May 29, 2009

Ray turns in three All-American performances

Some context for Claire Ray’s performance at nationals last week: Had the third-year been a team unto herself, she would have finished 28th overall, tied with St. Thomas and Montclair State. She would have finished comfortably ahead of every UAA school, save for Wash U. And setting aside Wash U again, Ray would have had as many All-American finishes as the rest of the UAA combined.

That’s because Ray, who had been an All-American in discus her first two years at Chicago, not only made it three straight in that event, but this year she branched out to pick up national honors in the hammer throw and shot put as well, and scored ten points for the Maroons in the process.

Ray is the first Maroon to be named an All-American in three separate events during a single season, and though shot put, discus, and hammer require some of the same abilities, their apparent similarity belies the difficulty of excelling in all three.

“As far as technique goes, they’re all different,” Ray said. “There’s not the same technique for each one, and [doing well in all of them] requires an overall strength that you just don’t see that often. I haven’t met too many people that go down in all three.”

This year, only one entrant besides Ray—UW–Oshkosh’s Ellie Sitek—was an All-American in all three events. Sitek took first in discus and hammer and was fifth in shot put.

For Ray, the competition began Thursday evening, with the hammer throw, in which she was seeded tenth before the meet. Of course, nationals isn’t just another day of throws, and the meet’s unique challenges require some adjustment.

First, there’s the order of throwing. Typically, meets are organized so that top throwers like Ray go last in preliminaries, minimizing downtime between their first and final throws. But the order is randomized for nationals, and Ray was in the first of two flights for hammer, and so she had to wait after the opening round.

“I had a half-hour between first flight and finals to rest awhile and then get all physically jacked up again, so that’s kind of tough,” Ray said.

In the end, Ray’s first throw in preliminaries—the one that qualified her for finals—was her best on the day, and it was good enough for seventh overall, making her an All-American in hammer.

Ray’s best events, though, were still to come. She entered Friday’s discus seeded third and Saturday’s shot put fourth, and while those higher seeds boded well for her, they weren't without their drawbacks.

“Just being ranked that high kind of puts the pressure on; you’re expected to do that well,” Ray said, “whereas with hammer I was just able to go out and have some fun with it, and any place would have been a good surprise.”

In part because the stakes are so high at nationals and the competition is so strong, the event always draws a large crowd, and Ray said she enjoyed the atmosphere.

“The national meet is always my favorite meet. Competing with really good people always makes people throw farther, and it’s just such a good environment to throw in.”

That environment may have been part of the reason Ray followed up her All-American showing in the hammer with two more. She finished sixth in Friday’s discus and, to cap off the trip, fourth in Saturday’s shot put.

Even though Ray said she wanted to do better in discus, she said was happy with the results, and credited her assistant coach Zeb Sion and head coach Chris Hall for putting her in the position to perform so well. And since making the trek to outdoor nationals has become something of a yearly tradition for Ray, she said she is already thinking of what 2010 could have in store.

“I think just going down in all three [events] was a good learning experience,” Ray said, “and hopefully next year I’ll be able to do better in all three.”