Howell excels in second year after COVID-19 restrictions dampen freshman season

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Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athetics

Sophomore Olivia Howell poses for a photo after winning the 1500 meter race at the Big Ten Championships. Howell has excelled during this track and field season despite COVID-19 restrictions limiting the team last year.

By Carson Gourdie, Staff Writer

For 14 months and counting, Americans had to give up normality as state governments enforced lockdowns to reduce the impact of COVID-19. Athletes had to give up the chance to play in front of fans, bond with teammates and even had to give up seasons.

The pandemic tested Americans’ ability to stay patient. But after months of delay and buildup, Illinois sophomore Olivia Howell took advantage of her opportunities and made a name for herself. 

Staying creative, open and focused, Howell has improved all season long, culminating in a Big Ten title in the women’s 1500-meter dash. Howell, who finished with a time of 4:12.86, bested her nearest Big Ten rival by over a full second. 

“I didn’t realize that the second 1500 that I ran (was that fast),” Howell said. “I was still in the 4:18 range. It was huge that I got down to 4:12. It made me rethink how far I can go, and I hope I can just keep improving and make it to finals and nationals.”

The Solon, Ohio native’s career at a Big Ten school has had its ups and downs, mostly because of external factors caused by the pandemic. The three-time high school state champion transitioned well at a competitive standpoint, placing fourth in the mile run at the Big Ten Championships with a time of 4:44.34. 

Though Howell has a wide skill set, her specialty is long distance, and her chance to compete in the outdoor season was canceled. Unfortunately for Howell, the Big Ten continued to postpone virtually all sports until the spring, with the fall being a time of precaution.

“We were really just around the team and had little contact outside of practice,” Howell said. “If we did, it couldn’t be the whole team. We had to wear masks and socially distance. We had some outside activities, which was nice. But not having a season, not being able to run competitively, was a mental challenge.”

But since some of the restrictions have been lifted, Howell has taken off for the program, setting records in both indoor and outdoor events. Howell has already taken home First-Team All-Big Ten honors in both the mile and the 1500-meter dash, winning Big Ten titles in both events while setting school records in the 1000-meter and 1500-meter dash, with times of 2:46.52 and 4:12.86, respectively. 

Howell has found success quickly in Champaign-Urbana, and the sophomore still has multiple years of eligibility to potentially become the face of the conference — let alone the program. However, Howell doesn’t want to have tunnel vision and let her non-running goals slip by. Majoring in studio art after switching from graphic design, Howell wants to take steps that will further her career. 

“There’s a lot of ways I can take with my art,” Howell said. “As a junior, I would like to be more focused on my art and building my portfolio, learning more about art in general. I definitely want to illustrate children’s books. I haven’t really decided. I love painting merorials. I would take up any offers from people who want memorials.”

Howell doesn’t shy away from her passion for art and creative outlets. Her father is a graphic designer who creates t-shirts and designs — a path she would’ve followed if she liked working with computers more. But even as an athlete, Howell doesn’t hide her passion; she uses it to her advantage, and it pushes her to perform better. 

“I know a lot of people wouldn’t have thought this person runs a 4:12 1500 (meter dash),” Howell said. “I view things in a completely different way. Even when I am running, I associate a lot of things, like, during races and stuff, I’ll have a song in my head. I include art in everything I do.”

With her artistic background, Howell has appreciated the athletic department’s decision to upgrade its facilities with the addition of Demirjian Park.

The multi-million dollar addition has drawn praise and has even secured Illinois the opportunity to host more conference-related events. But for Howell, the renovations mean she has a program to represent and doesn’t want the nice park to go along with a lack of winning.  

“There’s something about gray tracks that I love so much,” Howell said. “The building, I love the architecture. It’s amazing. I’m so grateful that we have great support from so many people. I have to work harder, the program is building, so that’s what it means to me.”

With the season nearing its end, Howell will be there representing the Illini. With titles locked up from her performance in conference play, the Ohio native expects to turn her regional dominance into a national one.  

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