Taking a trip to Terre Haute isn’t at the top of many people’s to-do lists. On the city’s website, a prominently placed ad for a citywide festival features a picture of a llama in a bouffant, which may well pass for excitement in that part of the world.
So it’s a little bit funny that throughout DIII this winter, track and field athletes were running as fast, jumping as high, and throwing as far as they could, in hopes of earning a ticket to Terre Haute. That’s because Rose-Hulman, the host of this year’s NCAA indoor championships, is in Terre Haute, and so that’s where the most outstanding D-III athletes would gather for a shot at all-American honors.
But for a couple Chicagoans who ended up making the trip, nationals weren’t in their thoughts when the season began. First-year Paige Peltzer, who qualified in the high jump, hardly realized going to nationals was a possibility.
“I didn’t really even know about nationals,” Peltzer said, laughing. “I just thought conference was the end of the season. I didn’t realize that qualifying for nationals was even in the picture.”
Third-year Bill Cheng, who qualified in the 55-meter, had been to nationals to watch before, but didn’t think a berth was in the cards this winter. He’d spent the fall abroad, and without the proper facilities to train, he felt he had fallen behind on conditioning. Then at Chicagolands in February, Cheng ran a 6.42, which put him on the NCAA bubble. Cheng had to sweat out the last weekend of the regular season hoping to get in, and the 6.42 ended up being just good enough to qualify.
As for third-year shot putter Nicole Murphy, there was no question. She narrowly missed nationals last winter, made it for outdoors in the spring, and was confident she could make it again. Still, Murphy too was on the bubble until her final throw of the final meet before nationals, when she notched 13.98 meters. That throw improved upon her season best by more than half a meter and made her a lock for nationals, and Murphy ended up seeded fourth among 15 qualifiers.
“Actually, I was kind of angry going into that last throw, because it was the last weekend to do well for nationals, and my other throws were 12-something. So that last one I was just angry, and I busted it out, and it was a relief,” Murphy said.
The official lists of qualifiers didn’t come out until the Monday after UAAs, leaving Chicago’s qualifiers less than a week to get ready for nationals, which began the following Friday. All told, seven Maroons qualified: Peltzer, Murphy, Cheng, and third-year Blake Obuchowski in the 55-meter, second year Kristin Constantine and third-year Claire Ray in the weight throw, and second-year Andrew Wells-Qu in the 800-meter.
Peltzer, Murphy, and Cheng took it easy over that last stretch, focusing on technique and cutting out strenuous conditioning, which gave their bodies time to rest up. At nationals, each centimeter and every split second counts, and the athletes stressed the importance of being as fresh as possible for the meet.
It wasn’t an easy week to relax, though. Reading period was Thursday and Friday, and the next week was exam period.
“My first thought [upon qualifying] was basically, ‘Wow, this next week is going to be busy,’” Peltzer said.
The athletes traveled to Terre Haute Thursday, and competition began the next morning. The atmosphere was unlike regular track meets, and the field house was crowded with spectators and competitors.
“There were a lot of people around, and everything was pretty formal,” Peltzer said. “I don’t think I was nervous when I first got there, but I definitely felt a little out of my own once it was time for competition.”
The first-year was the first of the Maroons to compete. Peltzer cleared the first height, 1.56 meters, in two tries, but missed all three attempts when the bar was raised to 1.61 meters, and she tied for 11th place.
“I was definitely disappointed with how I jumped. If I had just jumped one of my better heights, I could definitely have placed much higher,” Peltzer said. After putting up her season-best height in January, Peltzer said she struggled with her form and never replicated that qualifying jump in another meet, but she thought the trip to nationals was worth it nonetheless.
“I feel like I’ll be much better prepared next time,” Peltzer said.
Cheng and Obuchowski, his roommate, got their chance to run early Friday evening. Cheng had watched his teammates compete, then took several hours to warm up before his heat and concluded his pre-race routine with a couple sprints at full speed.
Right before the race, Cheng went over his technique in his head, rehearsing his usual motions. But when the gun finally sounded, things didn’t seem quite right to him.
“20 meters into the race, I wasn’t feeling as strong as I normally would. I don’t know—maybe that I day I warmed up too long. I just felt really weak and my form kind of broke down from there,” Cheng said.
He wound up with 6.56. Obuchowski managed a 6.44, but missed the 6.40 mark needed to make the finals. Cheng said he was “somewhat disappointed” with his performance, and that he never found the consistency he needed this season.
Murphy didn’t get her chance to compete until the next day. Officials weighed her shot put to make sure she wasn’t using an illegal implement, and Murphy, with her mom and uncle looking on, took her three preliminary tries.
Murphy said she tried not to think about the other throwers’ marks and only worry about her performance. But once she was done, her coach told her she was in sixth place—good enough for a spot in finals. Murphy was the only Maroon to move on from prelims.
Of the nine competitors who qualify for finals, eight become all-Americans, and Murphy said reaching that point let her cut loose.
“I was like, well, there’s nothing to lose now. So you just really go after it. There’s a fine line between putting too much into it and losing technique, but if you’re too restrained with technique, it’s not going to go anywhere.”
Murphy had three more throws in the finals, but couldn’t improve upon her best throw from prelims. UW–La Crosse’s Christy Bohl had finished behind Murphy in prelims but passed her in the finals, putting Murphy seventh overall. She was an all-American, albeit with some dissatisfaction.
“I was a little disappointed, because I came in at fourth, and then I was at sixth, and then someone passed me for seventh. I mean, I expected better, but still, it’s great to place, but…” Murphy said, trailing off.
Like Peltzer, Murphy and Cheng were glad to have competed, however they fared. They said the experience was useful, and would help if and when they make return trips to NCAAs.
Besides the individual benefits, Cheng saw Chicago’s sizable contingent in Terre Haute—the team only sent one athlete to nationals last year—as a good sign for the teams as a whole.
“This year we had a total of seven people go, so that’s a big step for our team, for UChicago track and field,” Cheng said. “It’s a very good indicator of the direction the program is heading towards, and hopefully that will continue in the future.”