ISU women’s track, field reaches championship season

Christina Hillman opens up the women’s shot put finals with her first throw of 16.31 meters at the Iowa State Big 12 Track and Field Championships. Hillman, a junior, later took first place with a throw of 17.18 meters.

Kyle Heim

It takes ISU redshirt senior shot putter Christina Hillman no longer than a second to recall memories from the first time she competed at the Big 12 Championship wearing cardinal and gold.

She was a baby back then, as she remembers it. She was just starting to throw farther, and that meet during her sophomore season was when she peaked.

“You know, I really blossomed under the pressure,” Hillman said. “There was really good competition. I was competing with Tia Brooks [from Oklahoma]; she threw the Lied Recreation record at the time at Big 12s. And it was just cool to be able to come in second.”

Hillman isn’t a baby anymore. Since that meet, she’s gone on to win a Big 12 championship and NCAA championship in both the indoor and outdoor seasons in 2014.

A back injury forced her to redshirt her indoor season in 2015, and she hasn’t returned to the championship form she was accustomed to in her junior season.

The Big 12 Championship will return Friday at Lied Recreation Athletic Center, and that means peak season for Christina Hillman and the ISU women’s track and field team.

“I guess I’ve been a little restless because I know that there’s a big throw there, and I haven’t been able to get it,” Hillman said. “I’m really looking forward to this weekend because I feel like it’s the perfect time to peak, and that’s where I’m going to. And I’m thinking that this will be the weekend I start to see things turn around.”

The key to a successful meet for the redshirt senior shot putter is controlling her excitement, which she has struggled with since returning from her back injury.

She has recently begun meditating before competition, which has included sitting down by herself for 30 minutes about a couple hours before a meet and thinking about what she wants to do and what she needs to do.

“There’s just a lot of positive thinking that goes into that,” Hillman said. “I’ll tell myself positive thoughts like, ‘I’m ready for this, and I can do this.’ It’s just really helpful. It helps me calm down. It helps me realize that I’m ready, that I have the capability of doing something really great.”

For the Cyclones, 2015-16 has seemed like a season-long peak. The team entered the season ranked No. 75 in the preseason U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association poll but has since risen 44 spots to the No. 31 spot in the most recent poll that was released Monday.

The team’s direction appeared to be heading toward a rebuilding stage at the beginning of the season. Its roster consisted of 11 freshmen, which is four more than Martin Smith, director of men’s and women’s track and cross-country, has had on his women’s roster since taking over the program three years ago.

But everything changed when distance runner Perez Rotich opened the season at the Boston University Opener in the 5,000-meter run on Dec. 5, 2015.

Entering the meet with a previous personal best of 16:30.93 in the 5,000-meter run, Rotich shaved more than 19 seconds off that time, finishing in 16:11.37.

Freshmen’s featured role

The closest resemblance of the team’s leap in the rankings may be the one freshman Kate Hall took in the long jump at the Razorback Invitational on Jan. 29.

Hall’s mark of 21 feet 5.50 inches ranks first in ISU history in the event, second in the Big 12 and fifth in the nation.

The long jump isn’t the only event Hall has displayed success in during the indoor season, as her personal best 7.30-second time she set at the Big 4 Duals in the 60-meter dash ranks second in ISU history and is tied for 10th in the country.

“I think this meet will definitely help me for future meets because I was really nervous going into it, but coming and running 7.30 [in the 60-meter dash] kind of helped me realize, OK, now I’ll be able to do well in the upcoming meets and relax,” Hall said after the Big 4 Duals.

Hall’s ISU debut did help her in future meets, as she set the ISU record in the long jump the next week in Arkansas.

She hasn’t been the only freshman on the team to contribute in meets for the Cyclones. Both Emma Whigham and Jasmine Staebler have provided sparks for Iowa State, each recording top-10 all-time ISU performances.

Whigham has the sixth fastest time in ISU history in the 200-meter dash, while Staebler, who despite getting spiked twice in meets this season, has the fastest 800-meter time in the country among freshmen.

“I continue to surprise myself and what I can do, so that’s really exciting,” Whigham said.

ISU assistant coach Andrea Grove-McDonough had some fun on Twitter after Staebler clocked a personal-best time of 2:06.14 in the 800-meter run at the Iowa State Classic on Feb. 13.

“Hello world… My name is Jasmine Staebler and I am the #1 ranked freshman in the NCAA for 800m.…,” Grove-McDonough tweeted after the meet.

Final indoor home meet

Several of the freshmen on the ISU women’s track and field team will have an opportunity Friday and Saturday to experience their first Big 12 Championship.

“I’ve heard that Big 12s is an incredibly competitive atmosphere, so I’m really excited that I get to experience that, but it’s just cool to see everyone from different sports come and cheer each other on,” Whigham said. “Everyone within the distance team and the jumps, we’re all very supportive of each other, so it’s exciting to see everyone perform at their best. “

For Hillman, this year’s indoor conference meet will be her last.

“You know, at the end of the day, even though we have our individual events, we come together and we always put something together, make some magic happen,” Hillman said. “That’s what I love about being here. We’re a unit.”