NDSU's Olin among nation's best javelin throwers after forced break from training
FARGO — Alyssa Olin looks to the south wall of North Dakota State's Shelly Ellig Indoor Track and Field Facility lined with banners of past NDSU All-Americans. The junior javelin thrower points to an empty spot on the wall next to the other banners.
"I want that banner up there," she said.
Olin, an All-Summit League thrower from Mott, N.D., is well on her way after breaking the NDSU record, which is also the seventh-best throw in Division I this season. But just a few months ago, Olin wasn't going to throw a javelin competitively again.
Around last Thanksgiving, Olin was taken to an emergency room, after losing feeling in her legs and collapsing while lifting weights. She was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, which puts pressure on the spinal cord and nerves in the spine, among other spinal defects.
Olin's doctor told her she shouldn't throw again.
"I was so heartbroken," Olin said. "You go from it being your whole world to nothing. I feel like I lost part of my heart. I was ripped away. It's not like you choose to be done. I felt lost."
Olin had faith she had more to give to the sport. Out of training for two months, she went to other doctors, including a neurosurgeon, and finally got medical approval, as long as she modified her training by relying more on machine lifting to ease the physical impact on her body.
Olin didn't fully throw again until early April, when she chalked up the second-best throw in NDSU's history at 160 feet, 8 inches for second place at the Stanford Invitational. Olin believed that might be her best throw for the near future.
But Olin kept pushing and threw 174-5 on Friday, April 14, at Long Beach (Calif.) State's Invitational, breaking the previous NDSU javelin record by more than 3 feet and ranking her seventh in the country. At the Beach Invitational, Olin was second to NCAA leader Rebekah Wales of Louisiana State, who's thrown 188 feet.
"I just wanted to make it to the finals because these girls are throwing bombs," Olin said. "When I made it to finals, I was so much more relaxed. I went into that throw and hit everything right. It was a shock for sure."
Olin said she started throwing her sophomore year of high school to get out of sprint events, learning most of her technique from YouTube videos. Olin, who also played basketball and was an all-district volleyball player for Mott-Regent, went on to become the North Dakota Class B state runner-up in the javelin her junior and senior seasons.
NDSU throwing coach Justin St. Clair recruited Olin, who also pole vaulted, long jumped and ran relays in high school. St. Clair liked her flat-out speed and athleticism, but knew her self-learned technique needed an overhaul.
"She just had a lot of natural ability," St. Clair said. "But from a technical side, it was a little rough."
Olin said she needed to do a better job of controlling her speed into the throw, keeping her arm back as long as she could and angling the javelin correctly, among many other small tweaks.
Javelin throwing is demanding on a person's body, St. Clair said, and Olin's spinal problems made her re-examine the way she works.
"That's a clear statement to her level of commitment," St. Clair said. "That says this is somebody who really wants to do it, and she's going to do what she can to make sure she can do it."
Bison head coach Stevie Keller saw Olin's drive early on, and her commitment picked up after she was temporarily out of the sport. With some further training, Keller said Olin's best throws should start to happen more consistently.
"It's tough to find kids who are competitive like she is," Keller said. "She didn't know if she was going to throw anymore, and obviously javelin is an event where there's a lot of stress on the back. But potentially giving up track and field was going to be pretty hard on her."
Olin, a zoology major who wants to get into pre-optometry, wants to win the Summit League this year on her way to reaching All-American status.
"I never thought that would be the case," Olin said. "I've been blessed with this opportunity to say the least."
What: Lyle Hokanson Classic track and field meet
When: Noon Friday, 10 a.m. Saturday
Where: NDSU's Schlanser Track