By Andrew McCracken
Six student-athletes from the University of Oklahoma track and field program have qualified for and will be competing in the 2014 NCAA Outdoor Championships Finals on June 11-14 in Eugene, Ore. Three of those OU student-athletes headed to Oregon will be competing in the women’s javelin throw.
In a season that has produced four wins, seven personal records and one Big 12 Championship, this group of women saved the best for last. They enter the final round set to compete for a national title, the first time in Sooner track and field history that three teammates are competing in a single event at the NCAA Finals.
This is the story of two Big 12 champs, a senior who switched events and overcame the odds and a coach who brings only the best out of his student-athletes. They came together to see the season through as one unit.
After her sixth and final throw at the 2014 Big 12 Outdoor Championships in May, University of Oklahoma sophomore Avione Allgood stepped out of the throwing ring to the sound of cheers from teammates as well as the gathering of Oklahoma faithful who had made the 342 mile trip from Norman, Okla. to Lubbock, Texas. The 2013 Big 12 javelin champion had just set a personal and Big 12 Championship record with a throw of 189-1 (57.63m). The second best throw in Oklahoma program history, it moved her to first place in the competition with only one competitor left to throw.
The only athlete with an attempt remaining was Allgood’s teammate, sophomore Elizabeth Herrs. After congratulating Allgood on her record throw, Herrs responded by throwing farther than she ever had before, a distance of 189-5 (57.73m). She surpassed Allgood by four inches to claim the title and the record that had been Allgood's for just a few minutes.
“After Avione set the Big 12 record, everyone was cheering me on to call her back,” said Herrs. “With my adrenaline pumping, it all came together. I did what I was told and it worked out well.”
“I knew she was going to answer back,” Allgood explained. “She always does -- in practice and in competition. If she hadn't, I would have been surprised.”
The throws not only placed the duo first and second, respectively, in the Big 12, the two marks rank as the two best throws in the country heading into the NCAA Championship.
Herrs, who currently has the top throw in the nation this season, explains how having a teammate as your closest competition is a good thing.
“It keeps us on our toes and wanting to do better,” Herrs says. “Especially practicing with her – it allows me to practice with one of the best out there. That way, I know what’s out there. We feed off of each other, so it is a great thing.”
It keeps us on our toes and wanting to do better. Especially practicing with her – it allows me to practice with one of the best out there. That way, I know what’s out there. We feed off of each other, so it is a great thing.
Allgood, who finished seventh at the NCAA last year, shares that, while second place is not exactly where she wants to be, sitting behind her teammate is a different story and a good feeling.
“I think it is awesome since it is behind my teammate,” Allgood said. “If it was someone else I don’t think I would be so OK with it. (Elizabeth) and I are very competitive, but at the end of the day, I am not going to be bummed or anything.
“Whenever Liz is doing well, I try to do my best. We have good and bad moments, but it's OK. We are good competitors and teammates.”
As Herrs and Allgood prepare for the finals, the unique but familiar situation of going head-to-head with someone who is both your teammate and your biggest competitor awaits them. While the outcome remains to be determined, one thing is for certain, they will remain each other’s biggest fan.
When Ashley Kowalewski first stepped onto campus in 2010, she had never before thrown the javelin. The Texas native was recruited for her skills in the pole vault and she had every intention of continuing her career measuring height rather than distance Fast forward, though, to the spring of 2014. There you will find the senior making her first trip to the NCAA Championship to throw against the best javelin throwers in the collegiate ranks.
“Ashley was came here as a pole vaulter and then pretty much getting cut from that event. We took her over and made her into a javelin thrower,” Oklahoma throws coach Brian Blutreich said.
"Throwing the javelin is not something you just pick up and do," Blutreich continues. "There is so much technique involved and to change muscle patterns and motor patterns takes a long time. Ashley is building off what she has put in over the past two years of base.
"She proved to me that she could earn her spot on the team and she's just been non-stop ever since. Her hard work is definitely paying off right now."
