RICHMOND, Va. – Jaleesa Williams’ relationship with the discus has been a relatively short one, but her legacy in the event could last a long time.
Williams qualified for the NCAA Championships June 5-8 in Eugene, Ore. with three monster throws last weekend at the NCAA East Preliminary meet in Greensboro, N.C., obliterating school records and her own frustration in the process. Her second throw of the day traveled 52.23 meters (171’ 4’’), a personal-best by three meters. Williams, a redshirt junior, is the first thrower in program history to reach the NCAA Championships.
Williams’ breakthrough performance in Greensboro underscored her four-year renaissance in the discus. When VCU Throwing Coach Ethan Tussing recruited Williams, it was mainly for her abilities as a shot putter. Discus was somewhat of an afterthought. That’s because Williams’ performances in the discus were, according to her, less than elite.
“It was horrible,” Williams says, punctuating the assessment with a hearty laugh. “It was so bad.”
Surely she’s just being hard on herself. Athletes can be their own worst critics. “Horrible” discus throwers don’t reach the pinnacle of collegiate track & field. Let’s allow Tussing to clear this up.
“Jaleesa was a terrible discus thrower in high school,” he said.
In fact, Williams’ progression from also-ran discus competitor to, quite simply, the best in school history is nothing short of remarkable. At First Colonial High School, she was barely topping 100 feet in the event, nearly 70 feet shorter than her recent school record.
Williams says she rarely threw the discus in high school, and when she did, it was with little instruction. She says she often mimicked the styles of other throwers, and it wasn’t uncommon for each throw to be unrecognizable to the last.
As a freshman at VCU, she focused primarily on the shot put and performed well in that event, setting a school indoor record. For a period of time that season, Tussing pulled her out of the discus entirely because she of her struggles.
But at the 2010 CAA Outdoor Championships, Williams entered and placed fourth with a toss of 43.39 meters (142’ 4’’) in the discus, and has made incremental climbs each year since.
Williams has never been a marvel of technical execution. Her relative inexperience in the discus means she’s had to play catch-up to hone the finer points of her form. It’s been a long, slow process. As a freshman, Tussing says Williams would often release her throws perpendicular to the sector.
“When we were out at practice, you hoped the runners weren’t running on that side of the track, because they were going to get hit,” Williams said.
Throughout her career, Williams has always had a tendency to release her throws towards the right side of the sector. Often, her biggest throws were out-of-bounds heaves in that direction. It’s a battle she and Tussing have waged over the years. They’d make tweaks to her mechanics, position, speed and everything in between in an effort to get her to release the disc in the right direction.
Williams continued to fight her starboard proclivity up until last week, when Tussing repositioned her inside the circle. Instead of facing forward in the throwing platform, Williams began her throws facing slightly to the left, like a golfer playing his slice. In Greensboro, that adjustment paid off. Williams broke 50 meters for the first time on her initial throw, then uncorked her 52-meter bomb in her next try. Williams entered the meet seeded 41st in the East Region. By day’s end, she was one of 12 throwers to punch a ticket to Oregon.
“Instead of trying to find some…solution to get the throw to the middle, changing some crazy thing, I just let Jaleesa be Jaleesa and put her in the right direction for that throw to end up in the sector,” said Tussing.
For good measure, Williams ripped off another 50-meter mark in the finals, fortifying her confidence as a member of an elite club of throwers.
“Hitting the 52, yeah, that was big, but hitting 50 in the final on my last throw, that really just solidified everything to me,” She said. “It made me feel like, I am a 50-meter thrower now.”
Williams, also an accomplished competitor in the weight throw, admits she still sees herself as a shot putter, which she says is more about “brute strength”, than the finesse the discus requires. Even today, Williams says her form is anything but textbook. But her imperfections as a discus thrower hint of potential that is just now rising to the surface.
While still a shot putter at heart, Williams heads to Oregon with an opportunity to become an All-American in the discus. She is currently seeded 17th among the field of 24. Williams will throw on Thursday, June 6 at 5 p.m. EST. Competitors who place 1-8 are named First Team All-Americans, while 9-16 are second team.
“Just to be there and have the chance to throw with some of the best girls in the country? I’m so ready for that. I’m so excited for that,” Williams said.