Determined McCall is title bound

By Gus Bode

Street lights flicker on. Not to shed light on a darkened Virginia evening, but to signal a day’s work has ended for a child destined to become a world-class athlete.

Countless childhood days were spent in the street perpendicular to the home of senior thrower Jeneva McCall. It was in those streets where she competed against her six athletic siblings to set herself apart as the most determined athlete of the bunch.

“I wanted to be the leader of the pack,” Jeneva McCall said. “In my mind, I never get the awards until I work harder.”

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Senior thrower Jeneva McCall shares a laugh Saturday with a teammate before her event during the Saluki Fast Start meet at the Recreation Center. McCall placed first in both shot put and weight throw, and she is currently No. 1 in NCAA weight throw rankings. Sarah Gardner | Daily Egyptian

She didn’t know it then, but she was competing against a family of talented athletes who would individually rise to the top of their respective sport.

Jeneva McCall, now the top collegiate thrower in the nation, competed against her older sister Shirley, who became Ms. Basketball of Virginia; her younger brother Mika’il, a running back in his freshman year at the University of Iowa; and older brother Elijah, a professional boxer.

The children were not the first to give rise to the McCall name. Their father is Oliver McCall, the former world heavyweight boxing champion who beat Lennox Lewis at the Wembley Arena in London in 1994 to win the title.

Jeneva McCall said she remembers sitting around with her siblings watching her father fight. Each warmed up as he would, and all would mentally prepare as if they were stepping through the ropes and into the ring.

While his children’s careers are now taking off, Oliver McCall’s boxing career took a downward turn in the late ’90s as he battled drug addiction and run-ins with the law.

Despite the blemishes, Jeneva McCall said she reflects on her father’s achievements and failures to put herself in a better life situation.

“I used to run from it because all of the bad media and all the stuff on the Internet,” Jeneva McCall said. “Going off to college and competing, I realized I’m just like him.”

“If you look at the records he was a great athlete, it’s just that he needed the guidance,” she said. “With Coach John Smith and Coach Connie (Price-Smith), I have that guidance. It’s just all of the other stuff that I need to stay away from.”

Though her guidance didn’t come until she became a collegiate athlete, Jeneva McCall developed her work ethic at an early age. Her first milestone came in the form of a track and field scholarship to SIU, which she considered fate. She said it was that work ethic that landed her the scholarship, which might have been her only chance to attend college.

Throws coach John Smith recruited Jeneva McCall to SIU, and when he told her he coached a four-time Olympian, she said she was committed to the program.

A close bond formed between Jeneva McCall and Smith, a relationship Jeneva McCall considers comparable to a family affiliation.

She said Smith left an early impression on her during her freshman year after she had a poor outing at a meet.  She said the speech he gave her after her performance instilled an emotional, lasting impression.

“My entire life I’ve always been abandoned, by everyone,” Jeneva McCall said. “For him to say ‘I will never abandon you,’ and over the years he hasn’t abandoned me, it made me put my trust in him and made me want to work with him. A person like that, you can work hard for.”

Smith said Jeneva McCall came to college and quickly learned how to train with a professional mindset. He said she understands training works with each day building on the next, and she understands every day gets her one step closer to becoming an Olympic athlete.

It’s her natural ability and ingrained competitiveness that separated her from other athletes he has coached, Smith said.

“You don’t replace people like Jeneva, that’s for sure,” Smith said. “She might end up the best all-around thrower in NCAA history after this year.”

That will happen if she achieves her goal of becoming the first athlete to win all five NCAA throwing competitions in a single season.

She put herself in this position with a deep dedication to the sport. She takes full advantage of the 20 hours per week the NCAA allows for training, and spends each minute under the close watch of Smith. She said she comes in each day fully invested and is only finished when she receives Smith’s recommendation to end each session.

Her extensive training has paid dividends during her collegiate career.

Her sophomore year she was an All-American athlete in four events: the indoor shot put, outdoor shot put, weight throw and hammer throw.

Her junior year she repeated with the All-American accolades, and took fourth place in the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. She finished one place shy of a qualifying mark for the IAAF World Championships, but found herself on the roster when the third-place finisher Keelin Godsey was unable to throw the minimum mark of 69 meters in the preliminary events leading up to the world event.

Jeneva McCall finished the Championships in Daegu, South Korea, with a mark of 68.26 meters, three positions behind the qualifying athlete for the final round and just short of her career-best mark of 69.55 meters that got her to Daegu.

“Making the world team was a good accomplishment and a good confidence booster,” said four-time Olympian and Coach Connie Price-Smith. “I think it gave her a better picture of what the rest of the world is about, and knows that she is at the level as well.”

The confidence gained at the World Championships has provided the necessary assurance that a career in the sport is a realistic goal to have, Jeneva McCall said.

An Olympic roster spot, particularly for the 2012 Olympics in London, is where she said she wants to be.

London is where her father won, then lost, his heavyweight title, and she said wants to return to the city to reclaim her last name. That is when she can receive her award and claim the title of leader of the pack.

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