While baseball, volleyball and water polo are reaching new heights, four field athletes are tossing their weapons high into the sky at record heights.
Track and field only becomes relevant every four years when athletes from all over the world come together at the Olympics. But what many people do not realize is the work that these track individuals put in to get to that stage, to represent their team and their country at the highest plateau. Each of these athletes start somewhere, and while some talents jump to that level directly from their teens, most begin their quests right here in college.
The four athletes pictured above are in the light at the beginning of the tunnel and are excelling to the point where they could be lighting the torch in 2012 or beyond.
But let’s keep them grounded and instead discuss their talents, which have them sending shot puts, javelins and hammer throws long distances at the Division I level.
Jenny Lee is one of those hurlers that needs to be discussed. As a graduating senior, this is her time to shine on one of the best programs in the Big West.
Lee’s specialty is the javelin, and she has been flinging her red javelin to the top spot since the start of the season.
In the Big West Challenge women’s team victory, Lee knocked out a 118-foot toss that put her in first place. Considering how Lee approaches her event, that is no surprise. She is precise in her training and focuses on the minute details that she needs in order to be in the right place at the right time.
“No one has the same technique, and it [becomes] whatever works for you,” Lee said. “There is a lot of technique in javelin, and it takes a lot of work to get that muscle memory.”
But like the rest of her throwers, she is slinging her javelin to personal bests this year and doing it with a smile on her face.
However, when among such a positive group of athletes, it would be hard not to smile. One athlete that contributes heavily to that environment is Matt Lahti.
Lahti is the hammer throw specialist. He holds the top mark in the Big West Conference this season after winning the event with a personal best of 203 feet at the Big West Challenge Cup at Cal State University, Fullerton. No other conference athlete has come within 14 feet of his mark, and that is why he earned the Big West Athlete of the Week honors for the men’s field event. He would have to add roughly 70 feet to his throw if he wanted to compete in the Olympics, but there is no doubt that Lahti has the ability to reach that distance.
“I wouldn’t be here right now if that wasn’t the goal in mind,” Lahti said.
The hammer throw is not nearly as strength-driven as it sounds. Technique is the element that separates the boys from the men. Lahti and his competition throw a 16-pound ball that is attached by a metal wire to a handle. The event got its name from an older competition that involved the tossing of a sledgehammer. The throw involves four rotations that rely heavily on rhythm. The athlete then releases the “hammer” on the fifth rotation. As one can imagine, it is a complex, even relaxed, throw. Technical training is the key to success.
Lahti draws his inspiration from the guitarist of the progressive metal band Dream Theater, John Petrucci.
“He works hard six to eight hours a day, and breaks his training into every little element,” Lahti explained. “That’s how I like to train. The routine and regiment are like a song. That’s how I like to look at it.”
Lahti, a guitar player himself for 10 years, carries an insatiable and competitive desire to win. He will red-shirt next year to come back even stronger for his senior year. Lahti’s red-shirt year will see him amping up his training and being pushed by other throwers on the team, including Alisha Misiata, the team’s top shot putter.
Lahti will have to base his training off of Misiata because she is such a force in her event, and it would be foolish for anyone to not emulate her drive to win.
Then again, it would be foolish for anyone to ignore Misiata as a source of inspiration. She is the ideal shot put specialist: technically sound, powerful and determined to out-throw any and all competition while staying true to herself.
At the start of her track and field career, Misiata never thought that throwing a metal ball would take her to where she is now. When she first picked up the shot put, it was at her older sister’s spring break track practice and she jokingly tossed a shot put in front of some of the team. When she got to high school the next year, they said, a spot on the varsity team was hers.
From that moment on, it was clear that she had all the right tools to be successful.
In her third year at Irvine, Misiata has racked up four first-place finishes and most recently won the shot put at the Big West Challenge cup, contributing in a big way to the women’s overall win.
And the idea of contributing to the team is exactly what drives Misiata.
“I was hungry this year,” Misiata said. “I wanted to hit it hard and I hit the weights hard, and I expected results but I still want more.”
With that being said, it is safe to say that Big West shot put competitors need to be on the lookout.
But what the competition does not need to look out for is an upset Misiata. She exudes an inviting personality that makes it impossible not to laugh when talking to this champion shot putter, and that warm nature carries into the competition setting.
“They are some of the sweetest ladies you will meet,” Misiata mentioned of the other Big West shot put throwers. “They are very intimidating competition, but we all cheer each other on and I love all the ladies. They are great.”
Misiata has grown to love not only the other shot put competitors, but also the entire throwing community at UCI. They train together day in and day out, and with that comes a natural appreciation for what the others are going through.
That admiration greatly extends to one of Irvine’s best throwers, Lauren Collins. But the difference between Collins and the other throwers on the Irvine roster is that Collins also goes after the track events in the heptathlon.
Collins made her name known her sophomore year when she won the heptathlon at the 2007 Big West Conference championships with a school record total of 5,512 points. She was one of the few Anteaters to qualify for the NCAA, where she placed 14th with 5,505 points. What is even more impressive is that she almost made the 2008 U.S. Olympic team for the event. The U.S. takes the top 24 athletes from each event to the Olympics, even though few compete. Unfortunately, that number was cut down to 18 this past summer, and Collins finished 22nd.
Ask Collins if she saw herself in the Olympics when she was a little girl and she would answer “yes,” but in a different sport: gymnastics.
“I was training after school five days a week for five hours, with Russian coaches and everything. It was my life,” Collins said.
But the way it was consuming her life was too much for her, so Collins heeded her Spanish teacher’s advice when she was a freshman at Santa Margarita High School and went out to try the sport her teacher coached; track. She had immediate success; she jumped a 5 feet 6 inches on the high jump, which is impressive for a freshman. A growth spurt that sent her from a gymnastic size of 5-feet-4 inches to a track height of 6 feet made her even happier with her decision. Collins credits the strength and balance she learned from gymnastics for the absence of an awkward adjustment to the height. She performed well enough in both high jump and hurdles to garner attention from the top schools, even UCLA, her dream school.
She ended up at UCI, a place she never imagined nor desired because of its proximity to home in Lake Forest, but Collins fell in love with the school after she visited and found it a perfect fit. It didn’t matter who else was pursuing her services; UCI showed her that it was her place to grow.
While she came in as a hurdler and a high jumper, then-Coach Ben Cesar told her to add a few more events and compete in the heptathlon; after all, she seemed bored with the events she had.
Collins has the talent to make it to the 2012 Olympics in London, which is her goal, but her body has been taking a beating lately. She is banged up and her knees aren’t holding up as well as she would like. She red-shirted last year to improve her health and her game, and she continues to demonstrate a work ethic that should pay dividends.
Collins looks up to Misiata for her contagious and ever-present positive attitude in a sport that they both take seriously and competitively. She also considers her little sister, freshman and fellow track teammate Kerry Collins, her role model.
“She had a hamstring injury early in the year last year, an injury that makes many athletes give up … because of how frustrating and hard it is to come back. She decided to fight through all that and push herself, and by the end of the year she was running her best times. It is really inspiring,” Collins said.
Lauren is the first one at practice and the last one to leave, training for up to six hours a day. Her Facebook quotation is one from Magic Johnson: “Talent is never enough. With few exceptions, the best players are the hardest workers.”
That mentality sums up the entirety of the throwers and the track and field program as a whole.
But there is something else special about these athletes besides how hard they work.Over the years, this group has grown close and continues to push each other.
Like Lee mentioned,”We are a little family.”