Mackenzie Condon of Edgartown runs faster, and jumps higher and further than most people in our known universe.
The 2019 graduate of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS), a local, regional, and state track champion and ranked 11th nationally in the heptathlon, will matriculate at Harvard University this month.
Her athletic achievements are singular and record-setting at her high school and statewide. Her academic achievement and community involvement led to a choir of top-flight schools yelling “Pick me! Pick me!” over the last two years.
But here’s the thing: the kid never ran track, nor intended to, before high school.
“I was playing field hockey as a freshman and broke my hand. I also wanted to play lacrosse but the broken hand made that impossible. Winter track was the only option left. You can run with a broken hand,” she said with a grin at a recent sitdown with The Times.
“I honestly don’t know why I stayed with track for the following spring season but I remember that Joe [Schroeder], saw something in me and promised to work with me and help me achieve whatever goals I set,” Condon said.
Now Joe Schroeder, longtime MVRHS track coach, is a bit of a mystic about seeing greatness in kids, a talent that has served him well in a 32-year career sculpting state championship teams and individuals while operating with fewer resources than your average elementary school playground and without whining about it.
If you look at the literature around the making of elite athletes, from the role of the brain to winning techniques, the answers seem to be that we know more about what works than we do why they work. A report published by MacMillan on elite athletes’ brains, written by three international brain and neural experts, posited some theoretical ideas about the brain and neurons and athleticism, but their specific findings agreed with those qualities of greatness expounded by top-quality sweat mills favored by top athletes.
Both the academic and the pragmatic studies found that the skills unrelated to physical talent that separates good from best are: heightened focus, repetition (practice), determination, and a sense of accountability to themselves and to their sport.
Those are important qualities in track where success is generally defined in small incremental improvement over time, generally in tenths of seconds. Condon, however, used those qualities to improve by two full seconds within a season in several speed events in her career.
Planning and practice is also important. For example, Condon knew she wasn’t a champion shot putter or javelin queen, nor likely to be, but she also knew that to win the pentathlons and heptathlons she wanted to win, she needed to get as good as she could be. Practice, practice, practice… and voila, back-to-back state pentathlon wins and 11th in the nation in the heptathlon this year. Nothing to it.
Johnny Sain, Major League Baseball’s greatest pitching coach, once told a whining rookie: “Son, the world doesn’t care about the labor pains. It just wants to see the baby.” True. We aren’t there after dark when athletes are putting in the post-practice time, nor do we want to be there. We want to be there when the bright lights come on in the arena.
That’s a truth Condon learned in her senior year when protracting Lyme disease caused her to miss school and to come under criticism from some of her peers about missing school while often working at track. If you’ve had Lyme, you know it’s a window of opportunity virus. You have times when walking across the street is a challenge followed by remission, followed by… well, you get it.
“People are confused about Lyme. One day Mrs. Fairchild (MVRHS teacher Leigh Fairchild-Coppoletti) told me that other people can’t make us feel inferior. We do that. I’m learning that thanks to her advice,” Condon said.
So, it looks today like Condon was a person with the head and heart skills in search of a sport; that she had the intangibles that separate the elites from the very-goods. You do have to have the physical talent and the speedy neural pathways from brain to muscles. Plus, Condon was a top-notch state gymnast as a pre-teen. She’d have probably been good at most sports she tried. But track showed up with a nurturing, successful culture and she went with it.
In our conversation, Condon referenced senior team leaders, particularly 2017 team captain Livy Smith, whom Condon credits with helping prepare her head to handle success.
Schroeder agreed. “Livy was a powerful mentor and guide,” he said, adding “the word ‘potential’ is an overused word in sports but Mackenzie really can create her own success by who she is. She has a great future because of those qualities you referenced. She always thinks she can get better and never, ever backs down from a challenge. She always wants to compete and be around the best because she knows that environment will make her better,” he said.
The Times freelance reporter Jack Shea sat down with Condon to discuss track and life.
Are you able to see yourself now compared with the person who entered high school four years ago? Who is Mackenzie Condon today? Is she the person you imagined becoming?
Condon: Definitely I’m better than I was. Track changed me for the better. I always tried hard but I didn’t know, for example, that you didn’t have to be always stressed out and that messing up really meant there was something to be learned. I learned to change [poor outcomes] into something good. I’m not enamored of instant gratification. I like track for that reason. Like Steve Jobs said, “You can’t connect the dots going forward. You can only connect them looking backwards.”
Have you always been this focussed or has the discipline and your achievements helped you to focus and plan? Is track a good developer of character for life, for the long haul?
Condon: (laughs) I don’t know if working in the restaurant biz and running the 800-meters makes the world a better place, but I had to learn if you want to do a lot of things, coaches are necessary. If I set a goal, they prepare me to focus, they put me in the right places. Joe [and] Joel Graves found ways to let me succeed.
What are your life plans/Harvard study, etc? Where does track fit in?
Condon: I applied as an English major (Condon edited her high school The View paper and freelanced for The Times throughout school), but I have an open mind. I’m finding other things I like all the time. My parents get a kick out of seeing what new ideas I come home with. We haven’t figured out what events I will do at Harvard but probably speed events.
Are you over the pre-race jitters? How do you stay right-sized?
Condon: I’m nervous and excited every time. Livy Smith (2017 team captain) taught me to always be nervous and to be grateful for the jitters. She opened my eyes about so much. It’s easy to stay rightsized when you see the competition, to show up without a complacent attitude.
What will the MVRHS athletes take from watching you over the years?
Condon: Livy made a lasting impression on me. She taught me how to carry myself and why you work hard and I don’t know if she’s even aware of that, so I don’t know what, if anything, they’ll want to take away. Sports are bigger than what happens on the field.
I would tell them to keep showing up like Des Linden (2018 women’s Boston Marathon winner). She kept showing up until she won Boston.