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Spikegate 2021: Why Olympic Hopeful Rachel Schneider Parted Ways With Her Sponsor Right Before the Trials

The Olympic hopeful is banking on a few big changes being key to her representing Team USA in Tokyo this summer.

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Rachel Schneider is having the best year of her career and has been excited to race at the U.S. Olympic Trials. On Friday in the semi-final of the 5,000 meters she qualified for the final on Monday (5:40 p.m. eastern) with ease, placing second in her heat in 15:23.45.

She’s ranked fifth in the 5,000 meters based on the 14:52.04 personal best she ran in May in Irvine, California. She’ll enter the June 26 final of the 10,000 meters ranked sixth with the 31:09.79 that she ran last December in her debut at the distance. In other words, she’s a legitimate contender to make the U.S. Olympic team in either event.

RELATED: Running Longer After Getting Stronger: Rachel Schneider’s New Plan at the 2021 Olympic Trials

A sixth-year pro who competed for Georgetown University, she’s worked hard to get where she is. She signed on with Under Armour in 2015 and has made continual improvement ever since as one of its athletes. But on the eve of the biggest meet of her career, the 29-year-old is going to do it without wearing the racing kit or shoes of her longtime sponsor.

Why part ways in the 11th hour? Because of the advent of “super spikes”—next-generation racing shoes for middle-distance and long-distance events that incorporate highly responsive midsole foam materials with a rigid plate.

RELATED: What Makes Super Shoes Super?

Several shoe brands have brought them to market since 2019, but other companies, including Under Armour, have been slower in the development phase. That’s partially due to supply chain delays caused by the COVID-19 shutdown over the past 15 months. It’s also in part due to the fact that all of the new spikes had to get the approval of the World Athletics sanctioning organization prior to being used in competition.

A few super spikes debuted as prototypes two years ago with astounding results. Many athletes have since said they might provide as much as 10 to 15 seconds of an advantage for a 5K. Heading into the Trials, Nike’s ZoomX Dragonfly and Superfly Elite 2 Flyknit have claimed the most records and notoriety, but New Balance (FuelCell MD-X and SD-X), Adidas (Adizero Avanti), Asics (MetaSpeed LD O), Hoka One One (Cielo MD and Cielo LD), and Puma have also produced shoes that have assisted in their pro athletes’ fast times. 

Schneider felt that she needed to wear super spikes in the U.S. Olympic Trials so she didn’t give up a competitive advantage on the track. Under Armour, one of the brands that hasn’t yet developed a pair of super spikes, recently said it would allow its athletes to pause their sponsorship agreements and wear other shoes at the Trials.

Schneider said she is about to sign a new deal with Hoka and was wearing a full Hoka kit and Cielo LD spikes in Friday’s 5,000-meter semi-final heat, in which she placed second in 15:23.45 and advanced to Monday’s final. She will remain in Flagstaff, Arizona, and continue to be coached by Mike Smith.

“I think everyone is aware that there have been a lot of shifts in the footwear technology and a lot of companies rushing to get our prototypes, and not every company is able to get them out quite as fast,” Schneider said. “My previous sponsor, Under Armour, who has been by my side for the past six-and-a-half years, gave us the permission to wear other footwear and to be free agents if we thought that was a better fit. I tried a lot of footwear and feel so honored to join the Hoka family. They’ve got an incredible team and are developing some great footwear, and I think everyone has been aware of that.”

“While I’ve decided to move onto a new partnership, I’m eternally grateful for all the ways TeamUA has supported me through the years,” Schneider said in an Instagram post on Wednesday. “We’ve had one heck of a journey and grown so much together. I’ll forever cherish my time with them, the ways they valued me as an athlete (and, more importantly, as a human), and all the ways they helped me become better.

It’s a dilemma many athletes sponsored by brands without these “super spikes” have been facing this spring, forcing many to go as far as wearing Nike shoes painted entirely white or black to disguise the logos. But a few of those brands—most notably On, Reebok, and Brooks—have recently relented and said it would allow its athletes to wear spikes from other brands. 

At some level, it comes down to a debate of what is more important—athlete performance or company marketing. Is it more important to have athletes run as well as possible and make the Olympic team, or to insist for branding purposes that they wear only gear made by the brand?

Keep in mind that companies don’t rent out billboard space to sell billboards, and running spikes are a small category with a low profit margin. Sure, it’s an awkward situation for brands to allow their athletes wear competitor products, but on some level, it’s not as important as allowing athletes to run as fast as possible. 

“We’re still allowing athletes to wear what they need to wear to be their best and most competitive,” says Steve DeKoker, On’s global sports marketing manager. “Our sprinters will be wearing our spikes, but we’re still in development of our distance spikes. We want to get it right and want to have our own point of view when we do. We’re moving fast, but there have been a lot of factory delays in the process because of COVID over the past year.” 

When she got out of college, Schneider was primarily a 1,500-meter runner and qualified for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials in that event with a 4:06 personal record. She advanced to the semifinals, but missed making it to the finals by 1.5 seconds.

RELATED: Rachel Schneider Talks About Moving on Up in Distance

In the ensuing years, she lowered her PR to 4:02.26 and also ran a 4:20.91 mile. But she’s also put more focus on longer events and started to realize greater success in the 5,000 meters. She placed second at the 2018 U.S. Championships in that event and then finished 19th in the 5,000 meters at the world championships in Qatar the following year. She’s continued to excel under her coach (and now fiancé) Smith, and as a member of the Dark Sky Distance team that Under Armour helped Haas and coach Shayla Houlihan launch last September in Flagstaff.

With her breakout victory in her 10,000-meter debut at a meet last December in San Juan Capistrano, California, and her recent success in the 5,000 meters, Schneider became a legitimate contender to finish in the top three of either event and make the U.S. Olympic team heading to Tokyo in July. 

Finishing third in her most-recent the 5,000-meter race before the Trials, behind Ethiopia’s Sifan Hassan (14:35.34) and fellow American Josette Norris (14:51.42), Schneider lowered her previous best by a whopping 14 seconds. As of this week, her 14:52.04 effort ranks her No. 11 in the world.

“Today was all about making it to the final,” Schneider said after her race on Friday. “I knew that the top five move on (to the finals) so I wanted to run as relaxed as possible through this prelim and do what I had to do to qualify. We talked about practicing some running-from-the-front strategy, so with about 1200 meters to go, I decided to take out the chase pack and made a little bit of a gap. But I didn’t want to try to catch Abbey (Cooper). She had made such a huge gap and really ran away with the race. I just happy to run a smooth and controlled prelim and feel as good as possible heading into Monday.”

RELATED: How the U.S. Chooses Its Olympic Track and Field Team (and How to Watch)