June 2, 2009
By Larry Watts
Renee White is ready to jump at her final chance to wear a University of Iowa track uniform. And she hopes to take full advantage of that opportunity June 10-13 at the NCAA Championships in Fayetteville, Ark., where the Hawkeye senior hopes to soar to All-American honors in the triple jump.
"I'm confident, but not cocky. Anything can happen," says the native of Portmore, Jamaica. "I know I can do it and the Big Ten championship has given me a real boost (in confidence). It's just a matter of having faith in God and trusting yourself.
"I made it to the finals of the outdoor championships last year but didn't make All-America (she finished 11th). It was definitely a disappointment, but it was such a high caliber meet and I had always dreamed of being there.
"I guess I was just overcome by the fact I was there and I didn't do what was needed," she added. "I was prepared physically, but not mentally. I was nervous and had all sorts of feelings going through my mind that I couldn't control. But the experience was still the best ever and it was an honor to be one of the top 25 athletes in my event. I told myself I was going to do better this year."
The Hawkeyes' school record holder in the triple jump readily admits most of her battles are more mental than physical.
"I don't think anyone can work with me mentally; I am really crazy," she says. "Coach (Clive) Roberts tries, but it never works out. I'm the only one who can control my own craziness. Coach Roberts tries to be my rock and calm me down, but it all comes down to me. I'm the only one who can control me."
Such was the case at the recent Big Ten Outdoor Championships. White stood fourth heading into the final round and then broke off a Big Ten and school record of 43-10.75 on her final attempt. She became the first woman in Hawkeye history to win the outdoor triple jump title. She also won the 2008 Big Ten indoor crown.
"Coach Roberts came up to me before that last jump and told me, 'Renee, you have to do this. You are going to do this. You trained for this and you have to be true to yourself. Let's go out and win this for your team.'
"I said, 'Renee, you're going to do this. You have to do this for your team, so let's go get this win.' Then I got on the runway and did it."
But the plan wasn't to put it off until the last attempt.
"I usually try to get my best jump out of the way on my first attempt," she says. "But when I foul, I start freaking out. It just so happened that my last one was my best jump."
Like many members of her team, White had to overcome the tragic loss of former head coach James Grant, who died of cancer in the summer of 2007. White felt especially close to Grant, who was also Jamaican and that country's national record holder in the 400-meter hurdles.
"Coach Grant is a big reason why I came to Iowa," she says. "His integrity and the way he spoke of Iowa really appealed to me. Other coaches would talk to me about why I shouldn't go to other schools, but he only talked to me about what Iowa had to offer and what it was like to be part of the Iowa family. And at the time, I was also thinking about going into medicine and Iowa had a very good medical program."
Although Iowa had been recruiting her the longest, White was ready to sign with Minnesota until Grant appeared at her high school championships that spring.
"That was actually the first time he made an offer," she says. "He spoke with my mom and coach, and everyone really liked the way he presented himself.
"His death really hit the team hard. We knew he had been really sick during the winter and he was unable to travel with us to any of our meets. I don't think it ever got to the point where we thought he was going to die. We had a memorial service for him here (Iowa City) and some of us attended his burial in Jamaica.
"Coach Grant touched a lot of people," she added. "He treated his athletes like they were his children. Just his perseverance and the way he carried himself taught me a lot."
The move from Jamaica to Iowa City was not an easy one for White, even though there were other Jamaicans on the team at the time. The difference in culture, weather and food were big hurdles to overcome, especially since she had attended an all-girls school back home.
"All I knew about Iowa and the school came from a virtual tour on the computer coach Grant had sent me," she says. "I had been to Chicago and Florida, but I had never been any place like this. I got off the plane and said, 'This is it? All these open fields! I'm going to be going to school here?
"There were times when I got so homesick and I wanted to leave. But my mother reminded me I would be one of the first women in our family to earn a degree. I had to stay for her and for the fact it was such a struggle to live in Jamaica. I knew coach Grant wasn't going to lie to me, so I just had to keep a strong faith in God and the decisions I made. Fortunately, we have such a small team, so it didn't take long to get to know everyone."
White vividly remembers the first time she saw snow.
"I'm used to sunny skies, no clouds and an ocean breeze," she says with a laugh. "I was in my dorm when I heard it was snowing, so I ran outside with some of the girls from California and we started making snow angels. It was pretty funny and we took a lot of pictures. But then the snow started seeping through our clothes and we started to freeze, so we ran back inside."
Hampered by shin splints and hamstring injuries, White did not make the impact she expected during her freshman year. She qualified for the NCAA regional in the long jump but did not score any points for her team at either the indoor or outdoor Big Ten Championships.
Since the disappointment of her rookie campaign, she has been on a record-breaking mission in her specialty. In addition to her Big Ten titles indoors and outdoors, she took runner-up honors outdoors as a sophomore and third place this year indoors at the conference meets. She also has a best of 20-3.75 in the long jump during last year's outdoor regional, which ranks second-best in school history.
"Coach Roberts thinks I'm ready for a breakout performance in the long jump, so we're going to concentrate on both events for the regional and hope I get to the NCAA Championships in both," she says. "Since the events are on separate days, I'll switch off preparing for them each day in practice."
White, who started her Iowa educational path with an interest in biology, has since switched to finance.
"I wasn't having fun with biology," she says. "I had this epiphany that I wouldn't go into medicine. There was too much reading and writing.
"The epiphany told me to go into finance because I love to do numbers and I can crunch them all day. I want to be an investment banker. I know the economy is rough right now, but I hope to start small by working as a teller at a local bank."
Although her collegiate track career ends this spring, White still has one more year remaining until she earns her degree. She plans to spend her time next year competing as an unattached runner.
"That's why I'm hoping to do well at the NCAA Championships, so maybe I can land a pro contract," she says. "If not, I'll just have to represent myself. I can make it work."
And since she's planning on staying in the United States once she earns her degree, she has one other goal.
"I'm going to eventually become a U.S. citizen or else immigration is going to send me home," she says. "But that probably won't happen for another two or three years."