NEVER GOING TO STOP
As she participated in the closing ceremonies of the Rio Summer Games last year, Micha Powell’s initial Olympics adventure was coming to an end.
Deep down, though, the Canadian who will soon wrap up her four-year career at Maryland knew things were really just beginning.
“That was the greatest part of the whole Olympic experience because I realized ‘Wow, you’re walking in front of millions and millions --- maybe eve billions --- of people’ and I was able to wear that jersey proudly and just know that friends were watching me,” Powell said. “I told myself at that moment ‘Oh, you’re going to make it in 2020 and you’re going to compete and you’re going to medal.’ I knew in that moment it was just a preview of what was to come.”
Powell was part of Canada’s 4x400 relay team in Rio, and the 400-meter has become her specialty as her college career progressed. Perhaps most remarkably, she’s accomplished what she has after only picking up the sport toward the end of her high school career.
A latecomer to the sport is one thing, but Powell’s family tree provided a clue she could be a natural. Her father, Michael Powell, is the world record-holder in the long jump. Her mother, Rosaline Edeh, was a collegiate runner.
As for Micha Powell? Her first love was tennis, a sport where one of her greatest weaknesses was a tendency to rush the net and sometimes run through it.
Then came a chance moment in 2012, when she was watching a 100-meter competition on TV and had an idea.
“I was watching it and said ‘Oh, I can do that,’” Powell said. “I don’t know what possessed me to go outside and tell my mom to time me, but something did.”
It seemed like something that was both fun and that she could be good at eventually, so she kept at it. Then came another random occurrence: Maryland track coach Andrew Valmon was at the University of Toronto’s track club on a recruiting trip.
Powell wasn’t on the Terrapins’ radar at the time, but the loquacious runner struck up a conversation and left with some business cards. When she returned home and asked her parents about Valmon, she learned he and her father (an American) were teammates at two Olympics.
“I was a sprinter at that point,” Powell said. “I really think if it wasn’t for them coming to that track club that day when I was there and I just went them and had a really good feeling. I’m one of those people, I just go off impulse. So why Maryland? I had a good vibe about coach Valmon. I knew their program was developing and I saw I could help improve this program with my joy and tenacity for learning.”
An offer would come later, since Powell was still in the nascent stages of figuring out the sport. But when she’d shaved considerable time off her 400 performance in a few months, Valmon knew he had a potential gem.
“We knew she had the drive and the structure and she looked determined,” Valmon said. “Once we figured out the gene pool, it was a no-brainer. Anyone from that lineage obviously had people around here. We took a risk, and really for us it wasn’t a risk. It was a good opportunity. Now that it’s come to fruition, she’s an Olympian, she’s one of our leaders.”
But could he have expected this much progress, so soon?
“I said it could happen because there was a lot going for her, and the two things that equal speed are stride rate and length,” Valmon said. “And she has levers. If you can figure out how to get those levers going, the sky’s the limit.”
The serious Olympic dreams began in 2015. By that point, Powell had qualified for the NCAA’s regional meet and already owned the third-best outdoor time in school history at 53.48 seconds.
Certainly, there was opportunity, with athletic scholarships few and far between in Canada to help support athletes. But it was clear there was ability to compete at a high level as well.
Then Powell, who spent her early childhood in Montreal and traveled frequently while growing up, participated in an international meet in Costa Rica and was enthused at the prospect of potentially seeing more of the world with the help of her talent.
“I think there was that sense of familiarity,” Powell said. “I wanted to be outside racing for my country and then because I had a little glimpse with that first international team, I thought ‘I could do this.’ I just had in the back of my head ‘I can go to the Olympics, I can make this a reality, even though most people who have run track for four years probably don’t say that.’ That’s always been my kind of spirit.”
She’s also found a way to perfect a balance between her running and her work as a journalism major. A little campus geography helps; the Kehoe Track Complex is located across a parking lot from the journalism building.
But in addition to occasionally taking video of teammates, the two priorities have blended together in other ways to help Powell thrive.
“At the Olympic trials, I was probably the only one writing essays and worrying about make the heat to go to Rio,” Powell said. “Going to the University of Maryland, especially in the journalism program, has made me realize deadlines are so important and you have to be able to manage stress. That’s helped me on the track, too, because when I come here I have to let go of everything and just worry about the workout. Then I go back to class and worry about class.”
She’s also the beginning of what Valmon hopes is a stable Canadian pipeline. When Maryland joined the Big Ten, he determined a sound strategy would be to take a more global approach to building his program, and Powell provides a significant early return.
Targeting Canada makes sense for Maryland. There are direct flights from Toronto to the D.C. area, making it close enough but not too close for an international student seeking a new experience.
Powell has since been joined by junior Alexandra Lucki, the team’s top miler, and freshman Dallyssa Huggins, who has seen success in both the 800 meters and throwing events this year.
“Because Canada is not a track country, we have to prove ourselves that much more,” Powell said. “We know when we get to the States, it’s go-time. We don’t settle. We know ‘I’m the underdog.’”
Powell didn’t have the chance to participate in the 400 as an individual event in Rio, but she still spent much of the summer soaking up the Olympic experience. She said she was the youngest member of the Canadian team, which arrived in Brazil more than three weeks before the Games.
After that thrill, it was back to Maryland for the fall semester and preparation for the indoor season. And rather than rest on an impressive accomplishment, Powell simply has worked harder and brought considerable energy to the rest of the program since her return.
“I love the way she’s handled the pressure,” Valmon said. “If there was a negative to coming from the Games, it’s that you’re always looking over your shoulder. It’s easier to hunt than be hunted. When she first started this, it was goal after goal after goal and expectations to be better, and now you’re at the top. Now what? What do you do when you come back to your college team, and how do you manage everything is going to be a challenge. She’s done a good job with that.”
In the Big Ten indoor meet, Powell finished second in the 400 and was part of a third-place 4x400 relay team. Earlier this month, she was third in the 400 at the conference outdoor meet.
Now comes another trip to the NCAA regionals, and a chance to qualify for the national meet for the second consecutive year as her college career comes to an end.
But as was the case last summer, things are only getting started for Powell. The chance to compete in the 400 in Tokyo in 2020 is a clear target as she continues to develop as an athlete.
“I came back and I think my goals got higher,” Powell said. “I’m really hard on myself, but it’s a good thing because I’m never going to stop running until I reach my goals.”
At A Glance
3x NCAA East Regional Qualifier (400m)
2016 NCAA Championship Qualifier (400m)
3rd-place Finish at 2017 Big Ten Championships (400 m)
2016 Canadian Olympic Team (4x400 relay)
School Record Holder
400m - 51.97
Sprint Medley Relay - 3:53.76
(Meneau, Baxter, Powell, Lucki)
400m - 52.56
500m - 1:12.46
4x400 Relay - 3:35.97
(Meneau, Cooper, Vopel, Powell)