James Olivier was a good high school track and field athlete, not a great one. He wasn’t a prized college recruit. He wasn’t a conference champion — nor was he even a conference finalist.

So it made sense that Olivier stood on a track in Miramar, Florida on Sunday with his hands clasped to his face and bewilderment in his expression, as shocked as anyone in the moments after becoming a national champion.

Olivier, a Cony graduate from Augusta and University of Maine athlete, earned the title by winning the 800-meter run at the USA Track and Field Under-20 Championships, holding off five other runners to take first place at 1:50.67.

Olivier was only seeded fourth in the preliminaries. But after hanging tight with the pack through the first lap around the track, he made a move to the front on the second, then had a finishing kick to hold off the rest of the competitors.

When I crossed the line, it was just raw emotion,” Olivier said. “I was just so surprised. I’ve done a lot of work to put myself in a position where something like this could happen, but I truly didn’t believe it was going to happen.”

Olivier’s coach at Cony, Jon Millett, said he was proud to see one of his athletes reach such heights.

“It’s always gratifying to see a student go on and do well for themselves,” he said. “The success that James has had … that success is based on his individual hard work and effort.”

With the win, Olivier earned a spot on Team USA, and will represent the United States at the Pan-American U20 Championships in Costa Rica, which run from July 18-21.

“I had been looking up Team USA gear, saying ‘Man, I just want to wear one of those things,’ but now I’ve earned one,” he said. “It’s so surreal.”

And entirely unforeseen. Olivier wasn’t a star in high school. At Cony, he was decent — sixth place in the 400 in the Class B meet his senior year, ninth in the 300 hurdles in Class A his junior year — but not a standout. He only ran the 800 as part of a relay. Track wasn’t even his main sport. Soccer was.

I really never cared enough,” Olivier said. “I just kind of never took the time to run the 800 in high school, and my coaches never put me in it because I was doing fine in the 400, or it just never seemed like something that needed to happen.”

“James was a good teammate, and he ran the events that would help the team overall be better,” Millett said. “He was so dominant in the 300-meter hurdles, that’s where we gravitated towards.”

In the winter of his senior season, Olivier, who was planning on attending UMaine, struck up a conversation with coach Mark Lech and asked if there could be a spot for him on the roster. Lech liked the combination of Olivier’s 400 speed and 6-foot-5, 150-pound build for the 800, but told him there was a caveat — he had to run cross country.

“It was way more running than I had ever done in my life,” Olivier said. “But I got through it, and I believe that that made me a much stronger runner.”

By the time the indoor season came around, the daily training Olivier was doing and the benefits of cross country had made their mark. In January, at an IC4A preliminary in Boston, Olivier posted a time of 1:50.16, breaking a UMaine record and securing a spot in the field for the USA Under-20 championships.

It all just kind of came together sporadically,” he said, “and I don’t really think anyone could have fully predicted that this was going to happen looking at me from the outside.”

And just as quickly as it came together, it started to unravel. A bone bruise on his foot sidelined Olivier, and his conditioning fell off while he was recuperating. He returned before the season ended, but missed out on a spot in the 800-meter final at the America East Championships by .003 seconds.

“It definitely was hard on me mentally,” he said. “Coming from breaking the school record into not being able to race at all.”

And it’s why, when he showed up in Florida, Olivier wasn’t about to burden himself with expectations, even after a strong preliminary run. He didn’t even take his hat off for the race.

I came into the final with no expectations of myself, other than ‘we’re going to have fun today,’ ” he said. ” ‘I don’t think I’m going to win, so I might as well have fun.’ “

But then the race began, and Olivier realized he had a chance. He started slow, but kept pace with the pack. By the first turn of the second lap, he was picking up speed and even with the leaders.

At that point I was thinking ‘If I could just crack top six, I get a medal just for being here,’ ” he said.

He backed off a bit in the back straightaway, but saw top seed Bobby Poynter picking up speed to the outside. Knowing he couldn’t let Poynter box him in, Olivier put on a final kick — and this time, there was enough to take him to the finish line.

I was just trying to have fun, and I was able to perform at a high level without putting much thought into it,” he said. “I just kind of let my body do what it needed to do, and it worked out.”

Now everything’s on the table. A new member of Team USA, Olivier’s next stop is Costa Rica, and who knows what else after that. Olivier said the Olympics are a “reach goal,” but Sunday’s result suggests it’s not impossible.

It’s not something that I’m necessarily looking at right now, but it’s not something that I would say is completely out of the cards,” he said. “I still have to develop a lot as a runner. There’s a big gap between where I am now and where I’d need to be for an Olympic team.”

Still, who’d have thought he’d be able to have such goals?

“It’s definitely something that has completely caught me by surprise,” he said. “Great things are happening now.”


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