FEATURE: Simmons driven to win second national title
Play Video Photo by: Wes Bloomquist
Photo by: Wes Bloomquist

Tuesday, March 7, 2017
by Nathan Wright // @NateWrightPT // www.PatriotTalon.com

Only a few years ago, Whitney Simmons was a basketball player and track and field was just something to do. 

Now, the UT Tyler senior from White Oak is the reigning Division III outdoor hammer throw champion and could be the school’s first multiple national champion when she competes in the weight throw at the Division III indoor national meet on Friday.

In between, Simmons has gone through excitement, disappointment and redemption. And she is just beginning to realize her own potential. 

Finding Her Groove

“In high school, I threw discus but it wasn’t anything I really cared about,” Simmons said. 

Simmons was a basketball player. She played it for years and that was what she was going to do, she said. She even initially visited the University to play basketball. 

“That was the plan,” she said. “In high school, track was just something I did to keep myself busy after basketball season ended.”

During her junior year of high school, she tore her ACL. She played basketball her senior year but she wasn’t the athlete she was before the injury. She felt like that door was closing and she needed to open another one. 

During her senior year, her grandfather began coaching and helping Simmons with her throwing. She ended up breaking her high school’s record and qualifying for the University Interscholastic League state championships that year.

Despite finishing seventh at the state meet, Simmons said she didn’t do as well as she wanted to. 

“[Finishing seventh] was kind of like a stab in the gut for me because I was expecting so much of myself,” Simmons said. 

She began to doubt herself and think that throwing the discus really wasn’t the thing for her. Then a friend of hers from high school knew University track coach Bob Hepler. After hearing about Simmons, Helper invited Simmons to campus for a visit. 

Simmons initially planned on going to college at Baylor. She had been accepted and was ready to go to Waco. After talking things over with her parents, she made a compromise that she would give the University a try – for a year. 

“Going into school, I was like, I’m not going to make any connections because I knew what I wanted to do,” Simmons said. “I wanted to get out of East Texas. I wanted to go to Waco.”

After just two weeks, Simmons said she fell in love with the program and the coaches and had made so many friends on the track team that she knew it was where she was supposed to be. 

Early in her freshman year, University strength and conditioning coach Chris Stonestreet told Simmons she was going to throw the hammer. Once Simmons began working on, Stonestreet began to realize her potential. 

“I knew she was a special talent when I first saw her pick up the hammer,” Stonestreet said. “But it takes something more than that to accomplish what she has done. To see the intensity and the time she has put in over the last four years has been unbelievable.” 

Success, Disappointment and Redemption

As a freshman, she finished seventh at the outdoor national meet and she hasn’t regretted anything since. 

During her freshman year, she began working on the weight throw, which is the equivalent to the discus and hammer during the indoor season. 

Simmons admits she wasn’t very good at first. In fact, she went to two indoor meets that season and didn’t even record a mark. 

She went back to her original plan of focusing on the discus, with the hammer as an “accessory” during the outdoor season. 

She gained All-American status in the hammer throw at the 2014 outdoor national meet and was the American Southwest Conference champion in both the hammer and the discus as a freshman. 

Once her sophomore year started, she began working on the weight throw again. Her second attempt at it went much better than her first. 

She finished second at the national indoor meet that year. It was the highlight of her career – at that point.

She went on to earn All-American status at the outdoor meet at the end of her sophomore year. After her runner-up finish at the indoor meet in 2015, she wanted a national championship. 

But a year later, she didn’t have the success in the weight throw she had as a sophomore. She finished fifth. 

“My junior season didn’t go as expected,” Simmons said. “Because I finished so high my sophomore season, I was just expecting so much. It ended up not going as planned. That kind of motivated me for how I have been competing this year.”

Before she got to this year, however, Simmons dominated the outdoor season last spring and eventually won the national championship in the hammer throw with a toss of 59.13 meters. She became the University’s second track and national champion and first in the outdoor season. 

It was a moment she won’t soon forget. 

“Still, whenever I talk about it, I am just kind of speechless,” Simmons said. “I sit there and think about it in my head. I was seeded first my whole season, from the first meet at Brook Hill. I think it was expected, but when I got there, I’ve never had such a huge target on my back for my entire season and then to go to nationals, I was the person everyone wanted to beat.”

