April 8, 2009
By Larry Watts
Is Aja Evans a shot putter in a sprinter's body or is the University of Illinois junior a sprinter in a shot putter's body?
Since transferring from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas last year, this Chicago Morgan Park High School graduate has been raising plenty of eyebrows on the collegiate track circuit. One minute this unique two-time All-American is tossing the 4-kilo ball ahead of the competition and the next she is sprinting down the track in the 100, 200 or leading off the Fighting Illini's 4x100 relay team.
Evans hardly fits the mode of the typical shot putter. Her powerful 5-foot-9 frame contains almost no body fat, but plenty of time in the weight room has turned her into a muscular machine.
And there's no questioning her bloodlines. Her father, Fred Evans, was a three-time All-American swimmer at Chicago State and the first black swimmer to win a national title (100 breaststroke in 1975). Her mother, Sequocoria Murray, was a sprint standout on the Chicago State track team. Her brother Fred is a wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings. And then there's her uncle Gary Matthews, a 17-year veteran in major league baseball, and her cousin Gary Jr., who is now roaming the outfield for the Los Angeles Angels.
"There used to be a time I considered myself a sprinter just doing the shot put, because I was a sprinter at heart," she says. "But now I have developed a real love for the shot put, because that's where I have been excelling in college, so I guess my love for each now is split 50-50."
Evans traces her transformation to the ring back to her high school days at state powerhouse Morgan Park.
"My coach (Derrick Calhoun) always said sprinters make the best shot putters, but you only see the big girls out there doing it in high school," she says. "One day (during my sophomore year), coach Calhoun was working with one of my teammates and I decided to go over there. We started working on a couple of things and the next thing I knew I was throwing the shot further than our top girl.
"Coach Calhoun convinced me because I was always explosive out of the blocks and I always had a good vertical and standing long jump. He said the shot put was about my legs more than anything else. Basically, he taught me a sprinting approach to the shot, using quick technique in the ring while getting my legs and hips into it."
By the following year, Evans was performing on the state's biggest stage in the shot put. She took seventh in the shot, fourth in the 100, anchored her team's 4x200 relay team to first and the 4x100 team to fourth.
She came back as a senior to take fifth in the shot put but had a disappointing meet on the track. She did not qualify for the finals in the 100 and her 4x200 relay team was disqualified after a bad exchange.
"It was a bad feeling, but a I humbling one, when I left the state meet that day," she says. "But it also made me realize I had a gift in the shot as well, so I wasn't going to give up on that event."
However, when it came time to check out future schools, her list quickly narrowed. The Illinois schools weren't offering full rides and she stopped looking at southern schools when both she and her mother became concerned about hurricanes.
"Nobody was making an offer like UNLV," she says. "I knew I wanted to go far away from home. I had a good friend (Brittney Bullocks of Proviso West) on the team and the coach (Barbara Ferrell-Edmondson) was a former Olympic gold medalist, so I felt comfortable."
But prone to allergies, Evans, who took sixth in the shot put at the NCAA West Regional, was having a tough time adjusting to the dry heat in Las Vegas. Dehydration problems set in and the altitude made it difficult for to regain her breath.
"I never got used to the weather," she says. "Plus, I found out I needed to be closer than a four-hour plane ride from home."
UNLV would only allow her out of her scholarship provided she did not transfer to schools in the south or west. So she sent out letters to all the Illinois schools again. This time new Fighting Illini head coach Tonja Buford-Bailey called with the offer of a full scholarship.
"That (full scholarship) was all I needed to hear," Evans says. "I wanted that experience of warm weather all the time and travel, but I wound up coming right back."
It didn't take Evans long to make a quick impression at Illinois, where she set a school indoor record of 54.8.25 in the shot and ran a season=best 7.71 in the 60 meters. At the NCAA Indoor Championships, she gained All-America honors in the shot by placing ninth (53-9).
Outdoors, she broke the school and Big Ten Championships records with a toss of 55-10.5. She later placed sixth at the NCAA Midwest Regional and qualified for the NCAA Championships.
"I had an all-around bad meet at the national outdoor meet and didn't make the finals," she says. "I couldn't get any of my throws together and then frustration of performing like that at the national level set in. I'm a big mental case at times."
Evans picked up right where she left off this season. Indoors, she took second in the Big Ten and gained All-America recognition once again when she took fifth in the shot (55-0.75). In her first outdoor meet, she already qualified for the Midwest Regional with a toss of 52-9.5.
"I was doing all right in the 60 in the first few indoor meets, but I had a few problems and we decided I should just take a break and concentrate on the shot put," she says. "I tried to come back in the 60 at the Big Ten Championships and ran a 7.78, which wasn't bad, but it didn't get me into the finals.
"It feels great to get that outdoor qualifying mark (for shot put) out of the way in the first meet. Now I can focus on getting back to work and building it back up. As a freshman, it took me until the last meet and a personal best to qualify for the regional. If I threw that kind of distance now, I would be mad."
Evans says she was a little intimidated when she first started competing in the shot. It wasn't necessarily the size or height of her competitors that opened her eyes as much as the noise.
"Some of those girls can really grunt," she says with a laugh. "I might give it a little oomph when I throw but nothing more. I tried the grunt, but it's not genuine and it doesn't help me."
What has really helped Evans excel is the two to three times per week she spends in the weight room. She says most of her workouts are centered on squats and quick plyo exercises.
A sports management major with a minor in communications, Evans can often be found at a Minnesota Vikings game during the fall. She and her sister proudly wear Vikings' jerseys with their brother's number on it and 'Little Sis' lettering on the back.
"My brother is always bragging about me," she says. "It's neat because he has info about me on his Vikings profile and I have him listed on my Illinois profile. Every chance I get, I go to a Vikings game."
Evans is hoping to use advice from both her brother and mother, who works with neighborhood housing in Chicago, for a future career. She wants to help implement a plan to get community organizations and professional athletes working together.
But for now, Evans is focusing primarily on making the most of her Illinois track career.
"The past indoor season went well," she says. "My goal was to make the top five in the national meet and I did that, so that was good.
"Now I'm trying to take it all the way (outdoors). Outdoors is pretty much anyone's game. As long as I stay on top of my work, focus in practice and execute in the ring, I'm not going to be holding anything back. I know where I should be at and I don't want to accept anything less."