When Liberty redshirt senior Jocelyn Williams steps into the hammer cage Thursday afternoon in Eugene, Ore., it will mark the culmination of an improbable journey to the 2015 NCAA Division I Outdoor Track & Field Championships.
The Lady Flames' second women's hammer thrower ever to qualify for the NCAA national meet began her track career as a sprinter. Liberty Track & Field Assistant Coach Clendon Henderson had never heard of her when Williams visited his office during College For a Weekend as a junior at Hamilton High School West (Hamilton, N.J.).
"Pretty much from the beginning, she was interested in Liberty, but I didn't know who she was, as she didn't throw very far in high school," Henderson recalled.
Williams, boasting top high school marks of 40-0.75 in the shot put and 127-4 in the discus, arrived at Liberty as a walk-on during the fall of 2010 and quickly displayed some ability in the weight throw and inside the weight room.
"I remember the very first weight practice we threw indoors," stated Henderson. "She threw 49 or 50 feet, after one or two throws. At that time, I didn't have anybody on the team who threw the weight, and that mark would score at the conference meet. I could tell pretty quickly that she had a lot of power.
"During her second year here, Jocelyn ended up throwing 19 meters and won the weight throw at the ECAC meet, off of only one turn," Henderson continued. "At that point, she realized how much potential she had. That was kind of the eye-opening experience. She realized by how far she was throwing the weight that she could throw the hammer really far too."
Williams benefitted from her work in the weight room as well. "I improved so much within my first year at Liberty," Williams said. "I had never been on a lifting program before. That was extremely painful but very beneficial. I learned better technique and got a lot stronger."
By the end of her sophomore year, Williams could power clean 240 pounds, a mark surpassed by only one Liberty female athlete in school history, current WNBA player Avery Warley-Talbert. "That shows a lot about how powerful Jocelyn is," Henderson noted. "That's her key to throwing far."
However, Williams did not throw the hammer far right away. She placed ninth at the 2011 Big South meet as a freshman, reaching 134-9. "I wasn't great right off the bat, but just kept with it and kept getting better," Williams said. "Eventually, it became my favorite event."
The following year, Williams reached 166-6 in the hammer but was overshadowed by teammate Melinda Bendik. The talented redshirt senior captured the 2012 Big South and ECAC women's hammer titles, pushed the school record to 202-7 and earned second team All-America honors with a 16th-place finish at the NCAA national meet.
"Watching Melinda when I was a freshman and sophomore was really cool," Williams recalled. "It's great having someone at the next level training with you. Now being where she was is really exciting."
Three years later, Williams has largely followed in Bendik's footsteps, qualifying for the NCAA national meet and throwing the hammer 200-10, less than two feet off Bendik's program record. However, there have certainly been a few bumps in the road along the way.
After throwing the hammer a personal-best 188-8 during her redshirt outdoor season of 2014, Williams seemed poised for big things during her final go-around as a Lady Flame. She lost about 40 pounds, trying to be a better hammer thrower, and learned from men's hammer world record holder Yuriy Sedykh at a camp in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Then, a case of throwing-induced lumbar scoliosis which had given Williams back pain since her junior year of high school got worse than ever, to the point that she could no longer train. She was able to get assistance with functional movement screening by Bryan Gibson at Athletic Republic and worked with physical therapist Don Reagan, enabling her to train pain-free for the first time since high school.
Williams' next bit of adversity came in the form of strep throat. She contracted the illness four times between November and March, before having a tonsillectomy in early April which knocked her out of action for 16 days.
"I have to lay it all on the Lord for getting me back [from surgery]," Williams observed. "For nine days, I was just in bed. Then a week and a half later, I was able to PR and qualify for regionals. I can't say that was me at all." Williams was referencing her breakthrough 199-11 hammer throw at the April 29 Liberty Twilight Qualifier, which punched her ticket to the NCAA Division I East Preliminary Round meet.
"This year has been a year to realize that we're not in control," noted Henderson. "God's got a plan. How He's going to work it out is beyond our control. We can still be blessed even when the year hasn't quite run its course the way we'd planned it out.
"Jocelyn has done a really good job of taking what she had and being okay with it. Someone without some good maturity in their life would have a tough time bouncing back. She didn't train basically for the whole outdoor season, up until two weeks before the conference meet. It shows how much she has learned in this one year. Regardless of the situation, God's going to bless or He's not going to bless."
The blessings continued at the Big South Conference meet on May 16, when Williams improved her personal best to 200-10 while placing second in the conference's strongest event this season.
At the same meet, younger brother Lewis Williams placed sixth in the decathlon as a redshirt freshman for the Flames. "It's fun getting to see him train and make friends, while being in the same environment," Jocelyn Williams stated. "It's fun getting to see him compete."
Two weeks later, Williams punched her ticket to Eugene with a throw of 198-4 at the NCAA Division I East Preliminary Round meet, along with fellow Big South competitors Marthaline Cooper of Winthrop and Krista Chauvin of Gardner-Webb. "We were the top three at Big South this year, and it's really cool that we're all going to nationals," Williams exclaimed. "We're calling it the ‘Big South Takeover.'"
What is Williams capable of accomplishing in Eugene? Henderson said, "She's been practicing with the four turn, but it hasn't really clicked yet. If she could hit a four and be aggressive with it, she could throw 66 or 67 meters and place in the top six. I know she can throw 63 meters with a three turn, as she's done that in practice. A realistic goal is 63 or 64 meters and anything beyond that would just be another blessing."
Regardless of how things turn out, Williams plans on continuing to throw the hammer beyond Thursday. The admissions specialist for Liberty University Online will be working with professional hammer thrower Andy Fryman on hammer training plans, with the aim of qualifying for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials.
Henderson, who threw the discus at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials, stated, "She is fully capable of making a run at a USA team with the ability she has. If she can keep training, putting it all together and really getting that four turn to work, she could definitely be throwing 70 meters-plus."
Rewinding back to the present, Williams is grateful for the opportunity to compete in Eugene this week. "The whole goal was to get to nationals. Now I'm kind of like, ‘Now what?' I guess I'll just go and have fun. I just want to enjoy the experience and try to throw far.
"Hayward Field is such a historic place, and Eugene is such a track & field-oriented town. I'm excited to be in that environment, around the best of the best in the NCAA. It's cool to be at that level with them. We're just going to see what God's going to do. All I can do is hang on for the ride."
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