Kowalewski was not exactly favored to advance to the finals prior to the NCAA prelims where only the top 12 in each event qualify. Kowalewski points out that, while her chances of moving on appeared to be a long shot (she came into the meet ranked 37th out of 48), she had faith that the meet in Fayetteville, Ark. would not be her last.
“I had a really strong feeling, let’s say,” Kowalewski explains. “I have had a feeling since the Big 12 meet that I was going to be OK, if that makes sense at all.”
Kowalewski goes on to explain that extending her collegiate career was not her top priority when it came to advancing to Oregon ... being there for her teammates was.
“My main concern was being there for Avione and Elizabeth. My issue was not about whether I would make it. I just wanted to be there for them. I had been there for them since day one and I did not want to miss a second of it. That was my biggest thing. I really value the time that I spend with them. I wanted to be there and now I get to. I also get to compete and I am really excited.”
As a senior, Kowalewski’s time as a student-athlete is coming to a close. Still, being there for her teammates is something she is not prepared to give up just yet. Kowalewski is hoping to return to the program next year as a student-coach.
“That’s what we keep talking about. I am not going anywhere next year. I think I have got to stick around. I am constantly saying that I am not leaving. These two are going to be really good and I have to be here for it.”
Blutreich admits that keeping Kowalewski around for another year is something the group would greatly benefit from as the senior leader has been a significant key to the group’s success.
I think a big key to what we have been able to do is Ashley. She is our senior leader. You don’t often see the one who doesn’t throw as far be that team leader, but, she has really stepped up and has been the glue for the whole team, for sure.
“I think a big key to what we have been able to do is Ashley,” Blutreich says. “She is our senior leader. You don’t often see the one who doesn’t throw as far be that team leader, but, she has really stepped up and has been the glue for the whole team, for sure.”
However, all of the student-coach talk is in the future and that is not what is important to Kowalewski at present. With time left on her student-athlete clock and one final meet remaining, now is the time to focus.
“I am more focused and motivated than ever. I think I showed myself that I can PR under a stressful situation. I was in the first flight at prelims. When you are there, you are not really expected to make it. Like Coach (Blutreich) keeps saying, it depends on the day. You have to show up on the day and you have to perform on the day," Kowalewski continues.
“That is really all I can ask for. When I get to nationals, my goal is not to win necessarily. My goal is to PR, to better myself and to end my season on a high note. I think I can do that and I am really excited about it.”
Ask each member of the OU women’s javelin trio what their key to success is and they will all give you the same answer.
“We work hard and we listen to Coach Blu,” Herrs said.
“You have to listen to Coach Blu,” Kowalewski explained. “That is where it all starts.”
“Coach Blue” is more formally known, and as he is known in the quotes above, as throws coach Brian Blutreich, a former Olympic thrower, who has spent the past six years at the University of Oklahoma as an assistant coach. In his time at OU, Blutreich has coached two Olympians, six national champions, 26 All-Americans, and 19 Big 12 champions.
Blutreich, who has a chance to add a few more numbers to that list as he leads the throwers to the NCAA Finals, says that the key to coaching this special group of women is helping them feel comfortable with their own dynamic.
“Really, it has just been about keeping the group dynamic moving forward, which sometimes can be tough to do. Every individual has different lifestyles and different things they do,” Blutreich said. “Most of my squads have a very wide range of personalities -- coming from different areas of the country, different races, just different everything, which I like. I don’t like to have the same mold for everybody. I think everyone brings a different feel and a different vibe to the group situation and dynamic. Every group I have worked has been different.”
While Blutreich deflects any credit he receives regarding team success back to the athletes, the Sooner trio continue to praise their coach as the source of confidence and inspiration.
“He knows that we have it in us to be great and he knows that we always have more in us,” Herrs said. “He just wants to bring that forward in any way he can, and he is always there for us.”
He never puts you down, in any situation, no matter what happens. If you have had a bad meet or you had a bad throw, all he says is ‘I guess we know what to work on.' It always stays positive.
