Maria Michta-Coffey thought her Olympic career was over, and she couldn’t have been any happier with the lifetime of memories and storytelling that she assumed would follow.
A 28th-place finish (upgraded from 29th because of the recent Russian doping scandal) in the race walk in the 2012 London Olympics was a perfect ending to a career that started as a freshman at Sachem High School.
It was a fitting culmination to all the years of hard work, missed high school and college graduations, and sweat lost during hot summer training sessions. Now, it was time for the second phase of her life — graduate school and a career in the sciences.
But, the walking bug never went away. Through long nights of studying, marriage to her high school sweetheart and current Sachem East track and field coach, Joe Coffey, and finding a job as an adjunct biology professor at Suffolk County Community College and teaching a walking course at Stony Brook University, the Nesconset native never stopped competing.
And now, a career that Michta-Coffey thought she left in London has a new chapter. She will be competing for Team USA in the 20-kilometer race walk in Rio on Friday, Aug. 19.
“In the four years since (London), I gained a lot of international racing experience,” Mitcha-Coffey, 30, now of Farmingville said. “I think my goals are a little bit higher, but I’m trying to remember, not to compare this time to last time. Each Olympics is going to be special in its own way.”
Mitchta-Coffey, who holds six national race walking records, placed 20th at last year’s IAAF World Championships in Beijing, the highest international finish of her career. She hopes for similar results in Brazil.
“I would be really happy with a top-25 finish and I would be ecstatic with a top-20 finish,” she said. “It’s a big year. The women keep raising the bar in my field and that’s really exciting because you keep pushing yourself to be stronger and stronger.”
After winning at June’s Olympic qualifier in Oregon, Mitcha-Coffey has been training on Long Island. She bypassed a chance to attend a training camp in Texas, preferring familiarity of working out with her sisters, Kristie and Katie as well as athletes from the Sachem East High School track program.
“The high school girls at Sachem East have been phenomenal at stepping in and helping me at workouts,” Mitchta-Coffey, who assists the team during the school year, said. “My high school coach, Pete McNeill, still comes out for workouts . . . I knew I wouldn’t have that in Texas. It’s nice to stay in your comfort zone and use the resources you’ve already built up that got you to this point for as long as possible.”
But, unfortunately for some athletes, a different storyline has taken over the games -- the presence of Zika, a virus spread mostly by the bites of infected mosquitoes. The first confirmed Zika infections in Brazil were found in May 2015, according to the Center for Disease Control website.
While concerned about the virus, Michta-Coffey, who has a PhD in Biomedical Sciences from the Icahn School of Medicine in Mount Sinai and will be teaching Biology at her alma mater, LIU-Post, in the fall, said she never considered not going to the games. As someone in the science field, she has done her research, understands the risks, and made the decision that both her and her husband, despite the desire to start a family in the near future, would travel down to the controversial games.
“We weighed the pros and the cons,” she said. “ . . . If you become infected, the CDC recommends that, if you’re male, to wait six months to try to conceive and, if you’re female, to wait two months. My husband and I looked at that and said ‘you’ve been training for four years for this, we do want to start a family, but we’re willing to wait six months to be able to.’ It’s an experience that we’ve earned together.”
Did you know?
Long Island’s Al Oerter was the first track and field athlete to win four Olympic gold medals in the same event. Oerter, a Sewanhaka High School graduate, won gold in the discus in 1956, ’60, ’64 and 1968.