Shot Through the Heart

April 19, 2017

Amanda Nagy

Six women posing by an athletics track
Photo credit: Jennifer Manna

Naeisha McClain was on the fence—maybe even a few feet away—when she returned home from Oberlin’s all-expenses-paid Multicultural Visit Program for high-achieving high school seniors. She ruminated on it, then eventually started telling her friends that she might be attending Oberlin College and throwing for the track and field team.

“They were like, where’s that? And when I told them it’s in Ohio, they said, ‘Who goes to school in Ohio?’”

McClain is one of six throwers on the women’s track team. The others in her squad share similar stories. When asked if they ever envisioned themselves at a school like Oberlin, the answer is a resounding no, followed by boisterous laughter.

“I remember the first time Coach (John) Hepp called me, it was my junior year of high school, and I thought, ‘Who is this mad man trying to convince me to go to school in Ohio?’ recalls Monique Newton. “He convinced me to apply for MVP. I half-heartedly did, and I got in.... I came to campus and really ended up liking it. After that trip, I knew that this was probably the best school I was looking at. As the process went along, it became apparent I could see myself here.”

That’s because Coach Hepp isn’t just plucking the best throwers he can find. He’s looking for the best scholar athletes who will be a good fit for Oberlin, explains Ray Appenheimer, director of track and field and cross country.

“Objectively, these kids are really good throwers, but they also clearly belong here,” he says. “What we’ve tried to do with this program, in general, is find good track and field athletes who are a good fit for this place. And if you’re a good fit, that means categorically that community is important to you. That challenging the people around you is important to you. This group so well represents that.”

Earlier this spring, Newton, a third-year from Sacramento, California, and McClain, a first-year from Columbus, Georgia, closed a historic weekend for the track and field team at the 2017 NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships. Newton became the first woman NCAA Champion in Oberlin history after posting the sixth-best throw in the shot put in the history of the championships, while McClain finished as an All-American in her NCAA Championship debut, placing eighth in the shot put.

“They are the best group of women throwers in Division III, and to judge them alone by that metric is easy,” Appenheimer says. “But then you watch them at practice and how they interact and support each other, how much fun they have doing this sport, which can be very hard and tedious.”

This year, the women’s team added four first-year throwers to the roster, putting Newton and fellow third-year Ana Richardson in a position to mentor the new talent.

“I cannot say enough about the kind of leadership Ana and Monique have provided for the group,” Appenheimer says. “It was evident in September of their first years here that these were two special people, that they were charismatic and hard-working, and people were going to follow them. By being here, our success is ensured because they’re so magnanimous.”

Richardson, a neuroscience and psychology double major from Eugene, Oregon, says the leadership role came naturally to her.

“They’re very likeable and work very hard. They each have unique characters that are funny. It’s not hard to watch and help them grow.”

“It was leading by example more than anything,” adds Newton, who is double majoring in politics and law and society. “They just naturally fit in. They have their individual personalities. It’s been fun to integrate that into the group, because the last two years it’s just been me and Ana. It’s been a smooth transition.”

Throwing events are among the oldest in track and field competition. The sport differs from other track events because it requires tremendous strength and agility to be successful. For that reason, their group chemistry and supportive dynamic works in their favor.

“Rarely do we practice by ourselves,” Newton says. “We’re doing pretty hard stuff with other people who are going through the same physical pain that you are.”

First-year Maya English takes note of her teammates’ quirks before competition. “Jasmine (Keegan) does this little jazz hands routine, and we have a freshman handshake that I’m horrible at. Our practices are tough, but we cheer each other on and remind each other, ‘you got this.’”

English attended the same MVP trip with McClain and Keegan. They developed a fast friendship that influenced their decision to commit to Oberlin.

“When I left, I was banking on Jasmine and Maya coming here, too, because we just enjoyed each other’s company,” says McClain. “Getting a feel for campus with other people who could potentially be your teammates made it worth it.”

Each had their own bout of culture shock. For instance, first-year Cecelia Longo had attended an all-girls school since sixth grade. “I contemplated applying to single-sex colleges, but I realized that I needed to branch out. I remember walking into my first day of track practice and seeing guys, and I was like, ‘What, we practice together?’ It was definitely new to me.”

Even though Oberlin seemed worlds apart from Chino Hills, California, it didn’t take long for English, an intended economics and comparative American studies major, to adapt.

“I remember after the first month of being here, I was starting to understand why alumni love Oberlin and want to come back to visit. I started to get that sense, especially when the sun is out and people are happy. These girls make it fun to come to practice. I look forward to that.”

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