Florida Athletes Finding Innovative Ways To Train Body, Mind

By Denise Spann - MileSplit Correspondent

While COVID-19 has claimed the remainder of the outdoor season, MileSplit asked six of Florida's top athletes a vital question:

What inventive or innovative things are they doing to continue training through quarantine?

Now, each athlete has their own process. But what we found throughout our reporting is this: Aaliyah ButlerEthan GeigerRomario JacksonAlyssa JonesLauren McGaffic and Leonard Mustari haven't stopped preparing for what's next. 

The Florida standouts have searched for new training partners, trained solo, relocated and even repurposed Zoom to continue chasing their goals. 

In this new era of social distancing for athletes, these athletes are persevering through the unknown by adapting through track and field. 


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Lauren McGaffic was in a unique situation when her debut season with Miami Country Day School was canceled in April.

By then, her family had decided to travel back west, where they own a home in a remote part of Washington.

For any number of talented athletes, that may have been room for concern. Where to train? 

But McGaffic says by then she already had a plan in place: Her dog as a training partner. 

"Border Collies are really easy to train," McGaffic says of her pal, Joey the Border Collie. "He usually learns something in two minutes, and we've been working on a lot of distance training for his agility ... Most of the competitors, for dog agility, don't run with their dogs because they can't keep up. I guess it's good that I'm able to run with him."

While Washington was one of the first states to report cases of the new form of coronavirus, the state quickly adjusted and stay-at-home orders significantly reduced the impact of the virus.

Right now, nearly three months later, McGaffic isn't too worried about social distancing. She says that where her home sits in Blaine, Washington, she sees very few neighbors. The town is home to 5,000 people with one stoplight and is right on the border of Canada.

"I've been doing hill training, strength training and a little bit of speed to keep myself sharp," she added.

The Northwest weather also presents advantages for a mid-distance runner like McGaffic, who ran a US No. 2 time of 2:10.78 in the 800 meter run at the Elite 16 Track and Field Invitational in February, to continue her training. While Florida summers exhibit peak heat and humidity, this part of Washington won't see many days over 75 degrees, so "there's much colder weather to train and go at faster paces," she said. 

Joey the Border Collie isn't just your regular dog turned training partner, either.

He's been training for dog shows since he was eight weeks old, focusing on the agility category.

"He has competition dreams and I do too; we're hoping to have him compete at the Westminster Dog Show for agility," McGaffic said.

The Miami Country Day School freshman was training with Joey an hour each day when he was just six months old. "He's a lot faster than me and is able to push me a lot," she said.

But while McGaffic does enjoy the companionship and the extra push her dog gives her, she does miss competing and training with her teammates.



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Leonard Mustari was ready for his national debut at New Balance Nationals Indoor after his breakout performance at the Mondo Elite HS Invitational in February. 

But then everything came crashing to a halt.  

Luckily for this Fort Myers Dunbar High School junior, his US No. 5 mark in the 55 meter hurdles and US No. 6 effort in 60-meter hurdles allowed him to run his fastest in the first meet of his outdoor season.

At the Louie Bing Memorial Classic, Mustari broke 14 seconds in the 110 meter hurdles for the first time with a personal best of 13.84.

With extra time on his hands now, the hurdler is doing something rather routine for most teenagers: Perfecting his gaming skills.

But the interesting part?

Mustari says playing allows him to still be in a fast-paced and creative environment and focus on building up his Fortnite resume, just like it would be if he was on the track.

In addition to his quarantine gaming, the junior still practices three times a week with his stepfather, who's also his full-time coach.

"I do my hurdles outside in my backyard," Mustari said. "I focus on drills, plyometrics and hurdles, usually with five sets of five ... We don't do as much as we would in a regular season practice. It's more focused on keeping me in shape and to keep my legs moving."

Mustari is preparing to return to the track at some time during this summer, if that all goes to plan.

And he's no stranger to the AAU Club Championships, where he earned his first major win in the 15-16 boys 110-meter hurdles final in 2019. If COVID-19 takes away those opportunities to compete, Mustari will shift his focus to his final season of high school track and field, where his goal is to be undefeated.



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As the first state champion for Tampa Robinson High School in a decade and Florida's most recenet Gatorade Cross Country Player of the Year, Ethan Geiger was prepared to reach a new level in 2020. 

"After my junior year, after winning that state title, in a way I really wanted to try and make a statement nationally," he said. "I did want to run to the best of my ability at the state level, but I wanted to make some kind statement at the national level."

