James Cognata is back with Winthrop for his senior season of cross country. After COVID-19 impacted his junior season, he moved to Tennessee for the remainder of the school year so he could keep running competitively. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Winthrop’s James Cognata was sidelined for three weeks during the 2021 cross country season because he was a close contact to a positive COVID-19 case while at school.

During those three weeks he couldn’t go to practice or school, and it threw him out of his rhythm, in running and life.

“It put a big mental dent on me,” Cognata said. “Everything I do is for this.”

Cognata finished the cross country season but didn’t perform as well as he wanted. Early in the season he ran a personal record of 17 minutes, 33.60 seconds at Maranacook, but at the Class C state meet he only got within 16 seconds of that time, 17:49, which gave him a 13th-place finish.

Soon after the state meet, Cognata, with his father, moved in with his older brother in Tennessee, where Cognata finished his junior year at Station Camp High School in Gallatin. 

Cognata ran indoor and outdoor track for Station Camp. He placed third in the 800-meter run at the Tennessee indoor track and field state meet, with a time of 2:01.25. In the spring, he took ninth in the 400-meter (50.05) at the Tennessee Secondary State Athletic Association state outdoor championships. 


“What I realized is that these athletes in the South, they never lost any seasons to COVID,” Cognata said. “They lost part of their cross country season, or something, but trained all the way through. Mentally, seeing all of them ahead of me, (I) pushed myself even harder. I knew I could get to where they were.”

Cognata enjoyed training and racing in Tennessee, and because of the state’s earlier start to the outdoor season, he was able to travel back to Maine for the summer and watch the Class C state track meet in person. It was there that he decided he wanted to move back to the Winthrop, where he had lived before and after a four-year stint in New Jersey from 2015-19.

“It revived something in me,” Cognata said. “We just figured, home is home. I did feel bad for leaving, but now that I’m back, I want nothing more than to do well. We’re looking forward to the season, and I am thrilled, honestly. The team has doubled in size and the track program is helping it, it’s thriving. It feels great to be back and to have a community in the track life.”

Soon before he moved back to Maine — the first time — in 2019, Cognata set New Jersey state records at the USA Track and Field Junior Olympic state championships in the 800 and 1,500. A few months later, at the USATF Maine Youth Outdoor Championships, he set a state record for the 13-14 age range in the 400 and finished first in the 200.

He capped his freshman cross country season with a sixth-place finish at the state meet. The state meet was canceled, due to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. However, in his sophomore season of outdoor track, he won Class C state titles in the 200 and the 400 and was chosen as the Sun Journal’s All-Region Boys Outdoor Track Athlete of the Year.

Winthrop cross country coach Ed Van Tassel understood by Cognata left Maine. He’s also excited to have the senior back on the team. 


“(Tennessee had) the flexibility to do that and they were looking for more consistency, and they felt like it would be a more known commodity,” Van Tassel said. “In Maine, there were more chances for stoppages. It put a much different spin on the team perspective this past spring. We had a very good core, and we added to that, and so obviously James takes away from that and lowers expectations. The team still ended up second in the conference.

“I had no idea what to expect for the summer or the fall, but, obviously, getting the word he’s coming back, we were all very excited. He brings a lot of energy to the team. He loves the sport, is a super hard worker, and has a natural ability, as well. He’s super energetic, which is helpful for everyone.”

Cognata and Van Tassel are optimistic about the fall season, and a big reason for that optimism is Cognata’s work ethic.

“He likes to work a lot,” Van Tassel said of Cognata. “I feel like my role sometimes as the coach is to hold the reins back a bit. It’s always nice to have athletes like that. You can sit back as a coach and see the bigger picture. He spent his summer racing a lot. We’re going to take a little bit of a different approach with him this fall but he’ll be fine.”

Van Tassel said since Cognata ran so many miles in the summer, the plan for the cross country season is to develop a base in preparation for the indoor and outdoor track seasons.

Cognata’s dedication to running extends to his diet and workouts.


“Every morning when I wake up, my dad juices a whole bunch of different vegetables,” Cognata said. “Zucchini, kale, all those, to get the natural sugars and wake my body up. Then I’d go to practice, and at practice I’d have a protein shake with bananas, fruit, peanut butter and protein.

“Then I usually go to a gym and drink a lot of water. I’ve been doing something called Tabata. It’s a four-minute exercise, but it feels like an eternity. You go 20 seconds all-out on a machine, 10 seconds of rest, then 20 seconds all-out again. I also go on the elliptical for 25 minutes and put on a training mask to simulate a higher altitude. I also do a lot of core work. I usually hit the gym four times a week.”

Cognata wants to break the 17-minute mark this season, and is confident he will.

He is Winthrop’s only returning senior, and the Ramblers are looking to improve upon their third-place finish at the Mountain Valley Conference championship a year ago.

“The kids had a great summer,” Van Tassel said. “James should be right in the mix for podiums but I’m not going to throw a ton of pressure on him, we’re just going to let the natural progression happen. We might give up some immediate success this fall for the bigger fish to fry in the winter and spring.”

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