Looking to Finish Strong
April 28, 2009
By Larry Watts
Kara Patterson is a young woman with a variety of interests.
The 23-year-old fifth-year senior was an interior design major when she first enrolled at Purdue University. Then she switched over to a major in nutrition, fitness and health with a minor in art and design. But she yearns to take a crack at glass blowing and may even do post-graduate work in marine biology.
However, at the top of her list at the moment is claiming the gold in the javelin at the NCAA Outdoor Championships. The lone athlete to win three regional titles in Boilermaker track history, the best she has done at the national meet was a fifth place throw of 53.93 meters (176 feet, 11 inches) last year. That was a month after she set the American collegiate record of 61.56 (202 feet) on her first throw at the Big Ten Championships.
"I knew exactly how I did that throw at the Big Ten meet, but every postseason it seems like I fall into this trap of being too serious and super-focused for the competition (at Nationals)," says the Purdue All-American. "Instead of going with the flow and rolling with the punches, I was too focused on doing everything right. I am really at my best when I am relaxed and joking around because I really love the javelin.
"I think I just took the response of the people around me the wrong way. I took it as pressure to throw further instead of realizing they were just trying to support me."
It didn't take Patterson long to get her groove back. Within a matter of weeks, she was back at the top of the leaderboard when she set a U.S. Olympic Trials record with a toss of 58.44 and earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic squad.
"Coach (Rodney) Zuyderwyk and I talked after the NCAA Championships about getting back into rhythm," she says. "I was excited to be out there again."
Adding to the excitement was the fact the Trials are conducted in Eugene, Ore., close to her home in Vancouver, Wash., which she says is a suburb of Portland. Not only did she have several family members and friends in attendance, but also her boyfriend, Russ Winger, a University of Idaho graduate, was competing in the shot put. Winger took third at the Nationals and was fifth in the Olympic Trials.
"It was awesome to do this in front of my family and friends," she says. "I could hear them all cheering and Russ was right down there next to my coach."
However, her touch eluded her once again in Beijing, where she failed to advance to the second day of competition after posting a best of 54.39 in her first three throws.
"My goal was to make the second day of competition," she says. "I felt good physically and mentally, but the javelin just didn't go far. Looking at the video, I know why now, but in the moment I may have lost perspective of how my body felt.
"But I had such an amazing experience during those three weeks. I had a good support system from my family and friends, and Russ surprised me by showing up for a few days."
At the suggestion of a math teacher, Ron Heidenreich, Patterson decided to give javelin a try during her freshman year at Skyview High School. Washington is one of the few states in the nation conducting javelin competition at the high school level.
"I had never heard of it until he made the suggestion," says the 6-foot Patterson. "I swam in the fall and played basketball in the winter, but I didn't really have a spring sport. I did high jump, 800, the mile and discus in eighth grade, but I really had no direction. However, I was late coming out for track because our basketball team went to the state tournament.
"Once I got out there, I really enjoyed throwing the javelin. My coach (Nate Botnen) was very entertaining and instilled a solid work ethic in me. My first meet was with the jayvee team on my birthday and I threw 107 feet, which was further than any of the varsity girls, so I was on the varsity the rest of the year."
Patterson wound up taking second in the state during her rookie campaign. She would capture the state title the next three years before accepting a scholarship to Purdue.
At Purdue, the coaching staff would try to add the weight throw (indoors) and hammer (outdoors) to Patterson's workload. That decision would eventually lead to problems.
"I was trying my best in those events, but I really wasn't enjoying the experience," she says. "I was challenged with such a foreign movement to my body."
After winning the Big Ten javelin title as a freshman and taking second as a sophomore, Patterson was called upon to compete in her first Big Ten Indoor Championships in the weight throw during her junior campaign. Although she says she finally felt like an integral part of the indoor team, the competition plus workouts in the javelin afterward left her with a stress fracture in her lower back.
"The back pain started in February and it was sort of a gradual thing, but I kind of pushed through it," she says. "It was a lot of physical activity and I wasn't as conscious of protecting my back as I needed to be. I had never experienced an injury before. During the spring break I had one hammer practice and I was in excruciating pain on every throw, and then I couldn't even do my javelin footwork the next day."
The day before the team boarded the plane for its first outdoor meet of 2007, Patterson got the word that she was staying back in West Lafayette. A few days later, she got the final test results and she would miss the entire outdoor season.
"All of my roommates were in track or other sports and I just sat there by myself on my futon nursing my back," she says. "I was devastated to be sitting there and I didn't know it was going to be season-ending at the time."
But there was one big positive to come out of missing the trip. While in class the next day, the three-time Academic All-Big Ten selection received word that she would be inducted into Purdue's prestigious Mortar Board Honor Society.
"The timing couldn't have been better," she says. "I was being selected to a pool of some of the top scholars on the campus. If I had made that trip, I wouldn't have been able to go to the reception."
And Purdue didn't go unnoticed on the national javelin scene despite Patterson's absence. One of her roommates, Lindsey Blaine, won the national title.
"It was really cool to be her support system during my injury," she says. "To tell you the truth, that really helped me as well. This was her senior year and you could really tell she was focused on having a very successful season."
Patterson put her rehab time to good use, studying video of the top international throwers.
"The fact I got to rest during the 2007 season gave me a fresh outlook on what next season would hold," she says. "The trainers and coaching staff were amazing about having me taking things slowly and progressing at the right pace."
The end result was her 202-foot throw, nearly 20 feet farther than her personal best, on her first attempt at the Big Ten Championships. And in her 2009 outdoor debut, at the Arizona State Invitational last month, she uncorked a toss of 191-8.
"I'm taking it easy and using a shorter approach right now," she says. "As the season progresses, I'll start extending my approach."
After the completion of this season, Patterson and Winger, who moved to West Lafayette last fall and is competing internationally in the shot put, plan to head to San Diego and set up camp at the Olympic Training Center.
"I'm hoping to pursue a professional track and field career," says Purdue's 2009 Big Ten Medal of Honor recipient. "I'm a poor college student and never have had a summer job to raise any money. This will be an awesome opportunity for athletes in my position -- free lodging, food, coaching and lots of training."
Her goal, of course, is to be a member of the U.S. Olympic team headed to London in 2012. If she reaches London, she hopes to rendezvous with Clem Eischen, the only other track athlete from Vancouver to compete in the Olympics. Eischen ran the 1500 in the 1948 Olympics in London.
"A reporter did a story on me last year and told me Clem was the first track athlete from Vancouver to compete in the Olympics," she says. "I have since corresponded with him and I have also heard from his daughter, who lives in Florida. It would not only be special to go to London because of my own endeavors, but he plans on being there too."