Featured Grantee

Conor McCullough

Conor McCullough

Like father like son is a saying that Conor McCullough hopes to continue living this summer as he pursues a bid to the Rio Olympic Games. Conor’s father, Conor McCullough Sr. competed in both the 1984 and 1988 Summer Olympics as a hammer thrower. From an early age, Conor began to learn from his father and by the time he entered high school, he devoted his time and efforts entirely to hammer throwing. Through a combination of hard work and great coaching, McCullough made an immediate impact on the sport and won a silver medal at the 2008 World Junior Championships. Two years later, Conor won the gold at the 2010 World Junior Championships. With strong athletic and academic skills, Conor continued his hammer throwing at Princeton University. There, Conor continued to grow and develop but found it difficult to devote the necessary time to both his academic endeavors and athletic dreams. At about the same time, his father sustained an injury and McCullough decided to take time off from school to help his father recover, while figuring out a new future plan for himself.

This plan eventually took McCullough to USC, where he successfully petitioned the NCAA to allow him to be eligible to throw for the Trojan Track & Field Team. Conor found his time at USC to be very beneficial because he could train at a high level, still maintain a presence near his home and family, and continue to pursue his academic degree in engineering. Having recently graduated from USC, McCullough now works part time, is a volunteer coach at USC, and a full time athlete, training for the upcoming U.S. Olympic Trials. For McCullough it is all about balance, “Balancing the training and work can be trying. Also making sure that the training you are doing is appropriate and that you are not overtraining is important. Finding the balance between all of that is key. Especially in an Olympic year, I want to make sure I am fully prepared and do my best this summer,” stated McCullough.

Part of what allows McCullough to find that balance is the grant from the USATF Foundation. The Grant allows Conor more flexibility in his work and ultimately helps him make ends meet, “Training equipment, travel, and food are very expensive, especially as a hammer thrower. It really is night and day, especially for athletes like myself who aren’t quite at the very top level. There is no league, only individual sponsorship for deals and so for people who are just on the cusp of that, financially, this is a big factor for me,” said McCullough. Conor placed 13th in the world last year and had the best American showing at the World Championships. Ideally, through his hard training and support from both his father and coach at USC, McCullough will build on his success and hopefully be throwing in Rio this summer.

Barbara Nwaba

Barbara Nwaba

Winning her first national title last year may be the biggest success of Barbara Nwaba’s career and the journey to getting there certainly resulted from thousands of tireless hours of training and hard work. This journey began as a young child when Barbara started running in an after school program. Barbara grew up in Los Angeles as one of six children in a very busy household. After graduating from University High School, she attended the University of California, Santa Barbara. There she set school records in the 100 and 400 meters hurdles and found frequent success in all the different heptathlon events she participated in as well.

As a strong hurdler, her skills translate well to the various heptathlon events but Nwaba will be the first to tell you it takes a long time getting used to all of the different events. Her coach, Josh Priester greatly assists in these efforts, “Having a good coach who really cares about me and my other teammates is tremendous. He not only helps with all the technical parts but also the mental parts of the sport. He helps us push through challenges and maintain our focus all the way through,” said Nwaba. Because of the seven different events, all requiring a unique skillset, training can be a challenge. Nwaba trains six days a week but has a different regimen each day. She trains with the Santa Barbara track club and is one of the original members of the club that opened in 2012. Training with other athletes on a daily basis is extremely beneficial to growth and development within the sport. The different athletes help hold each other accountable and provide support in the various training processes.

In addition to her training, Nwaba does some coaching and volunteer work but there is not much time left in the day for other activities. As a result, the grant from the USATF Foundation has been extremely beneficial for her training, “This is my third year receiving funding from the Foundation and it has been a huge blessing. When you are training and can only do a little bit of coaching on the side, the grant becomes very helpful. It allows me to travel, get quality shoes, and really everything I need. It has been a huge benefit to me,” Nwaba said. Nwaba is able to spend time coaching youth within the Santa Barbara Track Club. She is the head coach of the six through fourteen-year-old division and finds it to be an extremely rewarding experience. She continues to try to build off her national title last year as she moves toward the Olympic Qualifiers, with the end goal being to represent Team USA in Rio this summer.

JaCorian Duffield

JaCorian Duffield

As people turn on the T.V. or attend a track & field competition, many do not realize the technicality that goes in to the events. JaCorian Duffield will be the first to tell you the high jump is no exception to this, “People don’t realize how up and down the high jump can be. It is extremely technical. One day you can set the world record and the next day only go 7 ft 8 in,” said Duffield. Duffield did not start his track & field career in the high jump. He began track in middle school and also played basketball, where he found his love for jumping. By his junior year of high school, he began experimenting with the high jump and eventually would go on to place second in the state finals. Since then, he has loved training and learning more about the sport, “It’s really fun to understand what makes you jump higher and what makes you get to a higher bar. At the same time, it’s a bit of a blessing and a curse because you can train all summer and fall but if you don’t do something right, technically, then you won’t get the results you want,” Duffield said.

