Feb. 17, 2010
By Larry Watts
Robin Threatt-Elliot suddenly gets a little quieter, making sure her three children are not within hearing distance.
“I like to tell them Mommy is 24,’’ the 39-year-old says with a laugh. “I still stay in pretty good shape and like to think I have a body of a 24-year-old.’’
But that body started throwing some warning signs her way last fall while she was preparing to run in the 26-mile Chicago Marathon.
“I had done some smaller marathons and was training for Chicago, but I started using the table to help myself get off the floor because my knees and joints were hurting so bad,’’ she says. “So I went in to see the doctor and he advised me not to do the marathon based on long-term health reasons.
“That was hard for me to swallow. It’s hard for an athlete to stop when your mind has been committed for so long. I just try to be careful what I say now so I won’t disappoint myself.’’
It seems like Threatt-Elliot has always been on the run. A standout athlete at Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, she had Division I offers in four sports (basketball, track, volleyball and softball).
“LSU was one of the biggest ones that wanted me for track,’’ she says. “A lot of people were telling me I had the potential to run in the Olympics.”
A two-time state champion in the 200 meters and a three-time champion in the 100, her times of 24.1 in the 200 and 11.8 in the 100 from the 1987 state meet still rank second and fourth, respectively, in state history. Her school still holds the second-best 4x200 time and the ninth-best 4x100 time in the state.
“I played all the positions on the court in volleyball and shortstop in softball,’’ she says. “I think I still have that box of college letters in my closet in my old bedroom back home.’’
But when it came down to a final decision, the sport of choice for the 5-foot-7 standout was basketball. And she probably lifted more than a few eyebrows when she decided to cross the border and play at Wisconsin.
“I thought initially I was going to go to Iowa State, but then I visited Wisconsin and decided I had found my new home,’’ she says. “I just stopped all my recruiting at that point.
“I still have a newspaper article from my sophomore year, when (Iowa head coach) Vivian Stringer said one of her biggest recruiting mistakes was letting me out of the state. But I wanted to go someplace and start over. I was well-known in four sports in Iowa, so I wanted a chance to start from scratch.’’
It wasn’t long before the newest shooting guard started making her impact with the Badgers. By her junior year (1991-92), she was leading Wisconsin to its second-best finish (20-9) in school history and first-ever NCAA Tournament bid. She became only the second Badger to earn first-team All-Big Ten recognition (in 1992 and ’93) and was the runner-up in the Big Ten Player of the Year vote in 1992.
“The first couple of years at Wisconsin were a struggle for the program,’’ she says. “It wasn’t a strong program then and some of the girls were having a hard time meshing together, understanding their roles and sticking to them as a team.
“Everything finally clicked in my junior year and the chemistry was good. Going into every game, we felt we would come away victorious. We set the stage and brought some awareness to the Wisconsin women’s basketball program.
“To be on that first team to go to the NCAA Tournament meant we were creating history,’’ she added. “We will always be remembered as the first team to open the door.’’
But the taste of success was only brief. The Badgers fell to 7-20 even though Threatt-Elliot averaged 19.8 points per game and wound up setting UW’s all-time scoring record (since broken) with 1,901 points. She scored in double figures in 80 of 96 games while at Wisconsin, hitting 20 points or more 34 times.
“We got off to a good start my senior year, but then (power forward) Barb Franke blew out her knee,’’ Threatt-Elliot says. “The program was still building and Barb was one of the other stronger players on the team. I knew it would be an inside-outside game between her and I and when she went down, I knew we didn’t have anyone who could step in and compete as hard.’’
When she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural journalism in the spring, the WNBA was still four years from its debut. Rather than play basketball overseas or get a job, she decided to immediately return to school to work on her master’s in agricultural journalism.
Although she did get her thesis published, she never really put that agricultural journalism degree to use. After receiving her master’s in 1995, she worked for DuPont in Madison and spent her free time playing basketball, mostly in men’s leagues and tournaments.
