Leina Carvalho's Long-Term Focus Led To A Dream Opportunity

* Leina Carvalho was steadfast early this year as she sought to compete, and earn her place on a future-NCAA roster

Photo Credit: Submitted

Getting to a starting line. You'd be surprised how distant that concept felt in 2021 as the new year began in Hawaii. 

Leina Carvalho certainly knew. 

Consider the hardest hit athlete of the pandemic, or maybe the class of athletes who were impacted more than any other: It was the high school junior. 

And for more considerations than you might think. 

It was one thing to lose a couple of races. It was another to lose a season, even two.

But for Carvalho, 18, and for many others in her position who were looking for their next road in life, losing this pivotal time was life-changing.

College opportunities were hanging in the balance. 

Carvalho was the type of athlete who had found her calling in track and field as a sophomore at Kahuku High School, scoring third- and fourth-place finishes in the 100mH and 300mH at her Oahu Interscholastic Association Championships.

From there, she went on to qualify for the state championships in Hawaii, placing as high as seventh overall in the 300mH. This meant more than you think.

Her track team had just five athletes. Her school had no physical track. For years, much of her  training was done on a nearby rubber track at a Marine Corps base in Keneohe on Saturday mornings.

But when the pandemic hit, and when everything stopped, Carvalho was in a weird limbo -- promising yes, but maybe not proven enough to garner that automatic scholarship or college roster spot. 

She held personal record times of 27.89 in the 200m, 16.62 in the 100mH and 46.65 in the 300mH. She knew he had to work to lower those times. 

And yet, Carvalho couldn't just hop in a car and find a race -- even if some events did pop up during the pandemic. How could she get anywhere? She was located on the north shore of Oahu, in the small town of Laie.

Life, as it had been during the pandemic, stopped. So Carvalho had to find another way. 

She eventually did.

The first step was finding a leader who could harness that talent. She began working with one of the state's top coaches, Michael Harvey -- a USATF Level 2 certified sprints coach and the President of the USATF Hawaii association -- and joined the Ko'olauloa Track Club.

"Leina put in the work, was pushing, believing and never gave up on her goal," Harvey said.  

During that stretch, Harvey worked specifically with her on mechanics, cultivating more efficiency with wicket and hurdle drills. He also gave her the kind of confidence only racing can provide. 

"You have to be confident in the hurdles," Carvalho said. "When I first got into the hurdles, I was scared. I was four-stepping. But working with Coach Mike, and getting my speed and my acceleration up, it got my confidence up. It got me three-stepping more confidently." 

There was still that issue of racing, though.

Carvalho wanted to compete in college, though she had limited options. 

By 2021, the pair knew they had to start looking for some ideas. The only avenue? 

Carvalho and Harvey decided to fly to Utah, where she would compete indoors at the Jaguar Invitational, inside the Olympic Oval in Kearns. 

Internally, she knew the stakes: Now there's money on the line, and so each performance on the road would be more important than the last. 

But in Utah, she bore down.  

"That was my first time ever doing the hurdles in that meet environment," Carvalho said. "Those Utah runners are no joke."

She made the finals in the 60mH. She eventually finished sixth in 10.03.

Looking back on the winter, perhaps that drive said something about Carvalho: She was the only girls' athlete from Hawaii who competed this indoor season.

Still, she wasn't content. 

Eight days after that event in Utah, she and Harvey traveled to Sunrise, Arizona. She competed in an outdoor event with a few athletes. 

She dropped a 16.3 into a major headwind in the 100mH, then came back in the 200m and put down a 28, again with a major wind. She won both heats. 

"I wanted to try to blow them [my times] out of the water," she said. "I wanted to show I wasn't playing around and I was here to compete."

Those moments later told her, she said, that her work was all going somewhere. Better yet, though, was what happened next. 

A week after arriving back from the trip, Carvalho received a call from a coach at Ottawa College, an NAIA program located nearby in Arizona. She had remembered seeing him at the meet, and putting some research into the athletics program of OUAZ.

Then came the pitch. He offered those fateful few words: "We'd like to offer you a scholarship and become a part of our team." It was just this perfect little moment. 

"I was excited," she said. "My hard work got me to where I was. I was in the right place at the right time. To receive an offer, I was happy. I didn't [originally] want to go to that meet. I was grateful that I got to go." 

Harvey thinks its the start of something bigger. He believes Carvalho can one day toe the line at the NAIA National Track and Field Championships.

"You know, there's something to be said about when people believe in success," Harvey said. "What some might believe is small might be a mountain for others and this accomplishment is a testament to that." 

A few months later in April, Carvalho -- a future biology-track major -- signed her paperwork. She loved what the school had to offer. It was a small campus, with a large population of on-campus athletes. It was close to Phoenix, and the weather was ideal, much like her home in Oahu. 

Maybe good news comes in large does. In recent weeks, Carvalho has received more good fate. The Hawaii-state association approved a shortened spring track and field season.

She opened her spring on April 26 with tune-ups in local meets against Kailua and Kaiser. But her eyes, largely, are focused on finishing the season with one fell swoop. 

"My goal is to run pretty fast and to be able to see my name on top and be No. 1 in the state," she said. 

No ending to any story is ever final. Perhaps Carvalho's road is only just beginning. But what has the past year-plus told Carvalho about herself, maybe in greater detail, that she didn't already know?

Belief and drive can take you a long way. 


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Cory Mull is the Associate Manager, and a long-time storyteller, of MileSplit, USA. Got an idea? You can email him at cory.mull@flosports.tv, or follow him on Twitter @bycorymull.