Simmons said she has never been in that position in anything. She said it was surreal and when she won, she couldn’t believe it. 

Before she got out of the ring, Stonestreet was there to celebrate with and congratulate her. 

“It was pretty exciting,” Stonestreet said. “We had a pretty good idea it was coming because she had been ranked No. 1 all season long. We knew there was more in the tank than what she had already thrown. The reaction was just joy for her, relief almost because it had been three months of anticipation. It was just special.”

Chasing Another Championship

Despite winning that national title last spring, Simmons still has some unfinished business to attend to. Finishing fifth at last year’s indoor meet only motivated her to do better her senior year. 

All she has done leading up to this weekend’s meet in Naperville, Illinois is improve her throws – and her school record – in every meet this season. Her last time out, at the Indoor Track and Field Classic in Frisco, she threw it 19.77 meters, winning the event by 1.76 meters over the second-place finisher from Division I Sam Houston State. 

“The big number I got at nationals my sophomore year, just came out at nationals,” Simmons said. “I wasn’t expecting it at all. I had just been throwing high 16s. I don’t think I had even hit 17 my sophomore season. Then I hit that 18 at nationals and it was like, ‘Oh, now I’m an 18 thrower.’ “

During her “disappointing” junior season, she said she only hit 18 once on her way to a fifth-place finish at nationals. 

She hit 19 for the first time this season at the Terrier Invitational in Boston on Jan. 27.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve been waiting two years for this,’ “Simmons said. “It was an incredible feeling and ever since then it has just been building up and building up and building up and then Frisco was the big one. I was just like, ‘This is what I’ve been waiting on. This is incredible.’ “

She also qualified for the U.S. Indoor national meet that was held last weekend. She decided not to go because she was looking forward to throwing the hammer for the first time at the Marc Randle Classic in Bullard. 

At that meet last Friday, she threw the hammer a personal-best 6.52 meters. Not only was it her personal best, but it was the second-best throw in Division III ever. The record is 62.92 meters and it was set in 2006. 

She still has trouble describing the feeling of seeing her name on the list of national qualifiers for the indoor meet. And although she skipped the meet, she knows that she is among the elite, not just at the collegiate level, but at the professional level as well, in her sport.

“My anxiety hit,” Simmons said. “I’m not that good. I’m not good enough for that. My name doesn’t need to be on that list. While I do plan on throwing after college, I plan on pursuing a career in throwing, it was weird to see my name on that list while I am still focusing on something else.”

She didn’t want anything to get in the way of the goal that she, and Stonestreet, have had all season long of claiming the indoor national championship. 

The Time is Now

After coming just short of breaking a national record in her first outdoor meet of the season, Simmons’ time to put the memory of her fifth-place finish at indoor nationals last year is now at hand. 

Her event is one of the first of the meet, beginning at 10 a.m. on Friday. 

She admitted that she had been focusing so much on throwing the hammer for the first time that she had lost track of how close the indoor national meet was. 

“It kind of snuck up on me, but I am super excited about it,” Simmons said. “I am just so ready to make the memory of last year disappear. I’m ready to get there and throw and get it over with so I can breathe.”

She won’t get much time to rest and enjoy it as the outdoor season has begun and she is just as excited about that as she is about the possibility of winning the indoor national championship. 

Her collegiate career will end after the outdoor national meet later this spring. It could very well end with another national championship or two. To reach that point, when track was just a thing to do for her only a few years ago, is an accomplishment. 

“It feels weird,” Simmons said. “If anyone that knows me now, knew me as a track athlete in high school, they would be like, ‘What are you doing?’ ” Simmons said.  “Because I would go throw and then leave early to go get a snow cone. I would sit there and eat Skittles while everyone else was doing something.”

She tried to find ways to get practice over with quickly so she could leave. Now, she said, thinking about it as career is crazy. She said it is all about who you know and who you let into your life and shape your life. 

Simmons said she would preach about coming to the University to anyone, not just athletes. Those that are athletes, that come to the University, will likely hear about Simmons for many years to come and hear the story of a basketball player from White Oak, who found a passion and took it as far as she could. 

“Every day I get to see my name on the wall in gym and I’m just like, ‘Wow. That’s me.’” Simmons said. “It’s incredible where my life has gone because of a few small decisions.”

*This article was first published by The Patriot Talon