James Olivier (8) of the University of Maine competes in a race during an outdoor track and field meet last spring. The rising sophomore from Augusta won a USATF U20 national title on Saturday in Miramar, Florida, winning the 800-meter run. Credit: Courtesy of UMaine Athletics

James Olivier had a decent track and field career at Cony High School of Augusta, but his sport of passion was soccer.

Now he’s a national champion — not on the pitch, but on the track.

The rising sophomore at the University of Maine, who never consistently competed in the 800-meter run until last winter, won the USA Track & Field U20 championship at that distance Sunday in Miramar, Florida.

Olivier shook off 95-degree heat to take control midway through the eight-runner final, and finished in a time of 1 minute, 50.67 seconds to not only capture the national age-group title but earn a berth on Team USA for the Pan American U20 Games to be held July 18-21 in San Jose, Costa Rica.

“It’s my first international competition,” Olivier said.

It’s also an opportunity Olivier couldn’t have imagined eight months ago, given that he had focused his high school track career on the 400 and 300 hurdles and had infrequently tested himself at 800 meters.

“I didn’t see this coming five minutes before [Sunday’s] race,” he said.

Olivier was one of 12 runners competing in the 800 at the USATF U20 championships, having qualified with his school-record 1:50.16 clocking in March at the IC4A/ECAC Indoor Track & Field Championships.

Olivier ran the first half of his semifinal heat Saturday in 58.460 seconds but came home to the finish line in 53.748 seconds to capture an automatic berth in the final.

Olivier also started modestly in Sunday’s race but had plenty of energy left at the end.

“Everybody went out blisteringly fast and I didn’t get caught up in it because I usually never get out to a fast start,” he said. “By the time I connected back to the pack we were 350 meters in and I made a move to the outside to get some control up at the front of the pack. From there I was at the front and just held onto the position, and then I had a kick left in the tank at the end.”

Olivier was second at the midpoint of the two-lap final in 54.084 seconds, then ran the final 400 meters from the front at 56.582.

“Once I made it through the prelims the whole mentality was just, ‘Hey I’m already here so it’s gonna’ be fun,’” he said. “I really had nothing to lose. It was just, ‘I’m not going to beat myself up mentally, I’m just going to go out and try my best.’

“It was the simplest, most beautiful execution,” he said of the race. “I’ve never had a race go that smoothly.”

Olivier was Cony’s school record holder in the 400 but arrived at UMaine last fall unsure where his track interests would lead.

“I was doing all right, but I definitely wasn’t Division I material for the 400 [meters] or 300 hurdles by any means,” he said. “But Mark [Lech, the UM track head coach] saw potential in converting me into an 800 runner.”

Working with Lech on a training plan helped Olivier understand what would help him succeed at the longer distance.

“I never really had to run any mileage for the 400 and the 300, so once we added mileage to my training the 800 became much easier and I just kept going from there.”

Olivier debuted in the event during an indoor meet at Dartmouth College last winter and his 1:57 effort proved a sign of times to come.

“When I sat down with Mark at the beginning of the season and he said the goal for you is to hit 1:52, I thought he was crazy,” Olivier said. “But I ended up exceeding expectations and at this point it doesn’t seem like anything’s impossible anymore because that seemed impossible at the time.”

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...