GARDINER — She’s no longer a track star at Gardiner Area High School. Ashlyn Poulin, though, still draws plenty of attention at her old school — particularly that of the Tigers’ next race-walking phenom.

A freshman at Gardiner, Natalie Grant is in Jen Boudreau’s third-period honors algebra class. The focus is on algebra, but when Poulin, now a freshman at Southeastern University in Florida, had a big race, her former coach and current protégé found themselves glued to the competition.

“Natalie happened to be in class with me, and she and I were over at my desk watching,” said Boudreau, Gardiner’s eighth-year head coach. “When some of Ashlyn’s competitors got carded, we kind of looked at each other and cheered. She loves cheering her on.”

Grant, though, is no stranger to her own success on the track. After challenging Poulin’s records as a middle-schooler, she’s now the one leaving opponents in the dust for Gardiner as she looks to make a name for herself as the program’s next great in the event.

A natural runner, Grant was a standout for the middle school summer track team before she even got into race-walking. She needed another event to complement her running ones, though, and with throwing and jumping having little appeal to her, she decided to give the race walk a try.

It was an inauspicious start to the event for Grant, who loathed the race walk when she first began doing it. She decided months later, though, to give it another try, and within a year, she had broken Poulin’s middle school record in the event as only a sixth-grader.


“Ever since I picked it back up again, it’s been my thing,” Grant said. “I didn’t like it when I did that first 800 of it, but when I saw other people doing it, I kind of started seeing how much I really liked it. I started to have more of an open mind and wasn’t like, ‘I hate this’ or being so negative about it.”

Soon, it was a full-blown passion. Grant joined a race-walking club, the Maine Race Walkers, and got a private coach, Abby Smith, who was already coaching Poulin. She broke her own 1,500-meter record again last spring before finishing fourth in the 13-14 age group in USA Track & Field nationals in July. 

That success has only continued for Grant this spring. In Gardiner’s opening meet April 19 at Lawrence, she set a new personal record as she placed first with a time of 8 minutes, 27.30 seconds. She also finished first in the Tigers’ April 25 meet at Erskine Academy and in Thursday’s meet at Camden Hills.

Gardiner freshman race walker Natalie Grant does a one kilometer (five laps) repeat during her work out Tuesday in Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“I see so much maturity and focus in her, way more than most freshmen have when they’re in their training,” Boudreau said. “Even if she wins, she beats herself up if she doesn’t get the time that she wanted. You can just see it in the way she trains and how serious she is when she’s out here.”

There’s a form to race-walking that emerges from the event’s specific rules. When competing, race-walkers must maintain contact with the ground at all times. Whereas runners and sprinters keep their legs bent on contact to generate speed and power, race-walkers must have theirs straight.

That form, Smith said, is something that Grant has mastered. She’s worked significantly on her stride length, her arm placement relative to her hip and her hip rotation, things that her personal coach says are little things in the grand scheme of race-walking on their own but, together, can add up.


“I think the thing that stands out about Natalie is that she’s a thinker,” Smith said. “She’s very reflective, and she does a lot of exercises to strengthen certain muscles in her body to be able to be really efficient and work on those things that can give her an edge. … She’s one of the most dedicated and consistent athletes I have ever coached.”

Although Poulin’s time in high school didn’t overlap with Grant’s, the two know each other well. They trained together on occasion, particularly when Grant first got serious about race-walking and reached out to Smith. 

Now, the torch has been passed, and Grant is the one with her sights set on records and state championships. Poulin, who won Class B state titles in 2022 and 2023 and set the Class B championship meet record in her final meet for Gardiner last year with a time of 7:12.15, is excited to see what Grant can do.

“It’s amazing to watch her; she’s doing really, really well,” Poulin said. “I’m super impressed with how she’s doing so far. By the end of her senior year, I can definitely see her being close to my times, if not even faster. I’m excited for what the next three years bring for her.”

Grant won’t be alone in trying to set the track ablaze in the event for the Tigers. In addition to senior Abigail Fortin, who took fourth at states last year, there’s also a slew of promising Gardiner race-walkers in the middle school ranks, including Poulin’s younger brother, Ian.

It’s a sign of a strong race-walking future at Gardiner, one that Grant also sees across the state. Her age group is a strong one with some of her Maine Race Walkers teammates also set to push her in the years to come as she takes aim at becoming one of the state’s all-time greats in the event.

“I think you’re seeing a lot of freshman and sophomore girls around the state that all take a lot of pride in the race walk,” Grant said. “You think about the race walk, it’s an event where a lot of kids get put in to get points, so it’s really nice to be on that other side of it and take pride in it.”

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