Preparation for the 2012 Olympic games in London presents a different set of challenges for former SIU track and field throwers Gwen Berry and Brittany Riley.
Berry and Riley are SIU alumnae who are training to compete in the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., from June 21 to July 1. Riley graduated in 2008 and returns to training for the first time in three and a half years. Berry graduated from SIU in 2011.
Riley must regain the form she had in 2007, when she became a world record holder in the weight throw, and Berry looks to continue her growth as a thrower after beginning her career as a jumper on the track team. Both also juggle their day jobs while training toward their ultimate goal of a spot on the Olympic team.
During their time together at SIU, Berry and Riley became close friends. The two spend time outside of training hanging out, watching music videos and listening to music, while they compete against each other for a spot in the U.S. Olympic team.
The two, along with Jeneva McCall, a senior thrower and also a candidate to qualify for the Olympics, know that it is possible someone may not qualify for the team. They said their relationship will not allow for animosity toward whoever makes the team.
“We have a good relationship. When we’re competing, we still cheer each other on,” Riley said. “If anybody were to beat me, I’m fine with it being her or anyone that I train with.”
While both throwers share a goal of making the Olympic team, their paths have differed leading up to this point.
SIU throwing coach John Smith recruited Riley while he coached at Ohio State University. Smith said he first encountered Riley when she was recommended to him by a former thrower who believed Smith would be the right coach for her.
Riley said she did not have the necessary grades to be admitted to Ohio State out of high school but was instead referred to SIU by Smith, where his wife Connie Price-Smith was the head track and field coach. Riley committed to SIU in 2006, the same year Smith became the team’s throwing coach.
Riley became a four-time All-American and two-time National Champion in the weight throw and an Olympic alternate for the 2008 Beijing Games.
When Riley first arrived at SIU, Smith said he did not know how good she could be until about her third week of practice, when he and former thrower Mark Milleville were watching Riley throw.
“I remember her throwing a 25-pound weight, and it just took off,” Smith said. “Mark looked at me and said, ‘You know she’s (going to) be really, really good.’”
Riley said Price-Smith was a great mentor during her time at SIU. Price-Smith said it was Riley’s willingness to accept mentorship that made her easy to work with.
“She was and still is the type of person who was (and) is easy to help guide. She comes and talks and asks questions,” Price-Smith said. “Sport is bigger than just sport: It teaches you a lot of lessons along on the way on what you need to do when you’re done with sports.”
Berry did not come to SIU as highly decorated as Riley, and she turned down more scholarship money from smaller schools to attend SIU, she said.
Coach Andre Scott recruited Berry to be a jumper on the track team out of high school. She said Scott saw potential in her as a jumper and decided to take a chance on her.
“She could jump 36 feet, and she also did sprints,” Scott said. “I watched her run the 4×100 where she ran the anchor leg and was pretty explosive and fast. It made for good ingredients to turn her into whatever we feel she needed to be.”
Smith said he would often tease Scott about allowing Berry to become a thrower. During Berry’s first year on the team, she competed in the triple jump in addition to throwing events.
Later in her career, Scott said he experimented with switching her to a heptathlon athlete. She would compete in the 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200-meter dash, long jump, javelin and 800-meter run. After subpar performances in the 800-meter run and an ankle injury while hurdling, Berry switched to throwing full time heading into spring 2010, her junior year. Berry said she had to adjust to a learning curve during the early stages of her throwing career.
“The transition was slow at first, because I was still throwing and jumping at the same until my junior year outdoor season,” Berry said. “It was pretty hard; I’m still transitioning now.”
During her final year at SIU, Berry excelled as both a thrower and a student. She earned second team All-American honors in the shot put and weight throw, and she was named to the Missouri Valley Conference Scholar-Athlete Team.
As they prepare for the Olympic Trials, Smith described his throwers as three types: the sports car, the monster truck and the tractor. Each type has their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to technique and training, he said.
Berry is a sports car, Smith said, because everything she does is full speed. Smith said during her career, he’s worked to keep her technique under control.
“The hardest part is the technique. As a jumper, you’re learned to get off the ground quick and be fast, but in throwing you have to slow down and use the power from the ground to escalate a throw,” Berry said.
Riley, on the other hand, is a tractor, Smith said, because she is able to generate power during her throws that other throwers simply cannot.
Since her career at SIU ended, Riley works as technical support for BP and regularly commutes to and from Chicago and Carbondale in order to both work and train.
BP is an official sponsor of the 2012 Olympics, and Riley said she hopes to receive a remote placement that will allow her to work from Carbondale full time and cut down on the stress of commuting. Even if she receives the remote, Smith said Riley has some catching up to do in her training to regain her world-class form.
“She started training in the fall a little bit, (but) she doesn’t have the reps in throwing as the other girls,” Smith said. “Her strength is coming back, but it’s still not where it was her junior year, but it’s getting better every week.”
Berry works at 710 Bookstore in Carbondale and said she doesn’t have many conflicts between work and training.
Berry and Riley both said their training for the Olympics is not much different from what they received at SIU.
Smith’s program mandates that athletes lift twice a week, which is less than most programs, Riley said.
Smith said most throwers train to compete in the upcoming meet for that week, but throwers such as Berry, Riley and current SIU senior thrower McCall can put up top numbers while not at full strength during the season.
Riley said being an alternate on the 2008 Olympic team motivates her as she trains for this year’s games. She said she didn’t want to discredit other athletes but that she deserved a spot on the team.
“I felt like I should have been on the team, and I didn’t perform at my best,” Riley said. “There were people that made the team that if I would have been at my best, I would have made it (over).”
As the pair trains for the Olympic Trials in June, they realize the legacies they leave for other future Saluki athletes.
Price-Smith, a former Olympic thrower, said she gives them advice about the Olympics when she can.
“I just try to help guide them on do’s and don’ts and what they need to look for and be aware of,” Price-Smith said. “How not everything is perfect and to learn how to deal with different situations mentally and physically.”