Duffield’s high jumping career continued to progress as he began college at Texas Tech University. He placed seventeenth at the NCAA championships his freshman year and continued to improve throughout his college career. By the 2015 season, he and fellow Texas Tech teammate, Bradley Adkins, placed 1-2 at the NCAA championships. At the 2015 USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, Duffield improved to a personal best, 2.34 m (7 ft 8 in). When asked about his recent success, Duffield said, “I have worked very hard on my technical skills but also on training my mind and staying focused. I use scripture and read The Bible to help me train my mind to be the best Christian high jumper in America”. Duffield is now training for the upcoming U.S. Olympic Trials, where he has July 8th and July 10th marked on his calendar. He currently trains with two of his Texas Tech Teammates, and finds that each of them provides motivation and encouragement to the others. If everything goes well, he will represent Team USA in the Olympics in August, where he will be among some vey excellent competition, “This is one of the deepest and most technical events we have. There are maybe 8, 9, or 10 guys that could all do it. The high jump is definitely a premier event and people should tune in to see some special things,” Duffield said.

Tia Brooks

Tia Brooks

Many times when athletes begin their track & field careers, they envision being a runner. Usually it is not until a coach or fellow athlete provides insight on the many other events and competitions that an athlete switches to another event. This was the case for Tia Brooks and her career as a shot put thrower, “I started off as a runner in the 100 and 200 m competition. It wasn’t until my coach convinced my mom and I that I should make the transition to becoming a shot put thrower, that I began to really work on this. I realized I could work on throwing the shot put and run on the side,” said Brooks. After becoming a very successful shot put thrower, this became the best opportunity for her to compete as an athlete in college, “I never was going to be a runner in college, but the shot put provided me the opportunity to receive a scholarship at the University of Oklahoma. After winning state my senior of high school and setting many records, throwing the shot put became my future,” Brooks said.

Tia began her freshman year on the Oklahoma Track & Field team like any other athlete, but her career quickly came to a dramatic and nearly devastating end. During a routine lift one day, Brooks’s legs went numb. She was subsequently spine boarded and later told by her college coach, Brian Blutreich, a former shot putter and Olympic discus thrower, that she could face many future challenges if she continued to compete, “After an MRI, I learned that I had two bulging disks, among other back issues. My coach sat me down and said that from his own experiences and working with other athletes, the long term affects on my body could be severe. He really cared about me and said that it was important to be able to walk and play with my grandchildren when I am older, but that he did believe in my talent, as well as my ability to possibly recover,” said Brooks. After hearing this, she weighed all of her options but she was not ready to give up, “Coach told me that I could try and see if rehab would work, and that he would support me in whatever I chose. My scholarship would stay even if decided to stop throwing, but I didn’t want to quit. I didn’t want to give up and I knew I had the strength to keep going,” said Brooks. Brooks took the rest of the year off from throwing, but she stayed committed and did not give up from the sport.

Following her recovery from the injury, Tia’s career began to take off. Her hard work, strong coaching, and will to improve allowed Brooks to achieve great success in her later years at Oklahoma. In 2012, Brooks won the NCAA indoor and outdoor championships. In addition, she was named first team All-American in both the outdoor and indoor events. She qualified for the 2012 US Olympic Team, where she placed 19th overall. She defended her indoor NCAA title following the Olympics in 2013 and also placed second in the 2015 USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. As the Olympics for this year get closer, Brooks has her eye set on improving in Rio, “At the Olympics in 2012, I was still a college athlete. I had success on the collegial level, but I wasn’t working on a professional season schedule at that time. Now that I am training fulltime, I hope to be able to make an Olympic final. It’s a different caliber and it would be the pinnacle of my track and field career. I’ve learned so much this year and hope to continue to improve,” Brooks stated.

Kendra Harrison

Kendra Harrison

Sports were always part of the plan for Kendra “Keni” Harrison, but her career did not start in track & field. At an early age, Harrison enjoyed athletics, participating in cheerleading, soccer, and the gymnastics team. Although she started high school devoted to soccer, she soon realized that her speed and strength could possibly take her to new levels in her then secondary sport, running. After placing second in state her sophomore year, Harrison decided to put all her energy toward track & field. Her success continued throughout high school, where she won North Carolina state titles in 2010 and 2011 in the hurdles competition. After graduating from Clayton High in 2011, Keni attended Clemson University and later transferred to the University of Kentucky. Harrison’s success continued at Kentucky, where she won the 2015 NCAA championship in the 100 m hurdles and placed second in the 400 m hurdles.

Even though Harrison has found great success in her career, she still has her eyes set on even higher levels, “My long term goal is to make the Olympic team. In 2012, I did not make the finals, but I was not confident enough in myself. Believing in yourself when you get to this level is challenging but you have to do it. You can’t go to the line thinking that someone else has more talent than you or is faster than you. Trust yourself to be the best that you can be,” Harrison said. Part of being the best that you can be requires proper training and education about the sport. She has recently worked with a nutritionist and other specialists to help her body recover and become more prepared for competition.

