March 7, 2016
BELLINGHAM, WA -
Western Washington University has had a national outdoor track and field champion in the women's javelin four times, the most by the school in any event, and the runner-up on four occasions.
Perhaps the Vikings' most remarkable performance among those seven came on May 26, 1984, when Joan Williamson won with a borrowed javelin. And then there was the rest of the story.
After arriving at Charleston, West Virginia, Williamson learned that neither of the two javelins she brought had passed inspection.
"I was a bit dumbfounded at first, like not quite sure what the judge was trying to communicate," said Williamson in a recent interview. "When I realized that the (weight) balance in the shaft of the javelins were both dislodged in travel making them unusable for competition, I began to stress a bit. I had concerns that I would not be able to compete."
"I am sure that (head coach) Ralph (Vernacchia) saw that on my face because he quickly told me that all of the javelins that passed inspection (for the other competitors) were open for me to use. I just had to choose one that I liked. That was a relief!"
Among the competitors was Maria Haley, a junior from Wayland Baptist University (Texas), who had won the NAIA title the previous year with a national meet record throw of 164-0. Williamson had placed fifth in that competition after being fourth in 1982 and eighth in 1981.
"I saw that Maria had an Apollo javelin," Williamson said, "I had never used one, but I knew that they were good so I decided to try that one out. So, I asked her and she said yes."
"But not having your own javelin is like not having your own tennis shoes or catcher's mitt. So, Ralph took me aside and said, `Joan, I want you to find a spot where you can go through your mental preparation and do it over and over and over because you're not going to get much time to prepare with the implement (as Haley would be using it as well).'"
"So mental preparation was the majority of my warmup that day. I was able to warm up a little bit with the javelin, but Ralph did a really good job of having me mentally prepared ... It definitely was what brought success to the day in light of the situation."
On her fourth attempt, Williamson unleashed a throw of 166-6, a personal best by nearly 10 feet and a national meet record by 2-1/2 feet.
"It felt like I hit the sweet spot of effortlessness," she recalled. "It was an amazing feeling of what seemed like perfect technique."
The effort stood as the Western standard for 30 years.
"I went into the last throw as the leader," remembered Williamson, "but I knew that Maria (Haley) could beat me, so when I saw her (final) throw fall short I looked down the field, and before turning to the crowd, I thought, `I need to stop and take this moment in because it's pretty awesome.' Then I turned back around and we all went nuts. It was fun."
Haley finished second with a mark of 162-10. She remains the WBU record holder at 169-0 and has all the top 10 marks ever posted in the event at that school.
A Wayland Baptist assistant coach at that time was Pee Wee Halsell. He married Haley in 1986, and a year later became Western's head track coach and has been in that role ever since. The couple have two daughters and Maria is a registered professional nurse at St. Luke's Hospital in Bellingham, Wash. And the house that they currently reside in was built by Joan Williamson's brother, Dan.
"It's a kick that Maria ended up here (Bellingham)," laughed Williamson, who was a secondary education major at Western, grew up in Deming, Wash., and attended Mount Baker High School where she won the 1980 Class A state title in the javelin.
Inducted into the WWU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1994, Williamson went into ministry following graduation from Western. She spent 15 years in Minnesota working on a traveling ministry team and then in two churches before returning to the Pacific Northwest where she is now a Pastoral Assistant at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Covington, Wash.
Vernacchia coached track at Western for 13 years, being inducted into the WWU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1988, and was a professor in the school's Department of Physical Education, Health and Recreation for 38 years. He is a well-known sports psychologist who worked with the U.S. Olympic track and field team at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.
"It was a very dramatic and well-deserved victory for Joan and Western that day," said Vernacchia. "I was very proud of her and her ability to keep her composure in a challenging situation while performing with fortitude, confidence, character and her trademark passion for excellence.
"Likewise, I was equally impressed by the sportsmanship Maria Haley displayed on that day as she willingly and graciously shared her javelin with Joan. Two great champions, two exceptional women, and one special competition I'll always remember."
History of Viking javelin throwers (updated July 8, 2016)
Historically, the women's javelin has been one of the strongest events for Western outdoor track and field with the most national champions in school history.
The Vikings' success with that implement began in 1973 when Sherry Stripling qualified for the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) national meet and placed third.
Beth Barrett, Julie Reimer and Bonna Schibret competed for Western at the AIAW gathering in the mid- to late 1970s.
Williamson had four top 10 finishes at the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) nationals from 1981 to 1984, and became Western's first national champion in that event.
Rhonda Haag was sixth in 1984 and competed in 1985. Maureen Christman, who had gone to nationals in 1987, placed sixth in 1988 and Shelley Borovich was eighth. In 1998, Laura Kruse was second.
Stacey Hopkins finished seventh at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division II nationals in 2003 and was 12th in 2004.
In 2007, the Vikings' Monika Gruszecki took the NCAA II national crown, placed second in 2008, and, following a year of school overseas and missing another season because of a shoulder injury, returned to win a second national title in 2011.
In 2014, Western had a one-two finish at nationals with just one inch separating the two throwers. Bethany Drake won with a toss of 165-3, edging out Katie Reichert at 165-2. In 2016, the same duo placed second and third, Drake throwing 177-9 and Reichert 177-3.
Reichert also placed fifth in 2015 and seventh in 2012, and Drake was 13th in 2013.
Reichert is the school's current record holder with a mark of 180-4, accomplished on June 17, 2016, at the Harry Jerome Track Classic in Burnaby, B.C.
At the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials held in Eugene, Ore., Drake placed 14th, Reichert 16th and Gruszecki 22nd.
By Paul Madison who served 48 years as sports information director at WWU from 1966 to 2015