a storm knocked down electrical wires and set fire to two of her family’s cars. And with all that going on, last Sunday her high school sweetheart and boyfriend of 10 years proposed.
The training, the injuries, the support, the risks—that is what keeps Michta walking.
“I thrive under pressure, I thrive under time management and having to crunch and cram things in,” she says. “It’s all those moments that you miss that when it happens and I walk out there…at the opening ceremonies, that that’s where it’s all worth it.”