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In order to fully understand Rachel Schneider’s feeling of disappointment after failing to reach the 1,500-meter finals at the 2016 U.S. Olympic track and field trials, one must revisit the 2015 USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships. Schneider had signed her first professional running contract with Under Armour earlier that year and missed making the world championship team in the 1,500 meters as an alternate by just .01 seconds. Despite attending graduate school at Georgetown University and working several part-time jobs, Schneider had announced herself on the national stage as a talented post-collegiate runner ready to contend internationally. The natural next step, she figured, was the qualifying for Olympics.
“That’s how I kind of had success defined in my mind,” Schneider says.
It didn’t happen, and she left the 2016 trials upset not only with the result but by how it impacted her. Schneider was comparing herself to other runners and felt she had failed herself and her purpose. She had strayed from the real reason she runs, which is to bring the best out of herself. From that moment on, Schneider made it a point to work on her mentality to ensure that given the same opportunity, she would not make the same mistakes.
Last month, at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Oregon, Schneider, a Georgetown cross country and track and field alum, finished third in the women’s 5,000 meters with a time of 15 minutes and 29.56 seconds and qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. Schneider also reached the finals of the 10,000 meters, where she finished fifth. The top three finishers in each event qualify for the U.S. Olympic team. Schneider credits the feeling of running free and detached from results as one of the reasons for her success in Eugene.
“What happened in 2016 is like, I almost beat myself at the 2016 trials, because I just was so focused on a result, whereas 2021, like a couple of weeks ago, I had a lot of fun at the trials,” Schneider says. “I was like, I can’t wait to get to the track. This is the fun part. Like, here we go. And I was so nervous, but it was also like this expression of gratitude and joy and getting to just do what I love and focus on why I love it, rather than try to focus on someone else’s version of success or anything like that.”
Racing has always been the fun part for Schneider, who turns 30 on July 18. She was the New England champion in the 800 and 1,600 meters for St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Dover, New Hampshire, before heading to D.C. to run for the Hoyas. At Georgetown, Schneider was a nine-time All-American specializing in the middle distance events.
The pandemic took away the joy of racing against others. And when a few races began to sprout up around the country last summer as a way for elite runners to compete while the Olympics were postponed, an Achilles injury sidelined Schneider for several months. When she finally returned to racing in early December 2020, she entered the Sound Running Track Meet in California for her debut in the 10,000 meters. Not only did Schneider win with a time of 31:09.79, it was an Olympic standard time that made her one of the top ten fastest American women at that distance. While Schneider believes she would have been in contention to qualify for the Olympics in 2020, the extra year made her even stronger. At the Camel City Invitational in North Carolina in February, she won the 3,000 meters and followed it up 40 minutes later by winning the mile.
“I think it was a great practice in letting go,” she says of the time off from racing. “I love Buddhist philosophy, so to really get to practice the art of letting go and being detached from everything, it was a good practice for that.”
While Schneider now lives in Flagstaff, Arizona with her coach and fiancé, Mike Smith, and their three dogs, she first realized her Olympic dreams while residing in D.C. In interviews, Schneider describes her fondness for the District, where she lived for seven years. After finishing her undergrad degree in human science, Schneider attended Georgetown’s School of Continuing Studies to earn a master’s in sports industry management. At Georgetown, she ran with and against some of the top ranked women in the country. Emily Infeld, one of her close friends and Georgetown teammates, placed 11th in the women’s 10,000 meters at the 2016 Rio Olympics and currently runs for the Nike Bowerman Track Club.
“It became kind of a dream and a more realistic dream in college, just knowing that some of my training partners and some of the women I get to work with are doing it,” Schneider says. “I think my own personal Olympic dream really fed off of what I was watching some of my teammates and my peers do the last couple [Olympic] cycles.”
During graduate school, Schneider had several part-time jobs, including working at Georgetown Running Company on M Street NW, tutoring, nannying, dog sitting, and doing lab data work for a professor. While working a shift at the running store in 2015, Schneider recalls that Under Armour representatives, including former CEO Kevin Plank, walked in to scope out the store. At that time, Under Armour was just getting into the elite running market. That serendipitous meeting led to her first professional sponsorship.
“That first contract was super, super small, but it was like, to me, it was the best thing, like I couldn’t believe I was getting free gear and making a little bit of money from running,” Schneider says.
She stayed with Under Armour until right before the Olympic trials last month. The advent of “super spikes” made with highly responsive materials means that some professional runners are re-considering their sponsorships to keep up with the technology. Schneider ended up finalizing a deal with Hoka One One within the first couple days of the trials after testing out their new spikes a few weeks prior. Living in Flagstaff also affords Schneider the opportunity to train with pro runners that aren’t with the same sponsor or technically on the same team. Her main training partners leading up to Tokyo have been Sara Hall, Diane Nukuri, and Colin Schultz. Schneider also sometimes runs with the Under Armour-sponsored Dark Sky Distance team that her agent, Stephen Haas, and Shayla Houlihan coach.
“It was a little stressful, to be honest,” Schneider says of the process of switching sponsors so close to the trials. “Probably about two months before the trials, my agent and Under Armour were having some conversations about the shift in footwear and these super spikes that are kind of making a noticeable difference in performances on the track. And a lot of us who were with Under Armour have been working for this moment for a while, and they were really gracious in knowing that we didn’t have our own version of a super spike yet … They kinda gave us the option to either freeze our contracts and wear whatever we wanted to wear and run unattached or to be free agents and to sign with another company, if we thought that was in our best interest.”
The temperature during the women’s 5,000 meters final at the Olympic trials reached 94 degrees, according to the NBC broadcast, and the runners could be seen walking onto the track wearing ice vests. Schneider and Smith had prepared for the heat. In the weeks leading up to the trials, she did four sessions of sauna training where she spent 10 to 30 minutes inside a sauna. She also did shakeout runs while wearing winter clothes to get acclimated to the heat. “Tights and jackets, it was really miserable,” Schneider says.
But it prepared her for the race, which started conservative before Elise Cranny and Karissa Schweizer picked up the pace with about three laps to go to finish first and second, respectively. Heading into the final lap, Schneider used her middle distance strength to stay with the leaders and saved up just enough energy to finish in third and hug both Cranny and Schweizer before starting to feel the effects of heat exhaustion. She calls crossing the finish line that day “totally overwhelming.”
Schneider will leave for Tokyo on July 25, and she sees herself making the final in the 5,000 meters at the Olympics. When she returns, Schneider will continue planning for her September wedding—she got engaged to Smith last December—and studying for her online master’s program in clinical mental health counseling at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. She still had to file homework assignments during the trials.
Schneider finds joy in all of it, and her life philosophy can be summed up with the tattoo she got on her upper right hip in early 2017: “Never let fear decide fate.” Above the quote is an incomplete Buddhist Ensō circle. It symbolizes, Schneider explains, the “beauty of imperfection,” and the moment “when the mind is free to let the body create.”