Rachel Schneider celebrates after winning the women's USA Track & Field 1-Mile Road Championship at the Drake Relays athletics meet, Wednesday, April 21, 2021, in Des Moines, Iowa. Credit: Charlie Neibergall / AP

Rachel Schneider doesn’t often run with a smile on her face. That expression replaced by a grimace while she’s on the track is just one more sacrifice to the pursuit of excellence.

But the 29-year-old Sanford native — a newly qualified member of the U.S. Olympic track and field team in the women’s 5,000 meter run — considers her usual smile and the happiness it represents as critical to her athletic success.

“I believe in that so much,” Schneider said during a news conference from the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, after placing third in the 5,000 final on June 21 to earn her trip to the Tokyo Summer Games. “I think I’m so much a better runner and racer when I’m happy in life outside of running.”

That foundation for happiness since 2016 has been based in Flagstaff, Arizona, where she trains under the guidance of her fiance and longtime coach Mike Smith, also the director of cross country and track and field at Northern Arizona University.

The couple plans to marry this fall.

“He has been with me every single step of the way for almost the last 10 years,” said Schneider, who met Smith while she was running at Georgetown University. “Mike is the part of the reason I love this sport so much, and he’s been a huge part of my growth and development. It’s been a really amazing process and incredible journey full of highs and lows, and this is the biggest high.”

Schneider also stays busy with interests ranging from time spent with relatives who have moved to Flagstaff, pursuing a graduate degree online and volunteering for Big Brothers/Big Sisters.

“I think I’ve just created a life that’s filled with love outside the sport and that makes me really happy and allows me to be the best athlete I can be on the track,” she said.

Those smiles have been even more pronounced since Schneider qualified for the Olympics, with first-round heats in the 5,000 scheduled for July 30.

“To get to represent our country on the highest stage, the Olympics, is a huge honor and something I’ve worked so, so hard for in the last 15 years,” she said. “It feels like a dream come true and I’m really looking forward to training as hard as I can and doing the best I can on that stage.”

Schneider battled scorching temperatures at the Trials to gain her third-place finish in the 5,000, trailing only fellow Olympians Elise Cranny and Karissa Schweizer across the finish line in 15 minutes, 29.56 seconds.

“They’re two people that when they’re in the race I know that as long as I’m close to them and stick with them I’m probably going to have a real good performance,” she said.

Schneider also attempted to qualify for the Olympics in the 10,000 last Saturday but finished outside the top three in fifth place in just her second race at that distance.

“I tried to gradually move my way up and make contact with the leaders,” she said after that race. “That was probably with around seven laps to go and I was hurting pretty bad already and unfortunately kind of went into survival mode rather than [being] competitive. It’s always tough to feel like you’re just holding on at the end of a big race.”

Schneider’s 2021 Olympic Trials experience was far different from her early years in running, which involved shorter distances.

She began in middle school and went on to Saint Thomas Aquinas High School in Dover, New Hampshire, where as a senior in 2009 she won state championships in the 400 and 1600 and New England titles in the 800 and 1600.

Schneider was a multiple-time All-American at Georgetown before turning professional in 2015, not long before she moved with Smith to Flagstaff, Arizona.

Schneider qualified for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials and advanced to the 1500 meter semifinals but missed qualifying for the final by 1.5 seconds.

She gradually turned her attention toward longer distances and finished second in the 5,000 at the 2018 USA Track and Field Championships and 19th at the 2019 world championships in Doha, Qatar.

When the Tokyo Olympics were postponed last year, Schneider increased her training mileage, though an Achilles injury slowed her for nearly three months.

By early December she was ready to test herself again and ran a 10,000 meter race for the first time in San Juan Capistrano, California. Schneider not only won that event to qualify for the Olympic Trials, she eclipsed the Olympic standard of 31:25 by running a 31:09.79.

“I’m not sure if you told me in college that racing 10Ks was in my future that I would have believed you,” Schneider told Women’s Running magazine.

Schneider captured her first national championship this April, the USATF 1 mile road championship in Des Moines, Iowa. In May she lowered her personal best in the 5,000 by 14 seconds with a 14:52.04 clocking that helped her decide to run both the 5,000 and 10,000 at the Trials.

Schneider and Smith are now back in Flagstaff, planning their pre-Olympic schedule and  anticipating steps that may be required among Olympic athletes arriving in Tokyo to address the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think the COVID protocols are definitely going to be a unique part of these Games,” Schneider said. “It’s going to be a really strict protocol, based on in-team processing. I’m almost expecting that to be one of the more challenging things, just to check all the boxes to make sure you’re doing what you need to do to show up on that start line and avoid any contact tracing or anything that could pull you from the Games before you get to the start line.

“Then obviously the competition is going to be the best in the world, so I’ll be preparing myself for some really awesome competition.”

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...