Sports Women's Sports

Emily Racana rediscovers love of track and field, finds joy in competing again

By Samantha Paul

The official makes a mark on her clipboard, flips to the next page and nods. “Emily is up.”

Emily Racana is up to compete at Springfield College’s outdoor track and field team’s senior day — but not at her main event of pole vault, where she is one of the program’s top athletes. Racana is instead staring down the high jump mat, an event that she’s never competed in her career.

Racana is significantly shorter than the other high jumpers competing, and of the starting marks on the track, hers is by far the closest to the mat. But, this event is just for fun. Her whole season is, really.

Racana runs her short approach, turning her body as she jumps off her left foot. She uses her arms to propel herself upwards and over the bar – which stays perfectly in place on the standards. Nearly a dozen teammates standing next to the high jump area immediately leave their feet and burst into cheers, letting Racana know she has cleared the height before she even hits the mat on the other side.

She stands on the high jump mat with a look of pure surprise on her face, accompanied by a wide smile.

These are exactly the kind of moments that Racana is after. As a senior, competing in her last track and field season, she wants to leave the Springfield program with no regrets.

“I’m not righting the wrongs, but trying to have good experiences through every meet at least, because last season came with a lot of negativity,” Racana said. “Being able to go and have some type of positive memory, whether I perform well or not, is kind of what I’m going for.”

Racana’s journey with track and field has been anything but linear. She started her athletic career in gymnastics, and after a few years of competing, one of her teammates suggested she try her hand at a different kind of vaulting.

“They say gymnastics and diving translate really well to pole vault. I didn’t believe it until the fear factor didn’t really play much of a role for me,” Racana said. “I just always liked doing sports, so it was something else to try.”

After competing as a dual-sport athlete during seventh and eighth grade, Racana focused her attention solely on track and field at Mohonasen High School in Rotterdam, N.Y. Clearing 11 feet, she placed second in her school’s all-time pole vault record book. Her success caught the attention of the Springfield College track and field coaches as well.

“We had a Section 2 meet here in high school. [Springfield’s] GA at the time reached out to me after I pole vaulted.… Coach [Mike] Miller was very open to being honest about the program and just answering any questions I had,” Racana said about her recruiting experience.

Racana fell in love with both the track and field and Physical Therapy programs at Springfield, and found herself on Alden Street in the fall of 2019. She had come off of a great final high school season that spring and was ready to challenge herself at the collegiate level.

Even with a new coach, a new atmosphere and new teammates, Racana was able to continue her momentum in the pole vault coming out of high school, which is not an easy feat for any college athlete. Her confidence was growing and as she cleared higher heights each meet, she qualified for the Division III New England Regional Meet during her first indoor track season.

However, her college experience quickly changed during her second semester, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March. Spring sports were canceled, students were sent home and no one was sure what was to come next.

Everything about socializing and academics looked different, but Racana took those struggles in stride.

“Sophomore year, we had an outdoor season, but it was all COVID,” she said. “There were no spectators, so it almost felt like practice every day, which for me, ended up working out great. I took it as very low stakes, pressure-wise.”

After sitting in a dorm room all day, with limited human contact and learning solely through a screen, the escape to an afternoon track and field practice made Racana appreciate the program so much more. Seeing her teammates and coaches and being able to continue an event that she was passionate about became a highlight in her routine.

“[Track] was something that was a little bit of an outlet,” she said. “I had always just done it to do it, then I was like, ‘Oh. I enjoy this.’”

Meets were even more rewarding as well, transitioning from small practice “pods” – where athletes were only able to practice with about five other teammates – to finally being around the full squad and competing in what was as close to a true meet environment as possible. It was at one of these meets during her sophomore year that Racana cleared 3.39 meters and entered the Springfield College record books as the outdoor pole vault record holder.

Having a lifetime personal best and smashing the school record, Racana was on top of the world. However, it was during her third year at Springfield College when she realized she was hitting a wall.

Between the indoor and outdoor seasons, track and field athletes typically practice and compete from the end of October until the end of May. Captains’ practices usually start even earlier in the school year.

Seven months straight of being in-season, year after year, compounded by the pandemic drastically changing Racana’s plans for her junior year meant that track and field was increasingly becoming less enjoyable and more of a stressor for Racana.

“I just could not find joy in it,” said Racana, reflecting on last year. “I think it’s just because I was burnt out.”

She made plans to study abroad in Italy during her spring semester junior year, but Racana’s trip was canceled due to rising COVID-19 cases. The only thing to do was return to pole vaulting, which meant another back-to-back indoor and outdoor track season stretch.

According to the NCAA, burnout is considered the final stage of a long breakdown process that occurs when athletes continue practicing and competing without sufficient recovery. Burnout is characterized by “the absence of motivation as well as complete mental and physical exhaustion.”

In a sport with such long seasons, and one so demanding of an athlete’s body – whether that be mental or physical – it is unfortunately quite common for track athletes to struggle with motivation.

Sophomore teammate Jillian Scott remembered her first season competing alongside Racana and saw how much outside factors were impacting her season. “Last year she was supposed to go abroad and so she wasn’t even going to be here for indoor and outdoor,” Scott said. “She was really only going to be there for the first meet, and I think she just wasn’t in the mindset to be there. It just became a tougher season overall too.”

Racana felt mentally unprepared to jump back into track and field, which ultimately contributed to her lack of wanting to be in the track environment. However, after she stepped into a larger leadership role her senior year, she began to realize that she needed to make the most of her time at Springfield College and change her outlook on the sport.

“Coming back this year knowing that’s kind of where I was, I took on a new light of looking at everything kind of differently,” Racana said. “Finding small little victories helps with the burnout and kind of realizing it’s my choice to do this. No one’s forcing me to do it.”

To her teammates and coaches who have been with her the past three years, it’s evident that there’s been a change in Racana’s attitude this season. In turn, she’s back to competing at the high level she’s used to, and the pole vault squad is closer than ever.

“I think she does have a tougher exterior,” Scott said. “Last year coming in, obviously being a freshman and her being a couple of years older, that was already a little scarier, but I think this year, her being more in the mindset of having fun with track and not putting on a lot of pressure on it, I feel like I’ve been able to get to know her more.”

“I feel like this year she definitely likes track a lot more, just really trying to savor her last season,” said sophomore Ella Smith, a fellow pole-vaulter. “I feel like it’s been day and night since last year.”

Racana will be walking away from the program this spring, having learned a lot about herself, her potential and her own definition of success.

“There’s been a few hiccups and I didn’t always look at it that way,” she said. “Yes, I have been successful. As I’ve matured as a person and an adult, I realized it’s not all about numbers and it’s more about all the little things that come along with it.”

Photo Courtesy Trent Donohue

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