May 29, 2007
Throwing like a girl has never been more of a compliment when you consider the success had by the Minnesota women's field program.
The Golden Gophers have dominated the throwing events at the Big Ten Outdoor Track and Field Championships since the inaugural meet in 1983. Since that first competition, Minnesota women have won the shot put nine times, the discus eight times and the javelin 10 times - all tops in the Big Ten.
As a team, the Gophers won their first conference outdoor title in 2006, led by their field of throwers who recorded at least one top-three finish in each of the four throwing events. Liz Podominick defended her shot put title from 2005 with a distance of 53'05.75" while placing second in the discus (162'04") - just in front of teammate Jessica Stephan (155'08"). Ruby Radocaj won the javelin title (169'09") while Liz Alabi took third in the hammer (192'10").
Minnesota also got first-place points from another Gopher named Liz - Liz Roehrig - who won the heptathlon. Roehrig won two events in the heptathlon, one of which - not surprisingly - was the shot put.
In addition to the podium finishes, the Gophers also tacked on points as Alabi took fourth in the shot put and Kari Schmidt took sixth; Amanda Solberg finished sixth in the discus; and Laura Brummer finished fourth in the hammer while Nina Cotolupenco took fifth and Stephen was seventh.
The Gopher throwers accounted for 63 of the team's 152.5 points at the championships - over 40 percent of the squad's total score.
But the success doesn't stop at the conference level.
Alabi, Podominick and Radocaj have all advanced to the NCAA Championships in each of the past two years.
The Golden Gophers have finished in the top five at the NCAA Championships 12 times and have finished as runners-up on five occasions.
And though this time span eclipses the careers of many student-athletes, the one providing them with guidance has remained constant.
The throws coach at Minnesota since 1980, Lynne Anderson has led 16 student-athletes to 41 outdoor NCAA Championship qualifications and has helped 14 different athletes combine for 29 gold medals at Big Ten Outdoor Championships.
Anderson's secret? Finding raw talent.
"Most of these kids are developmental," Anderson said. "Which means that they haven't really had the coaching that some others might have had in places like California or Florida where the weather is different. I try to show them what they're able to do. I talk a lot about technique and what I can do with them and how they can improve."
That tactic was good enough for Podominick, a junior who chose Minnesota because of Anderson's individually formulated blueprint to make her a better athlete.
"A lot of the draw for me was the campus and the quality of the coaches," Podominick said. "And when I met Lynne, she had a plan laid out for me and seemed to know what it would take for me to be successful as a thrower."
Anderson's plan worked. In Podominick's first outdoor season, she took home gold medals in the shot put and discus and was later named Freshman of the Year.
Anderson's athletes are quick to point out that this individual attention is given to each and every athlete.
"I really trusted Lynne because she seemed like a coach that all the throwing athletes really trusted," Alabi said. "She really does care about you. She gives her all to make you a better athlete and a better all-around person."
A stunning tribute to Anderson's success as a teacher are the countless walk-ons she has developed into top-tier athletes.
Aubrey Schmitt started her career at Minnesota as a walk-on, eventually becoming a five-time Big Ten Champion and competing in the NCAA Championships 15 times - a span that includes all four throwing events.
Schmitt still owns the Minnesota school record in the indoor shot put, while another walk-on, Alean Frawley, held the outdoor shot put record until Podominick broke it last year.
"Some of my proudest moments are when walk-ons come on and leave on full scholarships," Anderson said. "Because it means they've really excelled in our program."
For Anderson, the ability to take young, relatively un-coached athletes, as many walk-ons are, is one of her favorite challenges.
"I consider myself a really good teacher," Anderson said. "When you get raw talent, you can do a lot more teaching and have more success than with someone who's had a lot of coaching in high school. Sometimes it's difficult to help those athletes get to a level you think they should get to because some of them are burned out by then."
This year, Minnesota throwers have proven that they are anything but burned out.
At the 2007 Big Ten Outdoor Championships, Gopher throwers recorded at least one top-three finish in three out of the four events, helping the team to a fourth-place finish.
Alabi led the charge, finishing second in the shot put (51'01.75") and the hammer (199'08"). Podominick finished one spot behind Alabi in the shot put (49'11.75") while Radocaj took third in the javelin (166'11").
The Gophers then continued to build off the Big Ten meet with strong performances in the NCAA Midwest Regional Championships, where Alabi, Podominick and Radocaj each qualified for the NCAA Championships.
"This group of throwers is very much at the top of the athletes I've coached," Anderson said. "It's a cluster of greatness. When you have more than one athlete that does a great job, that's really exciting - especially in the Midwest."
Anderson says that this group's success can be seen in more ways than just wins, but also how the athletes have come back from their less-than-stellar performances.
"They've had a lot of success, and when they haven't been successful, they've rebounded well," Anderson said. "They respond well to coaching, and they take encouragement and run with it. That's a real way of showing that these kids have a lot of courage and that they can come back after adversity."
For example, on the first day of the Midwest Regionals, both Alabi and Podominick failed to qualify for the NCAA Championships in the shot put, but rebounded on day two in other events. Alabi finished fourth in the hammer at 199'01", punching her ticket to nationals, while Podominick finished fifth in the discus at 169'01". Radocaj earned her NCAA invitation on day one, placing third in the javelin with a distance of 165'08".
The trip to nationals is the third for Alabi and Podominick and the second for Radocaj.
Having a group of talented throwers like Minnesota encourages the program to grow exponentially, as the teammates are constantly forcing themselves to out-do one another.
"It's easy to be driven to perform better," Podominick said. "You see what your teammates are throwing and what they're learning, and you see what you need to do. You see it right there because your competition is right here."
But not only are the Gopher athletes pressured by one another to achieve on the field, but they are also encouraged by the coaching staff to do well off the field.
"Minnesota as a whole is really good at stressing academics," Podominick said. "The quality of coaches and support staff is great, and they emphasize the overall athlete and the overall student, and the importance of being a quality person."
The highly competitive Minnesota throwing squad also teaches its athletes how to work hard to get what they want.
"Being at Minnesota has really taught me the importance of hard work," Alabi said. "If you want something, you have to work hard for it. You have to have determination to do it and have the faith to trust that what you've been doing will get you where you want to go."
That hard work, dedication and faith has seemed to work so far for the Minnesota program as it heads into NCAA Championships this weekend.
When the national competition begins, you can count on one thing: this team won't be throwing like girls, they'll be throwing like Gophers.