Presently, she is training in the 60 m 100 m, and 400 m hurdles competition. Keni graduated from Kentucky last year but still trains with her college coach as well as the current athletes at Kentucky, “I really like training with the team. They push me at practice, and I push them back. I never really have a day off because these girls are constantly pushing me to do my best,” said Harrison. Keni also finds much of her support coming from her family. Coming from a large family, with eight brothers and sisters, Harrison says her family has always been behind her, “My parents were very fortunate to allow us to do whatever we wanted. I started off at Clemson and they supported me the entire time I was there as well as when I decided to transfer to Kentucky. They enjoy seeing me succeed and develop over the years”. Harrison is only twenty-three and knows that her best years are ahead of her. Most hurdlers do not peak until their late 20’s and regardless of the outcome Harrison wants to see where things can go from here.

Kara Winger

Kara Winger

Although many of us watch athletes on television or in live competition, few people actually see everything that goes into the 5K run, the 100-meter dash, or the 66-meter javelin throw. Mental strength, determination, and perseverance, are just a few of the traits Kara Winger embodies and has worked on through the years. Her journey in track & field began in the 8th grade, albeit not in the javelin competition. As a native of Vancouver, Washington, she always liked sports but did not find her passion for javelin throwing until her freshman year geometry teacher convinced her to try out the sport. She found immediate success at the state level, winning three state championships in javelin competitions. Kara’s success continued into college, where she attended Purdue University. In 2008, at the age of twenty-two, she made her first Olympic team. Unfortunately four years later, a devastating ACL injury at the Olympic trials in 2012 would drastically change her career.

Often times injuries can be career ending. This was not the case for Winger. Instead her ACL injury showed her a level of strength she did not think possible, “Through rehab comes strength I did not realize I had. My biggest challenge has been health, but last year, I took a huge step forward,” Winger stated. Since her almost four year recovery process, her outlook and views on the sport have changed. Before her injury, Winger found herself micromanaging her diet and her career. Since her injury, and in large part through the support of her husband and fellow grantee, Russ Winger, Kara sees much more freedom in her outlook on her competition and in her life, “Meeting my husband has allowed me to become more focused on life in general and I realized I don’t need to be as obsessed with sports. Don’t get me wrong, we work and train very hard but we get our practices done and then we do other things. It works really well to be athletes together but to also be able to enjoy the rest of our lives,” stated Winger.

Looking to the future, Winger has her eyes set on Rio, but is also prepared to make it through one more Olympic Cycle. When asked what her favorite part about her sport is, she said, “Most people don’t realize how technical it is. I feel like I am solving a puzzle everyday. It always leaves you wanting just a little bit more and it is super, super fun when it all comes together.” As she continues on her pursuit to make it back to the Olympics, she feels a close connection to the United States. Having lived in almost every region of the country she feels a sense of home everywhere and loves representing The United States in competition. She is currently working on completing her MBA and enjoys her life, living with her husband in Colorado Springs, for now, but is prepared to go wherever the journey in life takes her and Russ.

Story Written By Morgan D’Arcy

modarcy@indiana.edu

Jack Whitt

Jack Whitt

Jack Whitt is a young American pole vaulter.  In his college career at Oral Roberts University he earned many conference titles including, runner-up honors at the 2011 NCAA Outdoor Championships and 2012 Indoor Championships, and was named Champion at the 2012 NCAA Outdoor Championships. On top of owning indoor and outdoor pole vault records at Oral Roberts, Jack has become a fixture on Team USA, earning an alternate spot on the 2012 Olympic Team, and a trip to the 2013 World Championships in Moscow.

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Bridget Franek

Bridget Franek

Bridget Franek is one of the top steeplechasers in the country.  She was a graduate of Penn State University where she was able to compete in the 2008 Olympic Trials and represented team USA at the 2009 IAAF World Championships.  Franek has since moved to Eugene, Ore. and joined the Oregon Track Club.  Bridget is a two-time USA Championsips runner-up, and represented Team USA at the 2012 Olympics in London, making the finals in the steeplechase.

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Kibwe Johnson

Kibwe Johnson

Kibwe Johnson is one of the nation’s top hammer throwers.  Recently, Kibwé earned USA Outdoor Championships in 2011, 2012, and 2014, and he represented the USA for the London Olympics, where he made it all the way to the final. In 2011, he set the Pan American Games record for a throw (80.31m/263ft 5.8in), which stands as the best throw by a US athlete since 2000.

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Lashinda Demus

Lashinda Demus

Lashinda Demus has been one of the nation’s top hurdlers for nearly a decade.  Her many honors include two gold, two silver, and a bronze medal in World Championships, an Olympic silver medal in London, and four USA Outdoor Championships.  Lashinda also holds the American record.  Now in the peak of her career, Lashinda has her sights set to compete in the 2016 Olympics in Rio. 

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