Letting it Fly
Javelin star leads Catamounts as they host championship meet
- By Thomas James Weaver
UVM’s Frank H. Livak Track and Field Facility, a nine-lane oval that still exudes a rubbery new track smell, strangely pleasant on a warm spring day, has been in use for two seasons. But the track’s coming out party won’t happen until this weekend, May 3 and 4, when hundreds of athletes hit the surface to run, jump, and throw in the 2014 America East Track and Field Championships.
“We’ve never hosted a meet here this big,” says Nika Ouellette, a team captain and two-time All-America javelin thrower for the Catamounts. “It’s been a fantasy for us — trying to imagine the intensity of hosting it. This is one of the finest facilities in the Northeast, and this is a great opportunity to put this track on the map.”
Largely led by Ouellette’s efforts, it’s also being seized as an opportunity to bring generations of UVM track and field alumni back to campus. The six Catamount captains have all signed postcard invitations that were mailed to 2,100 UVM alumni and the parents of current athletes. Ouellette smiles and acknowledges that she might not have proposed the personal touch of signing if she’d fully appreciated the writer’s cramp that awaited her.
Vermont has a proud legacy of elite track and field athletes, starting way back with Albert Gutterson, gold medalist in the long jump at the 1912 Olympics. In the modern era, distance runner Judi St. Hilaire ’81 and hammer thrower Anna Norgren Mahon ’96 have competed on U.S. Olympic teams.
Ouellette is the latest in the line. A native of Brookline, Mass., she came to UVM with a certain leap of faith. The track and field facility was still in the planning process when assistant coach Greg Wisser convinced her that the school’s combination of athletic opportunities and strong academics in environmental disciplines made Burlington the place for her.
Ouellette is an environmental studies major with a minor in plant biology. Faculty members Jeffrey Hughes and Rick Paradis both offer high praise for her work. Hughes notes that though she was the lone undergrad in one of his graduate level courses, the quality of her work and depth of her engagement were the equal of anyone in the class.
While keeping an eye on his throwers’ technique at a recent practice, Coach Wisser jokes: “Nika? We can’t wait for her to graduate and get out of here,” before getting serious and speaking to the athlete’s work ethic, mental tenacity and team leadership.
A baseball player since age three, Ouellette’s preferred position was pitcher. Of her introduction to javelin in high school, she says simply: “It was something to throw. But I fell in love with the mentality of it, the toughness. My baseball career didn’t go further after that.”
Initially she relied mostly on that strong arm, but in college she has grown as a thrower, gaining speed and strength and refining her technique under the guidance of Wisser. “It’s all about the momentum. If you can generate enough speed, if you can take all of that, stop on a dime, and whip it all through, it’s going to translate into the throw.”
That translation will look something like Ouellette’s school record throw of 49.98 meters. Let’s give that some context. A women’s collegiate javelin is about seven feet long, weighs about one pound. Imagine throwing that from the fountain at the center of the UVM Green to the Ahli Baba’s truck parked in front of Williams Hall. (Don’t try this at home. As Ouellette says of the javelin: “It’s a spear.”)
When the javelin is thrown well, Ouellette notes, the thrower knows it immediately. “You still feel attached to it as it flies. You really feel it hit the ground, as well. There’s something weird about it. I can’t fully explain it — you just have to feel it,” she says.
A trip to the Texas Relays early this season helped Ouellette get comfortable with top-flight competition, essential to her hopes of making it to the 2014 NCAA Championships and earning a top eight finish for first-team All-America status. Post-graduation, she plans to move to the Washington, D.C., area, pursue work in the environmental field and keep flinging the javelin. “This sport is something that has defined my adult life,” she says, “and I won’t walk away from it very easily.”
But before any of that there is the meet this weekend, where Ouellette will try to earn her fourth America East individual championship in four years. Also on the agenda, Catamount hopes for making a run at a team championship on their home turf. Disparate as track and field athletes are in their wildly differing events, Ouellette stresses that they are one as a team.
“I defy anybody to try to get through a year of what we do without the support of teammates. It is a really lonely road to go down,” she says. “Having somebody yell for you when you’re running hundreds or cheer for you when you’re trying to do pull-ups or squats or whatever, it adds a sense that ‘OK, I can do this. Because I’m doing this not just for me, but for my team.’”