Staking out her territory
Last summer at the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, Kara Patterson stood on the field at Drake Stadium in Des Moines, Iowa, taking in her incredible achievement: six throws. Five of those landed farther than 60 meters, and one actually sailed all the way to 66.67 meters -- a personal best and an American record. It was everything she'd been working for since she took up the javelin in high school. "I was ridiculously happy," said the 25-year-old, who will be gunning for another record this month at the World Track and Field Championships in Daegu, South Korea. "It changed my outlook on the sport, because suddenly I was like, 'OK, I really do belong on the international scene. I can hold my own against the best throwers in the world.'"
Good thing she took a minute to soak up her success, because as far as the rest of the sports world goes, the name Kara Patterson doesn't mean a thing. It's not personal -- no javelin thrower has ever become a household name in the way that, say, Usain Bolt and Allyson Felix and LoLo Jones have, at least in track and field circles. Despite the anonymity of its athletes, for Olympic geeks, the javelin gets a lot of respect for the speed, agility, precision and strength required by participants. However, this appreciation is not shared by everyone. A knockout performance by Patterson at the 2010 Prefontaine Classic couldn't get the TV crew to even raise an eyebrow. "I won with a 65.90[-meter] throw -- a meet record -- on my last attempt," she said. "The Prefontaine Classic is one of a very few track and field events that gets televised nationally because of its prestige." Too bad the film crew didn't show her throw or mention the record on TV. "It's OK," Patterson said. "The javelin community is a small but passionate one, and I'm proud to represent our sport."
Patterson found her way to this quirky event back in high school. Always active, she joined the swim team in the fall of her freshman year, then played basketball over the winter. When spring came, she was looking for a new sport. Her geometry teacher -- also the girls' track coach -- suggested the javelin, an event Patterson had never heard of. But at 6 feet tall, with long limbs and good flexibility, she turned out to be a natural, eventually getting recruited as a thrower for Purdue University. In 2010, her first professional year after graduating college, Patterson set one PR after another. However, 2011 has had its ups and downs, and Patterson believes much of that is in her head.
"I started working with a sports psychologist my redshirt year at Purdue," she said. "I have a history of not performing well at the big meets that really matter, and I know most of that is from the mental pressure, not the physical preparation. I wanted to fix that." With the help of her psychologist, Patterson has learned to fine-tune her focus. "The biggest advice nugget [the psychologist] provided me with is to think about how I'm going to succeed rather than just getting caught up in wanting success and far throws," she said. "It's about strategy."
And that strategy has been tested so far this season. Patterson is the first to admit that she's struggled to live up to expectations. "After last season, I was proud that people had noticed the steps I had taken toward full-on international success, and I was excited to build on that," she said. "I never imagined that I would take a step backward, and it has been extremely challenging to approach every meet with renewed calm and focus when desperation is trying to claw its way forward." Shaking off the bad meets isn't easy, either. It takes days for Patterson to get over it, she said. "There's a horrible visualization game my brain plays, where it tries to take me back in time and fix the problems that happened in competition. I'm slowly learning to be disappointed without being completely devastated."
Gold over glam
After a few subpar performances in Europe this summer, Patterson had to give herself the "eyes on the prize" speech and remind herself to stay focused on the end goal: the world championships in Daegu. She returned to her training camp in San Diego, and immersed herself in the six-days-a-week routine that involves drills, strength training, throwing, running and even gymnastics in preparation for the javelin. "It's funny that people think throwing a javelin is simple," she said, laughing. "It's actually incredibly technical and requires a lot of flexibility as well as stability -- two things that often seem at odds."
Between throwing in the morning, lifting in the afternoon and squeezing in a run whenever there's a free block of time, Patterson's workout schedule leaves little time for a social life. Conveniently, her boyfriend, shot-putter and discus thrower Russ Winger, is also part of her training group. "He's a huge support," she said. "And since we travel and compete in many of the same meets, it keeps us from having to do the long-distance thing." Still, this athlete's life is a far cry from the decidedly more glamorous world of track and field's darlings -- the sprinter and hurdlers with big-money contracts and advertising campaigns -- but Patterson is cool with that. "A nice thing about the training center is that most of the athletes here participate in field events that don't get a lot of attention, so we all sort of feel isolated together," she said.
With a little luck, the spotlight will soon shine a bit brighter in Patterson's corner. She believes she can throw a world record, currently more than 5 meters longer than her PR. And she's already looking ahead to the 2012 Olympics in London, where a medal -- specifically gold -- is on her agenda. "These things take some doing," Patterson said, "but I'm planning on a long career."