“He never puts you down, in any situation, no matter what happens,” Kowalewski explained. “If you have had a bad meet or you had a bad throw, all he says is ‘I guess we know what to work on.' It always stays positive. He will ask you how you feel and how does your body feel. If you are not completely 100 percent honest with him, you are not doing yourself any favors. You just have to be open and honest with him because he knows exactly what to do in every situation.”
“He gives us the confidence to succeed,” Allgood added. “Without that confidence, I don’t know where I would be.”
With the NCAA finals in the javelin less than a week away, Kowalewski, Allgood and Herrs admit they are competing for each other as well as for the man who brought them together and keeps them moving forward.
“I think the one thing that we all three agree on is that we want to make Coach Blu look good because he has made us look good,” Kowalewski explains. “He took me from being a nobody – literally had never thrown anything in my life two years ago – and now I am going to the national finals in the javelin. I cannot thank him enough for the things he has done for me and the opportunities that he has afforded me. I would have never received an opportunity like this anywhere else. I personally believe that no other coach could have taken me that far. I think Elizabeth and Avione would agree. I don’t think any of us would be where we are without Coach Blu and his patience.”
For the first time in program history, there will be three individuals wearing Oklahoma uniforms competing in the same event at the NCAA. Each of these student-athletes has earned with the opportunity to accomplish something special. No outcome, though, will be more special than the experience of doing this together, as a complete unit.
“This is so awesome,” says Allgood, who was the lone Sooner in the javelin competition last year. “This is what I wanted for Ashley as a senior. With Elizabeth, I just wanted us all to go. We are the trio. We’re the three musketeers. Without both of them, it would be really hard. I remember last year -- I didn’t know what to do without them. I was so sad. Now everyone is here and it is so awesome.”
This is what I wanted for Ashley as a senior. With Elizabeth, I just wanted us all to go. We are the trio. We’re the three musketeers.
“We have talked about this since day one,” Kowalewski explained. “They are the ones who have given me the confidence to not put myself down. They have always been pushing me. It is really funny to watch the way we practice. When one of us hits a good throw, we all freak out. To have one of us not be there – the more I think about it, it would be awful."
Not only do these Sooners find comfort in the presence of each other, but they also believe that it gives them a competitive advantage over the rest of the field.
“I think that this is the one thing that nobody else has,” Kowalewski adds.. “The majority of the people that we have seen compete together, they are not together anymore. For us, especially with how close we are, it can't get any better than all of us being there, being able to constantly push each other and say ‘I am here for you.’ I can’t get by without seeing them before I compete.”
With the biggest competition of their lives fast approaching, the trio understands that while the prospect of winning a national championship is out there, the goal remains the same that it has been throughout the season -- to get better every time you compete.
“We just want to stick to the same thing, the same approach and the same goals,” Allgood explains. “Coach Blu always talks about consistency. We are not going to change anything. If you have done the same thing since the beginning of the year, don’t change it now.”
“I honestly think that, for me, it is the opportunity to compete in one more meet,” Kowalewski said. “This is one more chance to do better than I have before. The hope that I have for Avione and Elizabeth is that they throw better than they have before. If they do that, they are going to win a national championship. There is no doubt in my mind.”
Everybody had doubts about us. Now we are here, so watch us work.
Teamwork is an interesting concept when it comes to an individual sport like track and field. Often, words like team and unity can be drowned out by individual accomplishments and goals. For the Oklahoma women’s javelin throwers, no matter how individually talented they may be, the concept of team is the most important.
“In an individual sport like track and field, you want to win and do the best you can. Something that we always talk about is that it is about the Oklahoma uniform and not the person inside of it,” Bleutreich said. “These women have embraced the fact that they are throwing for Oklahoma in addition to themselves.
“What this group has done is embrace what OU has been the last six or seven years, as we have had a lot of success in the javelin. I think they take pride in that. They want to continue the legacy of what we have been developing as a program.”
“I think this whole thing is the greatest, especially since I believe that OU is the best throwing program in the country,” Allgood said. “Now we are just showing everyone that. Everybody had doubts about us. Now we are here, so watch us work.”