By Jackson Riebel, Gopher Athletic Communications Student Intern
MINNEAPOLIS – Just one short year ago, Kaitlyn Long left Birmingham, Alabama, wondering if she had reached her peak as an athlete.
The decorated weight thrower had already won two NCAA DII National Championship titles as a freshman and sophomore at Winona State University, but a disappointing second-place finish at the 2017 NCAA DII Indoor Championships left the Cottage Grove, Wisconsin, native with a lot of questions.
A lifelong multisport athlete, Long didn’t even consider throwing her main event until her final season on Monona Grove High School’s track & field team. Even after placing third in the shot put at the WIAA Division 2 State Track & Field Championships, collegiate coaches primarily recruited Long to play volleyball or basketball. Winona State was the only school to approach Long about joining its track & field program.
Long accepted and immediately exploded onto the scene in Winona, setting the school record and winning a NCAA Division II title in the weight throw in 2015. The upward trend continued into her sophomore season as Long set the NCAA Division II all-time record with a weight throw of 22.70m (74-05) at the 2016 NCAA DII Indoor National Championships.
That record, however, would prove difficult to beat the following season, and Long fell short of a third consecutive national title. When her throwing coach at Winona State left to pursue another opportunity last summer, Long began wondering if a change in scenery would benefit her as well.
“I always kind of wanted to go to a bigger school,” Long said. “When my coach accepted the position, I decided to go for it.”
Long reached out to Minnesota assistant coach Peter Miller via email, kicking off the recruiting process that would eventually bring her to Minneapolis the following fall. Long says Miller, who coaches throws and high jump for the Gophers, has played a crucial role in helping make the transition to a new school a smooth one.
“He is very open with communication and making sure that I know what’s going on, what to expect, and what he expects of me,” Long said. “It’s really easy to talk to him and tell him my concerns or what is working for me. I think that has made a huge difference.”
In her first meet as a Golden Gopher on January 13, Long broke her elusive personal record with a throw of 22.74m (74-07.25). A month later, she would set personal, program, and Big Ten Conference records with a throw of 24.37m (79-11.50) at the 2018 Big Ten Conference Indoor Track & Field Championship. Long’s monster performance helped Minnesota bring home the program’s fourth indoor Big Ten Conference Track & Field Championship title.
Long’s teammates have also helped her succeed at Minnesota this season. She was unsure what kind of culture she would encounter upon arriving to campus but was relieved to find a team dynamic unlike any she had ever experienced.
“I think what sets our team apart is the energy we bring,” Long said. “When we’re at the meets we’re the loudest ones there, and we’re cheering on everyone on our team.”
Long now sets her sights to this weekend’s 2018 NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships in College Station, Texas, where she will compete in the weight throw alongside fellow Gophers Agnes Esser and Nayoka Clunis. Minnesota will also be represented by Kiley Sabin (shot put), Karlie Place (pole vault), and Ayesha Champagnie (long jump) at the national meet.
Long is bringing a “go big or go home” mentality down with her to Texas. Her throw at the Big Ten Championships ranks No. 2 in the NCAA this season, and she knows she has what it takes to win yet another NCAA title, this time at the Division I level.
“It all starts by just being confident and trusting everything that’s gotten me to this point,” Long said. “It hasn’t always been a smooth upward battle, it’s been a rollercoaster, but I’m feeling like I’m in a great place.”
Director of Women’s Track & Field Matt Bingle hopes to see the same mentality in all six athletes competing this weekend. How they handle the pressures and emotions that come with such a big stage could be the difference between success and disappointment.
“If you do what you did to get there, and you can be calm and focus on executing your job, then you have a shot to do something great,” Bingle said. “Our main philosophy is to just be yourself, do what you’re capable of, and things will happen the right way.”
The 2018 NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championship will be held at Gilliam Indoor Track Stadium hosted by Texas A&M in College Station, Texas, this Friday and Saturday. ESPN3 will stream the meet live starting at 5:30 p.m. CT Friday and 4 p.m. CT Saturday. A re-air of the championship will take place at 6 p.m. CT Sunday on ESPN2.
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