Neither Gabi Dixson nor Johna McEllrath were thrilled about their regular seasons in outdoor track and field this spring.
The final competition of the season changed all of that for the Concordia University throwers.
Understand that after earning NAIA All-America recognition 11 times and winning two national championships, Dixson’s standards for herself are pretty high.
And understand that after being struck in the head by a shot put — yes, you read that correctly — during training in November, McEllrath is lucky just to be alive.
Dixson, who competed for Battle Ground High School, completed her collegiate career as a 14-time All-American and four-time national champion. She placed fifth in the hammer throw at the NAIA outdoor championships in Marion, Ind. — then followed that by claiming national titles in shot put and discus, both by wide margins.
McEllrath’s freshman season was thrown off first by her head injury, then by a severe winter bout with pneumonia.
The Prairie High School graduate, who was likely going to redshirt this outdoor season until her coaches noticed how well she was throwing once she did return in the spring, was seeded 28th — and last — in the shot put at nationals and placed 11th.
On the first day of the nationals Thursday at Indiana Wesleyan University, Dixson threw the hammer 177 feet, 3 inches to place fifth — her third-best throw ever, and her best ever at nationals. The winning mark was 202-3.
Dixson won Friday’s shot put by nearly four feet with a mark of 51-2¾, and won Saturday’s discus by 15½ feet with a mark of 181-1, both personal records.
Not bad for a week that started with Dixson dropping a discus on her left foot late Sunday night while packing for the trip. Dixson could barely throw at practice Monday, but a week of icing and taping turned out to be plenty good enough.
“I felt like I had a terrible season, and it was such a God thing at the end,” Dixson said. “It wasn’t me. If it had been me, I would have said, ‘OK, broken toe. Kind of do the best you can,’ but I was told, ‘You’re going to win, and you’re going to PR.’ I was like, ‘Really? It doesn’t feel like that’s the situation, sitting here with my broken toe and my cracked confidence from the conference meet. It doesn’t feel like that’s the way it’s going, but if that’s what you want me to do, make it happen.’ That’s how it works.”
In each case, Dixson’s third mark of preliminaries stood as her best of the competition.
After already achieving “safety throws” sure to advance her to the finals, she said, that last throw of her flight is an opportunity to go all out.
Dixson’s discus mark is a provisional qualifier for USA Track and Field outdoor nationals, June 20-23 at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
After earning All-Cascade Collegiate Conference honors by placing second — behind Dixson’s 45-8½ — at the conference meet with a personal record of 42-11, McEllrath just wanted another PR. She got that with a mark of 44-0¾.
“My goal was just to make it to nationals as a freshman, so that was a big deal on its own,” she said. “The fact that I moved up almost 18 places was a huge deal for me.”
Quite an ending to what McEllrath describes as a “definitely interesting” freshman season, starting with that moment in November.
McEllrath was retrieving her shot put near the edge of one training circle separated from another by a net. Another thrower’s shot reached the net with enough momentum against the net to hit her in the head.
McEllrath never lost consciousness and sustained a severe concussion, but no other damage. Then again, now she has to put up with jokes labeling her as a hard-headed woman.
“It didn’t knock me out, but it knocked me down,” McEllrath said, laughing about it now. “It was by far the most painful thing that’s ever happened to me in my whole life.”
Passing the torch
Dixson, who graduated earlier this month with a degree in psychology and is planning on attending graduate school at Concordia, has set quite an example for the rest of the Cavaliers throwers to follow.
“It’s been crazy to train with someone who throws like she does,” McEllrath said. “Her technique is so solid and she works out with some pretty heavy weights. Sometimes it’s hard because it’s like I’m in the shadow of her, but it’s been so rewarding to have her as my teammate.”
Dixson believes that McEllrath will be stepping out of that shadow.
“I think she’s going to do great,” Dixson said. “She had a really rough start this year, and I think that was humbling for her — but good experience for her to just sit back and watch how everybody does things, and kind of get that hunger. She got to see a lot more than do this year, but I think she’s going to come back and be a tiger. Honestly, I think she’s going to do great things.”