Nesconset's Michta a champion race walker
John JeansonneJohn Jeansonne
Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since
In this place where cars and commuter trains rule, Nesconset's Maria Michta is attempting to demonstrate that she can reach her destination simply by walking.
Hers is not some strolling, lollygagging pedestrian journey. Michta (pronounced MISH-ta) is America's top-ranked female race walker at 20 kilometers (12.4 miles). If she can win that event at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., on July 1, she will be on her way to this summer's London Olympics.
Such a lofty accomplishment somehow suggests an alignment of stars. Michta's birth date -- she will be 26 Saturday-- coincides with both the little-known annual celebration of "International Olympic Day" and the anniversary of Title IX, the 1972 federal law that prohibited sex discrimination in public schools and facilitated a boom in girls' and women's sports participation.
Also, proof that a Long Islander can motor all the way to the Olympics in race walking exists with Michta's coach, North Babylon product Tim Seaman. He competed in the Olympic men's 20k walks in 2000 (he placed 40th) and 2004 (20th)
Seaman has lived for years in San Diego, "but he would come back every now and then to see his family," Michta said, "and he did a clinic in Massapequa when I was a freshman at Sachem High School. I was, like, 'I met an Olympian!' "
She had been hooked on the Olympics, she said, from the time she watched the 1996 Atlanta Games on television. Her sport at the time was soccer, and her original firsthand knowledge of race walking didn't come until the summer before she started ninth grade.
She was running a four-mile race around Lake Ronkonkoma with her mother, Michta said, "when this guy passed me, and after the race, I told my mom, 'My gosh, did you see that guy? If only he worked on his biomechanics, he could be such a fast runner.' I had no idea he was race walking."
Months later, Michta tried out for the Sachem track team, where the procedure required all new members "to go from station to station, trying each event, to allow the coaches to see if you were good at something you didn't know about.
"Race walk was the thing I happened to have a natural talent for, and I really loved the group of girls that were doing it at the time. So I was like, 'All right, I'll do this.' "
She promptly made the U.S. national junior team (athletes 14 to 19) and was competing internationally -- in Germany, Peru, El Salvador -- and traveling with such senior stars as Seaman. She missed her Sachem and LIU Post (biology degree and valedictorian) graduations because she was away at competitions.
"She's the fastest female in America," Seaman said. "The trials are going to be a fight, but her technique is solid."
Twice the national champion in the 20k (and three times in the 30k, a non-Olympic event), Michta took a six-month internship at Brookhaven National Lab, where her father is a scientist, upon completing her undergraduate work. Then she enrolled at Manhattan's Mount Sinai School of Medicine to pursue a doctorate in microbiology.
She has an apartment in the city, near Mount Sinai, but is taking a six-month sabbatical from grad school to chase her Olympic hopes, so that "I'm living with my parents, or at my boyfriend's parents house in Farmingville."
She and Joe Coffey, who teaches at Sachem East High, have been dating since they met in high school 9 1/2 years ago, "so I have a second set of parents," she said. Both families will be in Eugene for the Trials.
Her mental state is "great," she said after a recent workout in the rain on Sachem's track. She's off to Eugene. Not ambling or sauntering.