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Isaiah Harris Blends In With The Crowd On Campus But Stands Out On The Track

Isaiah Harris may be easy to miss walking around campus. To most, he looks like an average college student, except maybe slightly taller and a little leaner. He carries a trademark Penn State athletic backpack from class to class, but for the most part, he blends in with the Penn State crowd.

What most people don’t know is that Isaiah Harris is a world class track and field athlete who recently signed a sponsorship deal with Nike. He specializes in the 800-meter distance and holds a personal best time of 1:44.4, which he ran as a professional over the summer. That’s the second fastest time of any American — collegiate or professional — in the 2018 season.

Harris has been a runner as long as he can remember, but the path he took to becoming elite was not straightforward. He started running around elementary school age, but mostly adopted the sport because his siblings did. They joined a local summer track program hosted in their town and, like most younger kids, Harris mostly stuck to short distance events.

While he enjoyed the competitive aspect track provided and the ability to spend time with his family, he was not instantly hooked. His preferred sport was still basketball.

His path diverged from running when he didn’t run for his school’s track team in middle school or his freshman year of high school. This lack of track (if you will) was partly due to a poorly-timed family vacation that made him ineligible, but he returned to the sport during his sophomore year of high school. He never let it interfere with basketball, which he continued to compete in during the winter season through his senior year.

When sophomore year came around, Harris had a decision to make. He had always grown up playing football in the fall, but he was now considering cross country as an option. It took a bribe from his godfather to sway his decision.

“He said to me that if I did cross country instead of football, he would help me out with a car,” he said. “I guess I couldn’t say no to that.”

It didn’t take long for Harris to realize he had probably made the right decision. He ended up placing sixth at the Maine High School State Cross Country meet during that first season, and started to see the potential in himself that so many others had already noticed.

When track season came around, Harris found himself drawn to the 800-meter race. The perfect mix of strength and speed allowed him to play on his love of short distances and his success during the cross country season. He finished high school with a personal best time of 1:49.6 in the 800-meter and became one of the top recruits in the country in the event, drawing attention from schools across the nation.

After taking visits to LSU, UConn, and Georgetown, Harris spent a weekend visiting Penn State during fall of his senior year. He quickly knew that this was where he wanted to spend his college career. It was the big school that he wanted, but it also wasn’t too far from his home state of Maine. Plus, the school is nicknamed 800U in the track world for a reason.

However, his college career didn’t exactly start off as planned.

Photo courtesy of Isaiah Harris

“When I got here, that first cross country season, I got dropped on every run and workout and immediately thought to myself, ‘Alright, this is a whole new ballgame,'” Harris said.

Harris was no longer the top dog in the group, a position he was used to holding in high school. Now the lowest on the totem pole in an unfamiliar and challenging environment, he quickly realized he was going to have to fight to work his way up. During that first season, he walked away from almost every run and practice sore and tired, but with a hunger to do more and to be better.

“One of my first impressions of Isaiah when he came to Penn State during the fall of his freshman year, was the fact that he was very eager to learn from other individuals on the team who had been successful,” said Angela Reckart, an assistant coach for Penn State’s track and cross country teams. “I always thought this was very mature of him while he was at a very impressionable stage of his athletic career.”

This advice may have helped Harris out more than he knew at the time, as his career finally started to click during his freshman indoor campaign. Having played basketball all the way through high school, this was new territory to Harris.

He ended his freshman season with a somewhat surprising win in the 800-meter at the Big Ten Championship meet, running a personal best by a second and a half. He instantaneously threw his name into the ring with the big dogs.

This taste of competing with the best and beating them pushed Harris to train even harder. He buckled down and focused strictly on the 800-meter, although he continued to be useful on the 4×400 meter relay. Clearly, this strategy worked out.

This was a shift his coaches noticed in him. “He has learned the importance of what we call, ‘the little things’,” Reckart said. “This includes sleep, nutrition, not pushing too hard on hard days, and allowing proper recovery on the easy days.”

Harris is now a six time Big Ten Champion in the 800 meters, having never lost at the indoor or outdoor championship meet. He finished runner up twice at the NCAA championship, both at the outdoor championship in 2017 and the indoor championship in 2018. 

The Lewiston, Maine native’s season rarely stopped at the end of the NCAA season. Harris continued on after NCAA’s to finish sixth in the 2016 Olympic Trials following his NCAA season at Penn State. He qualified to represent the United States at the 2017 World Track and Field championships by placing second at the USA Championships.

Photo courtesy of Isaiah Harris

After competing for the United States following his sophomore year, Harris began to understand that becoming a professional was a realistic option for him — but only had this realization when people started asking him about it. It was never something he considered on his own.

“After my sophomore year, when I made the world’s team, people started asking if I was going to go pro,” Harris explained. “I was expecting agents to talk to me but no one was, so I figured, I guess I won’t go this year.”

It turns out agents were in fact very interested in him, but were mostly trying to respect the fact that he was young and still in school.

Coming into the 2018 outdoor season, Harris was still hungry for one thing in particular that would not be possible if he chose to accept a professional deal — an NCAA title. He finally achieved what had been alluding him and ran a personal record of 1:44.76 to capture the crown during the 2018 championship. That’s not to mention he beat the current NCAA record holder in the process.

Photo: Russ Dillingham

“Winning NCAA’s is the most you can do, especially to increase your value. My last goal of college was winning NCAA’s and if I didn’t win last year, I probably would have stayed this year and tried to win,” Harris said. 

The NCAA title presented the perfect opportunity to leave on a good note. While closing one door, Harris opened a thousand more. His first meet as a professional came at the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships hosted in late June. Isaiah Harris officially debuted as a Nike athlete and announced the beginning of his professional career with a second place finish in the final, running a time of 1:47.11.

The decision to become professional was not an easy one. “[Head] coach [John] Gondak and I sat down with [Harris] a couple times throughout the year to get his insight on the situation and to shed some light on it from our perspective,” Reckart said. “It has always been his dream to be a professional athlete and to represent Nike.”

Harris chose to stay at Penn State and continue training with Gondak during his final year of schooling. In fact, one of the main reasons Harris chose Nike over several other sponsorship options was that they were going to allow him to do such.

The Penn State coaching staff is certainly excited Harris decided to stick around. “[T]he first year as a professional athlete, you can experience new challenges, so I am excited that he has an environment that the is familiar with to support him through it,” Reckart said.

Now, he balances a full class load with a career as a professional athlete. His role has changed with the team, as he is now a student volunteer assistant coach for Penn State Track and Field and still trains with the team when he can.

While managing all of this can’t be easy, Harris says he wouldn’t have it any other way. 

“[Running] is a way to experience all of these things that I would never have experienced if I didn’t do it. If I never ran track, I would probably not have gone to college. Track has give me the opportunity to attend school and to travel the world. It has given me the opportunity to do things that I know for a fact I never would have been able to do.” 

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About the Author

Janelle Rothacker

Currently a senior studying Kinesiology, Janelle is proud to call upstate NY (the real part, not the 30 minutes north of the city part) home. She's an avid runner and enjoys everything and anything sports. She also has a love of pancakes, avoids the HUB like the plague during the in between classes rush, and can quote the majority of Friends episodes from memory. If you want to hear all the embarrassing things she does daily, or want to contact her, follow her on twitter at @janellerothack or email her at [email protected].

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