The constant echo of cheering and nervous chatter in the newly-built Ruth Donohoe First Dakota Fieldhouse seemed to become muffled as Jacob Gerber stepped into the ring and gripped the handle of his throwing weight with both hands.
It was a little after 1 p.m. on March 6, the last day of the NAIA indoor track and field national championship in Yankton, South Dakota, and this was the senior’s last shot at advancing to the finals in the weight throwing event.
Gerber’s first two throws of the day had felt off as soon as the weight left his hands, and, sure enough, both landed out of bounds. If he was going to make it past the preliminary round, Gerber would need to pull it together and throw the 35-pound weight farther than at least seven competitors in the field.
“This was a waste of a trip,” Gerber remembers thinking after his second foul. Then, he said, “I actively told myself, ‘No … we’re gonna move on, we’re gonna get this one right.’”
Gerber lifted the weight off the ground. Four full-body rotations. Release. Wait.
The weight hit the ground inside the sector. Covering a distance of 58 feet, 3¼ inches, the throw not only punched Gerber a ticket to the final round but also placed him ninth in the nation and earned him a new Goshen College record.
For Gerber, as well as the nine other Goshen College athletes who spent last week in South Dakota testing themselves against the top track and field athletes in the NAIA, competing on the national stage wasn’t something he took lightly, especially this year.
“Competing at nationals means a lot to me,” said Gerber, who has qualified for two other national championships in weight throw and hammer.
However, Gerber wasn’t sure he would make it this year given the stricter qualification standards: “There are always challenges to overcome in the process of getting to and competing at nationals,” said Gerber.
The obvious challenge for all athletes this year was COVID-19.
“We have freshmen who have missed proms and graduations and then have not been onboarded regularly into college life,” said Rustin Nyce, head coach of the track and field program. “We have athletes who have had their seasons taken away.”
Despite these challenges, the group of Maple Leafs who made it to nationals this year was larger than it has been in years. It would have included six more athletes if the regular qualification process had been used instead of the top-16 cutoff for each event.
The Maple Leafs returned home on Sunday with two All-American titles (Simon Graber Miller in high jump and a team made up of Annika Fisher, Summer Cooper, Makayla Collier and Hannah Kurtz in the women’s 4x800m relay) and three school records (high jump, weight throw and the women’s 4×8).
The championship also saw notable performances in the 1,000 meter run (Summer Cooper), 3,000 meter race-walk (Hayley Bickford), 3,000 meter run (Nelson Kemboi) and the women’s distance medley relay (Annika Fisher, Summer Cooper, Makayla Collier and Alexsandra Fernandes).
For Hayley Bickford, the pandemic wasn’t the only obstacle that she faced on her journey to nationals. Bickford, a junior, competed in race-walking at the past two indoor nationals competitions, but getting to race meant more to her this year because of what it took to get there.
After struggling with a knee injury for over a year, Bickford was told by her doctors last August that she should consider ending her athletic career.
“I don’t think I went into nationals wanting to prove or learn something,” said Bickford, who finished 12th in the 3,000m racewalk race. “But I think that I proved to myself that I’m stronger than I thought I was.”
Simon Graber Miller, a junior, also learned something about himself while in Yankton. After finishing third in the high jump with a leap of 6 feet, 10¾ inches, Graber Miller said, “I see myself now as being able to win a national championship.”
President Rebecca Stoltzfus, who attended the send-off party for the track athletes before they left for South Dakota last Monday, said, “It is inspiring to see that our track and field team is increasing in strength and national prominence. This has been a challenging year for all of us and certainly for our athletes. The fact that we have two nationally ranked teams in 2021 [men’s volleyball and track and field] is a testament to the perseverance of our athletes and their love for their sports.”
“Our student athletes are awesome,” said Nyce. “They have not shied away from a challenge, an unprecedented challenge, that none of us, old or young, have faced. They have learned how to persevere and adapt at an extremely high level.”
Nyce said the success this year is a sign that the track and field program “is developing in the right direction.”
“It does give some credibility to my words when I say ‘We can do this,’” he said. “It shows that you can come to Goshen College and you can go to nationals. This is a place where track athletes can thrive.”