Maine native Kate Hall-Harnden inspires a new generation of long jumpers

May 20—STANDISH — Kate Hall-Harnden looked serious as she stood in tights and a bulky peach hoodie Wednesday at the track outside Bonny Eagle High. She braced herself against the cold wind and turned off the occasional beeping from the cell phone that monitors her blood sugar.

Then, as another sound caught her attention, she turned to see a boisterous pack of teenage girls jog past. Hall-Harnden answered their calls with a short wave. When several members of the school's track and field team gave her goofy, exaggerated waves back, Hall-Harnden broke into a grin that made her expression soften and her eyes squint.

This is her new happy place, in this young, tight-knit track community where Hall-Harnden now serves as a part-time coach working with long jumpers. It couldn't have come at a better time for the 26-year-old professional athlete, who first made headlines as a teenager from Casco who starred in track and field as a Type-1 diabetic. Hall-Harnden went on to success as a college athlete and then by winning a U.S. long jump championship as a pro in 2019, only to suffer injury setbacks in the years to follow.

In February at the U.S. Indoor Championships in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Hall-Harnden tore her left meniscus, nearly two years after she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee. After flying home in pain from the national championships, she suddenly had to consider surgery again — either to repair the torn meniscus or have it completely removed, an option that would get her back to training quicker but also risk arthritis later in life. She chose to have it removed.

Three days after the injury, Hall-Harnden showed up on crutches at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham to work with her high school jumpers as they competed at the Class A indoor championships. She sat on a bench by the long jump pit with her swollen leg elevated, a pair of crutches beside her. She couldn't walk, but she could still coach.

When Bonny Eagle sophomore Julia Pendleton won the long jump, it gave Hall-Harnden a much-needed lift.

"It was three days after I tore my meniscus. I was in a lot of pain and they all said, 'Don't worry about going to the state championships.'" Hall-Harnden said. "I said, 'Well, I'm either going to be sitting at home in pain or at the meet in pain, so I'm going to the meet and coaching you guys because I'll just be miserable at home.' That was when Julia ended up winning the state title. So that was pretty cool that I was able to be there for that."

The Olympics — either the 2024 Paris Games or 2028 in Los Angeles — are still on the radar for Hall-Harnden. Competing in outdoor meets later this outdoor season remains an option, but the U.S. Outdoor Championships in June are out of the question after her latest injury.

After two surgeries in two years, Hall-Harnden has pivoted mentally when it comes to her career as a pro athlete, working to get on top of her worry and fears and stay there. She's living more in the moment, and staying focused on what she can control.

"As far as looking ahead to major competitions, I'm really just taking things one day at a time," she said. "This has always served me the best throughout my high school, college and professional career and all of my injury recoveries. One day at a time of getting stronger, faster, and better — both physically and mentally — and we'll see where that takes me."

While competing for Lake Region High, Hall-Harnden was an eight-time high school All-American who won two national titles. In 2015, she jumped 22 feet, 5 inches to break the 39-year-old U.S. high school long jump record. Then she was a five-time All-American sprinter and jumper in college, first at Iowa State and then Georgia, winning two NCAA Division I titles before turning pro after her junior year. Eight months later, she won the U.S. indoor long jump title.

Enter the Bonny Eagle long jump squad. When Hall-Harnden started coaching with the team last fall, she feared they'd push back or drop out when faced with a new training regimen. Instead, Bonny Eagle girls' head coach Ryan Dyer said the six girls and three boys have bought in to her form of training — and every one has improved, some by as much as 2 feet.

This month, Pendleton won the long jump at the Glenn D. Loucks Memorial Track and Field Games in White Plains, New York, beating more than 30 other jumpers from across the Northeast with a jump of 17 feet, 7 1/4 inches, topping her previous outdoor best of 16-11.

"The girls, especially, connect really well with her," Dyer said. "Her coaching style is a little different. With her, there's a lot of weight training, there's more speed, the kids do sled pulls, they work on balance with their eyes closed. I think Kate has a really easy way of delivering her message, what she's trying to portray to them. It translates really well with our athletes."

Hall-Harnden didn't seek out the coaching position at Bonny Eagle, which she does three to four days a week around her training as a professional athlete.

After coaching for a few years at St. Joseph's College in Standish, she started working with athletes individually when asked. In the fall of 2021, Pendleton, who follows Hall-Harnden on Instagram, asked if she'd train her. Hall-Harnden said yes.

When Dyer found out — and knew his assistant jumps coach was planning to leave — he asked Hall-Harnden to join his staff as soon as the position opened. Hall-Harnden lives nearby in Buxton with her husband, Tyler Harnden.

"I have gotten several comments from other coaches who come over to me and say, 'How'd you pull that off?'" Dyer said.

Sophomore Devon Westberry wasn't certain at first about all the extra work Hall-Harndon required, but after improving 2 feet in both the long jump and triple jump, she's convinced it works.

"It's amazing," Westberry said. "I was so used to the way I did it before. She focuses on your personality, so what you do works for you. It's crazy how she can read you. When I saw the video of her record jump, it was insane. It was mind-blowing."

Sophomore Sephora Tshibungu described Hall-Harnden as calm and caring. She, too, has improved in the long jump from 10 feet to 12-7.

"She shows people the way," Tshibungu said.

Hall-Harnden said her approach to coaching is different from some. She prefers the relationship between coach and athlete to be more of a team approach, letting them decide how to change their technique.

"She's incredible. I was a little nervous when she started working with us. But she's so personable," said junior Brandt Abbott, who has improved from 17-11 to 20-4 in the long jump under Hall-Harnden's coaching.

Like a lot of professional athletes today, Hall-Harnden shares her struggles on social media. Lately, she's focused more on how embracing disappointment, even fear, has made her stronger and tougher mentally.

On Wednesday, she wrote: "When you open up about your struggles, you allow others to feel comfortable enough to open up about theirs because they feel like they have someone they can relate to. I used to ONLY want to portray a perfect image of myself and my t1d management... It was only when I shared my true struggles that I realized THAT is what helps people the most because finally they feel like they're not alone."

She brings this same transparency and vulnerability to coaching. Where it will lead, she's not sure. Hall-Harnden never considered being a high school coach before.

"I absolutely love it. It's been so much fun seeing the athletes improve and become more motivated," she said. "The whole culture of the group has changed since the fall and it brings me a lot of happiness, because they're happy."