So in February, he kind of did. Geiger ran Florida's fastest 3,200m in February, hitting 9:06.94 on the clock at the George M. Steinbrenner Invitational.

Now the Class 3A state champion is training on his own for the first time. That's presented some new challenges. 

But in a solo time trial, Geiger recently managed to run a new personal best of 4:16 in the 1,600m and had a strong 3200m effort to close in on his current best. Persevering through this time has taught him about the discipline he'll need at the University of Florida Gator. 

"The coach there (Chris Solinksy) has had the experience of running at a very top level that anyone would dream of doing," Geiger said. "I think having that first-hand experience of someone who's already been at that level and experienced it, knows exactly what needs to be done to help other people get there. I'm very excited for it. It's definitely going to be a big step up in training for me and I can't wait."



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Miami Southridge's Alyssa Jones was using the early stages of her sophomore season to improve like a quarterly earning. As a high jumper in 2019, she tied the freshman national record in the high jump.

But at the start of Year 2, she broke the 24-second barrier in the 200m for the first time, too.

"At first, when everything was put on hold, I was hopeful that maybe it [the high school season] just might resume," she said. "But then after I got the news that it was cancelled, I felt a lot of disappointment and sadness because I had been looking forward to meets later on in the season."

Post-cancellation, the jumper is still focusing on weaker areas in her events by doing home workouts sent by her coach. Her workouts consist of short sprints, sometimes finding an open sidewalk to run certain distances, plyometric drills, and ab circuits.

Taking this a step further, Jones has added her own element to make sure she is competition ready when the time arrives.

"I've been working on yoga and stretching to try and get more flexible so that I can work over the top of the bar more," the FHSAA 4A state champion said. "Usually I'll put the yoga on my TV and just follow along with what the instructor is saying. My mom downloaded it so she can also work out and do yoga."

Jones finds doing yoga with her mom adds a fun element to her training, while also making them closer.

With goals of jumping 21-feet in the long jump and entering the 6-1 or 6-2 club in the high jump, she knows New Balance Nationals Outdoor could be her only chance to accomplish that this year.

However, the hardest part isn't just waiting for the next opportunity to compete, but missing out on record-breaking possibilities. 



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This was supposed to be a big year for Romario Jackson. As a recent immigrant to the United States from Jamaica in 2019 -- and a former athlete for St. Jago High School -- he made good use of his time at Boyd Anderson High School, starting his spring season with a discus throw of 184 feet, 6 inches.

That mark was good enough for a US No. 7 mark. 

But he isn't quite sure where and when his next throw will come. Since the postponement of the season, it's been about two months since Jackson has stepped in the ring. Still, that hasn't stopped the senior from continuing his training in some way.

Boyd Anderson has organized biweekly zoom workout calls for their team. On the weeks in between the calls, Jackson actively tries to keep in shape by going on jogs and doing ab circuits.

"The plan with Coach Spann and my other coaches was really set," Jackson said. "The working pace was very good, on point actually. Now, we would have been to the point of big competitions and that's when training would have been more intense and more technical."

Opportunities to compete over the summer would also help Jackson in his search for a collegiate home, though at this point he's unsure of whether that will happen. Due to social distancing measures, the senior hasn't been able to visit any potential homes.

"Right now, I have to use the internet and what I've seen on the internet I'll know, nothing else. I wouldn't really say that I get to know the environment really well compared to visiting there and getting a real feel for it. But, it's just what we have to do."



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Aaliyah Butler was planning to ease her way into some record-breaking performances this spring.

As a freshman, she passed Sanya Richards-Ross' Florida state championship 400m record, cruising to a time of 52.25.

But then things changed.

Luckily, though, not much has changed for Butler. She still practices four times a week, meeting with her coach and training partner.

"Right now, I do a lot of sprint work," she said. "I'm also focusing on the first 100 meters in my 400m and to be strong all the way. When the parks were closed, I had to go back to grass. But now that the parks are open, I'm back on the track again."

Early on, as tracks were closed, Butler and coach Gary Evans were finding large grassy areas to perform wickets and sprint drills. 

Some of those terrains offered slight elevations and uneven footing. But in April, Evans said that type of adjustment pushed athletes like Butler to adjust.

Butler acknowledges now that even though she still practices four times a week, she's not in the same condition as she was earlier this year.

However, she said, if she had to do a trial today, 'I can run at least 52 seconds.' 

When she's not preparing for her next opportunity to compete, Butler is an avid player of Fortnite and Grand Theft Auto 5. The sprinter uses her game time to connect with the teammates. 

* Aaliyah Butler's Florida state record in 2019