Kate Hall-Harnden does a jumping exercise at Momentum Performance and Wellness in Portland in mid-June, slightly more than four months after surgery on her left knee. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Kate Hall-Harnden has been training for years to earn a spot in the Tokyo Games this summer. Instead, she is resigned to watching the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials from her couch.

Hall-Harnden, one of the top women’s long jumpers in the nation, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee in January. The injury dashed her longtime goal of competing in the Olympics this summer, but not her determination to become an Olympian one day.

The U.S. Track and Field Trials wrap up Sunday in Eugene, Oregon. The 24-year-old Buxton resident admits it’s been tough to watch them from afar.

“I’ve been watching the trials every day and I will watch the long jump,” she said early last week. “I’m not sure if I should. But No. 1, I love the sport. And No. 2, watching it might motivate me to keep working hard to come back as soon as I possibly can. Watching it will be rough, but it will motivate me even more.”

Disappointment still washes over her in waves, she said. But ever the optimist, Hall-Harnden is focused on new athletic goals – and a new nonprofit venture – as she takes baby steps to rehabilitate her left knee.

“I don’t want to consider finishing up my career until I make the Olympics, whether that’s in three years – or the one after that. For me, that’s the goal. And another goal is to make the World Championships – hopefully consistently.”

The Casco native, despite being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes 14 years ago, owns a national high school record, two NCAA titles and a U.S. indoor long jump title.

In 2015, Hall-Harnden soared 22 feet, 5 inches to establish a national high school long jump record while competing for Lake Region High. The distance remains her best jump, and qualified her for the 2016 U.S. Olympic trials. An eight-time high school All-American, she went on to win two NCAA long jump championships before leaving the University of Georgia to turn pro in 2018 after her junior year. Then she won the U.S. women’s indoor long jump title in 2019.

Hall-Harnden placed 10th at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials as a 19-year-old, and she intended to use the experience to guide her to a top-three finish at the next Olympic Trials – and a berth on Team USA at the 2020 Summer Games. It was a goal she set in 2012 at age 15. 

Given how her training was going after returning to Maine in 2018 to work with former coach and trainer Chris Pribish, Hall-Harnden felt she was on track to do that.

“Based on how I was feeling in 2019 and in 2020 before COVID hit, I know I’d be right there,” she said.

Hall-Harnden’s recovery from ACL surgery is expected to take eight to 10 months – although one prominent orthopedic surgeon says it can take elite athletes two years before they return to full form. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The 2020 Tokyo Games were postponed for a year because of the coronavirus pandemic. By early this year, Hall-Harnden was preparing for her first competition since the pandemic hit. All that changed during a workout at her gym on Jan. 28.

While doing a jumping exercise from the floor onto a box 30 inches high, she hit the box with a bit too much force. It tipped, and she fell and landed badly, tearing her left ACL. It was not the knee she uses to launch into the air in the long jump, but the injury would preclude her from the Olympic trials.

Her surgery was in early February and she expects it will take until October to be back in full form. Experts say the recovery from ACL surgery takes anywhere from six to 12 months for elite athletes.

“I’d say 90 percent of athletes are able to get back to a high level pretty close to where they were before,” said Russel Warren, an orthopedic surgeon who has been a team doctor with the New York Giants for 40 years. “Though most of them will say it took time and they were better in the second year, rather than in the first.” 

Pribish, Hall-Harnden’s coach and trainer who owns Momentum Performance and Wellness in South Portland and Portland, said she is on schedule to compete next winter, even though she’s still regaining mobility and strength in the left knee. Hall-Harnden’s short-term goal is to make the U.S. team heading to the 2022 Indoor World Championships.

“At the 10-month point she will be back at a very high level of competition if things continue as planned,” Pribish said. “I’ve rehabbed many ACL injuries over the years – and worked with ACL athletes of all different sports. Rehab is relatively the same – you’re still working on common goals of pain control, range of motion, gait, and strength.”

At the end of 2020, Hall-Harnden was ranked second in the U.S. in the long jump based on her indoor mark of 21-11.5 before the pandemic shut meets down. But heading into the U.S. trials this month, the top three best jumps by American women were over 22-7 – and Hall-Harnden’s 2020 mark put her 11th, according to Track & Field News.

However, jumpers typically jump farther in outdoor track because it follows the indoor season and the runways are better outdoors. Hall-Harnden said she was gearing up for a big outdoor season in 2020. The year before – her first as a pro – she jumped over 22 feet consistently for the first time.

If I had had more time, I probably would be right there. I was heading in that direction,” she said.

She and Pribish were encouraged by her progress, and they had been working on a new long jump approach when the pandemic hit.

Since 2017, the start of Hall-Harnden‘s approach to the long jump pit – called the “drive,” when she begins bounding in long, exaggerated strides before sprinting – was three steps. Last year, she started working on an eight-step drive that provided her with greater speed down the runway and power when she launched into the air from the long-jump board.

Trainer Chris Pribish works with Kate Hall-Harnden as she uses resistance bands to help rehab her left knee during a workout at Momentum Performance and Wellness in Portland on June 14. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“One of the biggest factors of a long jump is approach speed,” Pribish said. “You need high speed for very long jumps. She has it and we think we can get her to a greater velocity at the board with a bit more approach distance and utilizing her strong drive phase.”

After her injury, Hall-Harnden found another positive outlet with help from her training partner, Kendall Spencer, an attorney who moved to Portland in 2020 to train under Pribish.

When Spencer – a former NCAA long jump champion – asked her what she was going to do after her track career ended, Hall-Harnden was forced to think beyond her injury.

“A week after surgery I went to her parents’ house to check on her,” said Spencer, 29. “And I looked her in the eye and said, ‘Something needs to come out of this injury other than you bouncing back and making the U.S. team.'”

Hall-Harnden went home and talked with her husband, Tyler Harnden, whom she married in October. That evening, she called back Spencer, who has a brother with diabetes and wanted to help.

The result is the DiaStrong Foundation, a nonprofit started by the Harndens to help people with diabetes live healthier, more active lives.

The disease has always played an integral role in Hall-Harnden’s track career, as she has to check her blood-sugar levels during competition and practice. During a training session two weeks ago, she stopped to check her glucose monitor a few times. At one point, she ate a glucose tablet to bring her blood sugar level up.

Hall-Harnden also has long been an advocate for people with diabetes – testifying before Congress and giving motivational speeches around the country for Omnipod, the company that makes her insulin pump.

Two months ago, the DiaStrong Foundation attained 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. It will host two camps this summer – one for athletes with diabetes and one for those with diabetes who seek greater fitness.

Hall-Harnden said her work with DiaStrong fills her days – and provides her with a more positive outlook during her rehabilitation.

“When I first got injured, I was very, very upset,” Hall-Harnden said. “If I was struggling with the injury and had a bad week, I would remember I was not competing, and it would get hard. But then it would get better.

“Overall I’m in a good space in my head now with the foundation. I believe everything happens for a good reason. The foundation is definitely helping me this week, and will help me through the (Olympic) trials.

“It’s going to be harder when the Olympics are going on. But that’s OK. I can acknowledge it will be a struggle. But I’m in a good place.”

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