CHARLESTON, Ill. – One throw.
That’s all it took for Dawson Wright to make history for the Evanston Township High School girls track and field team here at the Class 3A Illinois High School Association state finals.
Concluding an improbable rise to the top, Wright captured the state championship in the shot put with a personal best throw of 13.19 meters and became the first person in the history of the long and storied ETHS girls program to win that event.
The Evanston senior, who had to stop sprinting after her junior season because of leg problems, took up throwing for the first time this year.
Now there’s no one better.
Tears of joy
“You like to see those tears – when they’re tears of joy,” said ETHS head coach Fenny Gunter, whose team placed seventh in the team standings. “She was blessed to have a second chance. When one door closed [as a sprinter], then another door opened for her. And she made the most of her opportunity.
“Dawson was like a sponge this year. She just kept absorbing what her coaches said, and she valued every single learning experience.”
Wright enthused, “I can’t believe I’m the first one [at ETHS] to do this. I guess I’m still in a state of shock,” she said, as she hugged family members and teammates and the tears flowed freely. “I was just trying to do my best this year, to focus on my personal growth because it was my last year in high school. I wasn’t thinking about winning state! I’m just overwhelmed that I was able to do this.
“I never thought I’d make it here. I’m tearing up right now because I know how much I overcame. This journey was definitely worth it.”
Wright’s rise through the ranks of the elite strongwomen in the state of Illinois is a story that probably would have been rejected coming from a Hollywood script writer. She didn’t even win the sectional championship and her throw of 12.08 at that competition only ranked seventh statewide coming into the two-day state finals.
But it all came together here Friday just south of O’Brien Field at Eastern Illinois University. On her second throw of the prelims, Wright uncorked what turned out to be the winning toss and then held onto the lead when none of the remaining challengers could beat her.
Working on the back leg
“I’ve been working on trying to push off on my back leg to get more power all year,” Wright explained, “and Friday on that throw I was at least semi-able to do it. Thirteen [meters] has been my goal all year and I’ve never thrown that far in practice. Everything just felt so natural and easy on that one. I knew I could do it if I was able to throw off my back foot.
“The rest of my throws? They were in the 11s.”
That included her three throws in the finals on Saturday. Preliminary performances are counted toward the final results, so Wright’s focus was almost more on her competition than her own attempts.
“I tried to do some things different today because I knew I already had that 13,” said the senior standout. “Honestly, I probably tried too hard today. I was aiming for 14 and I still have a whole bunch to learn about this. It was nerve-wracking waiting for the other girls to throw. Not until everyone’s last throw did I think I won it.”
The eventual state runner-up, Amaya Hendrickson of Hoffman Estates, and third place finisher Jaclyn Riedl of Maine West both produced throws over 13 on Saturday – 13.08 and 13.07, respectively – but couldn’t catch the champ. Wright’s best throw translated to approximately 43 feet, 3 inches.
Only two other Wildkits have even earned medals at the IHSA state finals, despite the fact that Evanston has scored state meet points as a team every single year since the competition began back in the 1970s. Shola Kadiri placed second in 1998 and Pollyanna Johns took eighth in 1993.
No full-time coach a challenge
Not only did Wright change directions in her track career – “sprinting was really my first love” – the Saint Louis University-bound senior also had to deal with the fact that there was no full-time throws coach in place for the girls following the unexpected passing of Alex Thomas.
Boys assistant coach George Woolridge picked up the slack and found an eager student in Wright, who embraced whatever challenge he put in front of her. But Woolridge couldn’t attend most of Wright’s actual competitions because of conflicts with boys meets and had to rely on video reviews to help her on her climb to the top.
Wright attempted some discus throws when she first worked with Woolridge back in August, but then switched to the shot.
“It took me 40 years to get a gold medalist,” laughed Woolridge. “And who would have thought it would come with the girls? I’ve worked with some of them [Terika Smith, Johns, Kadiri] over the years, and as I told Coach Mich [boys head coach Don Michelin] it’s all about Evanston kids, whether they’re male or female.
“Dawson came over to the shot with the mindset to be focused and she fit in great with the throwers. When you have a kid like that, who keeps asking questions and wants to get better, you’ve really got something to work with. She processed what I was teaching her really well.
‘A really, really, really good year’
“For the first time I had to incorporate a [practice] program where the boys and girls worked together – and it worked. I don’t know if the head coaches liked it, but it produced a state champion. They all did the same lifts, the same drills, and sometimes they used the [heavier] boys shots to help build their strength.
“I think if she had another 3 months to work on it she’d be out there today [state finals] in the discus too. And she’s already asked me when our next practice is.”
“Coach G is such a nice guy,” Wright added. “He helped me so much with my consistency and that’s why I’m able to be here. When I first tried it I was nervous, but when I saw how the guys interacted with him, I knew this would be a lot of fun. He’s a great motivator and a great analyzer of throws. He’s such a welcoming guy and he helped me be my best.
“This is the most fun I’ve ever had in a season. This was a really, really, really good year.”
Awesome Dawson!!!!! Congratulations Granddaughter Dawson and team. Great job coach G!