Jack of All Trades
March 19, 2009
By Larry Watts
Gayle Hunter admits it. She's an addict. But where do you find a treatment center for SpongeBob SquarePants Syndrome at Penn State University?
Had it not been for her mother, who stepped in to conduct an intervention following her freshman year, Hunter admits her addiction might be out of control.
"My mother sat me down and talked me out of it," says Hunter, who is now a fifth-year senior with the Nittany Lions track team.
"I saw a couple of episodes of the show with my nephew while I was in high school and I absolutely loved it," she says while fighting to control her laughter. "I absolutely love SpongeBob and I know, as a grown person, it's kind of childish, but it always gave me a good laugh.
"My freshman year (at Penn State), I had SpongeBob sheets and I probably had more SpongeBob gadgets than anyone else in my dorm. I was the bold and daring one; I didn't care what anyone else thought. I just couldn't let go; SpongeBob was like my little blankey."
Since her talk with her mother, Hunter has tried to wean herself of SpongeBob. The sheets and all the gadgets are now back at home in Riverside, Calif.
"She explained to me how it was wrong to have so much SpongeBob stuff," Hunter says. "It's all gone now. I've contemplated bringing some of it back, but I have refrained. But I still watch the show."
It's hard to believe the seven-time All-American has much time for SpongeBob these days. She has just returned from Texas A&M, where she took runner-up honors in the pentathlon and was a member of the third place 4x400 relay squad during the NCAA national indoor meet. Her 4,342 points in the pentathlon broke her previous Penn State record of 4,141.
The 5-foot-9 Hunter has become used to being a workhorse for the Nittany Lions at major meets. In addition to the five required events (60 hurdles, high jump, long jump, shot put and 800), she does the open long jump, the open 60 hurdles, 200 and triple jump as well as the 4x400 relay indoors.
Outdoors, when she switches to the heptathlon (adding the 200 and javelin while extending the hurdle distance to 100 meters), Hunter also competes in the triple jump (only at the conference meet), open 100 hurdles and open long jump along with her berth on the 4x400 relay squad. At the national meet last year, she was fifth in the heptathlon (school record 5,711 points) and long jump and helped Penn State win the 4x400 relay with a school record time of 3:27.69.
"At a big meet (outdoors), I usually compete in 12 events, and that's not counting prelims," she says. "Fortunately, I usually do only one heptathlon before the Big Ten meet. I think the coaches just like to keep me moving.
"I don't complain about the number events because I know we need the points. Even if I'm thinking it, I won't say anything because we don't need any Negative Nancys on the team. I'll wait until the end of the meet and tell them I don't want to practice on Monday because I'm tired. If I'm lucky, that maybe works once in a blue moon."
Hunter got hooked on competing in multiple events while running Bantam track at the age of 9. "My coach entered me as a triathlete (high jump, long jump and 200)," she says. "As I got older, the number of events increased to the point I am now doing the heptathlon outdoors."
Hunter rates the long jump, where she has an outdoor best of 21-4.75, as her strongest event and the high jump as her weakest. She cleared the bar at 5-9 in high school, but the best she has done at Penn State is 5-6.5 thanks to a knee injury she suffered in her sophomore season.
"I chipped a piece of bone off my left knee while doing the triple jump during my third indoor meet," she says. "My knee swelled up and I wore some type of boot around it for two weeks. It eventually healed on its own months down the line, but it wiped out my entire sophomore season."
To stay on the cautious side and prevent further swelling, she switched plant legs so she could go over the bar with her left side first. She just recently switched back and hasn't had any problems with her knee.
"But because I have rotated back and forth with my sides, I haven't been able to stay consistent and be technically sound," she says. "My lack of aggressiveness, because I have been a little scared to plant my foot, has hindered me quite a bit. Now we're getting to the point where I'm more confident, so maybe over the next month I'll get it down a little more.
"The high jump has been where my opponents have been able to pick up a lot of points on me. At the nationals (indoors), I went from fourth to 10th because every height is worth 35 points and several of them beat me by four heights. But I am getting a lot more confident in some of my other events, especially the shot put and 200."
Hunter, who turns 23 next month, plans on trying the pro circuit after graduation. She has already competed a few times against Gigi Johnson, one of the top heptathletes in the world and the wife of her coach, Chris Johnson.
"(Gigi) told me her body didn't mature fully until around 27 or 28, so I feel like I've still got a few years before I hit my stride," Hunter says. "There's still a lot of potential left, but I'm just going to let my coaches set my goals for me and then I'll see what comes of it."
But there may be one roadblock to her future as a heptathlete on the international scale. Hunter has already heard whispers of the decathlon taking the place of the heptathlon, which would mean the addition of the 1500, pole vault and discus.
"That would be the stopping point for me," she says. "I am never going to learn to pole vault and I never want to learn to pole vault. I can't see myself catapulting off a pole. I may never stop and I need to know my surroundings all the time."
And Hunter doesn't even want to let the vision of running a 1500 enter her mind.
"I don't like distance; the 800 is like a 3K in my mind," she says with a laugh. "I despise the 800; I'm a jumper. If you tell me to do four laps on an indoor track or two laps on an outdoor track, it doesn't register with me.
"It's too much scenery for me to deal with. I have way too much time to think about it. I need something where I start and, boom, I'm done."
Through the guidance of the Penn State coaching staff, Hunter believes one area she has really improved in is her confidence. She strongly believes she should have had 10 All-America honors, instead of seven, at this point in her career.
"Now I fell as though I can hang with the best of them," she says. "If I do what I am supposed to do, I don't think anyone can beat me. I'm looking to add to that All-America total outdoors."