“After three years, the company transferred me into the pharmaceutical division and moved me to Indianapolis,’’ she says.
By 2000, the WNBA was headed into its third season and Threatt-Elliot already had one child. In addition, it had been seven years since she had played on an organized team.
“I started seeing some of those girls I had played against on TV and I knew I was better than some of them,’’ she says. “That got my fire going again. I had never stopped playing ball and people kept telling me I should do it. From what I was told by the media, I was the only athlete to be out of the sport for that long to go back and play.’’
A free agent, Threatt-Elliot got invited to camps in Seattle and Indianapolis. Although she would rather stay in Indianapolis, Seattle retained the rights to her and she signed with the Storm.
“It was a great experience and a wonderful city,’’ she says of Seattle. “But I had never been to a more intense and aggressive training camp. When rosters were being finalized during training camp, you worked hard every day, usually twice a day for 2-3 hours at a time. And then there was the weightlifting.
“Fortunately, one of my advantages was my natural speed and my trainer had done an outstanding job of preparing me for camp. Had my body not been as strong as it was, I don’t think I would have made it.’’
Her experience in Seattle lasted shy of two seasons. Forced to play the point, she started half the games in her first season and was the first player off the bench in the other half. But halfway through the second season, she was released.
“It was a hard thing to accept, especially when you knew there were players on the team who didn’t have the same ability,’’ she says. “When you go to that level, it’s important to transition between different positions and I had never played the point before. I was a scorer and needed to be put in a position to score, but that’s not what the coach wanted me to do.’’
Marrying Mike Elliot in 2001, she returned to Indianapolis where she now works in sales and consulting for a biotech company and has helped set up infusion clinics to educate people on the use of drugs for rheumatoid arthritis.
When she left Seattle, she did have opportunities to continue playing basketball overseas. She turned down one contract for $20,000-25,000 a month in Korea.
“Don’t remind me of that,’’ she says with a laugh. “There are some days now when I tell myself, ‘What were you thinking?’ But I was at a point in my career where I needed to be closer to family.’’
Now the mother of three children, ranging in age from five to 13, Threatt-Elliot still stays active playing in some pickup games and has even tried her hand at some coaching. She spent a couple of seasons as an assistant coach at Northwest High School, but unfortunately she discovered she still had more passion for the game than most of the players.
“That passion never goes away,’’ she says. “Then you see some of these girls goofing off in practice when they could be applying that talent to opening the door to a free education. It’s hard seeing some of these girls coming out of hard family situations and wasting that talent.
“But sports are something we choose to do; it’s not mandatory. All I know is if you’re goofing off and not giving it your all in practice, you’re doing the same thing in the classroom. There are so many qualities and characteristics you learn from the game that are transferable to so many other areas of your life when the game is over. When you’re out there sweating and dripping blood, there’s something about these lessons that go so deep. It becomes another nature for you to fight to be successful and reach your goals.’’
Back in Iowa, she has been inducted into the High School Track and Field Hall of Fame (1990), the Basketball Hall of Fame (1999) and named the state’s High School Athlete of the Century (1999). She was also named one of Wisconsin’s Top 100 Athletes of the Century in 2000 and received her ultimate honor when she was inducted into the University of Wisconsin Hall of Fame last fall.
“For me to be acknowledged for my athletic contributions by a university in the Big Ten is remarkable,’’ she says. “Not everyone makes it to the Hall of Fame in high school and I made it to two. But as you go on to the next level, that window of opportunity to excel gets smaller and I’m very thankful a major Division I program has recognized me. My kids still brag about it today and they are big Wisconsin fans.
“I’m just very thankful for what the game of basketball has brought me. The life lessons continue to be a very integral part of my life and I can’t believe the doors the sport has opened for me. That’s not to say there haven’t been tough moments, but I am thankful this game has taught me how to get through those hard moments.’’