CEDAR FALLS — Working to attract the attention of college recruiters and solidify herself as one of the state’s best, Sarah Pate blocked out pain that surfaced in her knees as a high school junior.
She thought it would go away, but that never happened.
The Osceola native still earned Drake Relays and state titles in the shot put, while securing an opportunity to train with throws coach Dan O’Mara at the University of Northern Iowa.
Yet, after a couple months on campus, the pain in her knees became unbearable to the point where surgery was the best option. It was suggested that she step away from collegiate athletics following the operation.
“Doctor said, ‘I think we should stop you from doing anything in track and field,’” O’Mara recalled. “She was devastated. We decided to wait until after rehab.”
Pate admits she thought her career was over after the operation. Two months on crutches gave way to three more rehabbing before O’Mara suggested switching events to the hammer throw.
“Throwing shot put was my passion back then,” Pate said. “I didn’t think that was going to be a possibility, turns out it wasn’t, but I found the hammer.”
The event in which competitors build up momentum to launch a four-kilogram ball attached to a steel wire placed less pressure on Pate’s knees compared to the stress of pushing off in the shot put or even the discus motion.
Learning to throw a new implement, Pate didn’t have to make up for much lost time compared to other collegiate athletes. The hammer throw isn’t sanctioned for high school competition in any state outside of Rhode Island.
Still, it took patience to catch on. Workouts were altered to reduce pressure on her knees with squats, plyometrics and running replaced by core training and biking.
“Taking it day by day, and knowing you’re going to have a lot of bad days before you have a good one,” Pate responded, when asked what it took to pick up the new event. “It did not click for the first 2 1/2 years. At first I did not like the event at all, but once I felt like I was starting to get the hang of it, I started to enjoy it more.
“By the time I figured out how to control my speed with the ball, I feel like that’s when everything started taking off.”
Pate set a UNI freshman record in the event following her redshirt season and has continued to progress. She improved on her school record of 203 feet, 6 inches set a year ago by marking as far as 207-2 this season.
The UNI senior enters this weekend’s Missouri Valley Conference outdoor track and field meet at Indiana State as the favorite to capture her first league title in the hammer after placing third and second the past two seasons.
Continuing to make adjustments into her senior year, the four-turner has transitioned from heel turns to starting with a toe turn — which made it easier to stay in the ring and be aggressive.
“It’s very rewarding for coaches to see athletes that have never done an event and turn it into something that’s pretty great for us,” O’Mara said. “I’m very excited about what she did the last four years, and I’m more excited here coming up in the next couple weeks to see what she can do at conference and (NCAA) regionals, and hopefully making it to nationals.”
Pate is coming off a consistently strong championship effort at the Wisconsin Twilight where she surpassed 200 feet (61 meters) three times. Only 19 of this year’s NCAA Division I competitors have surpassed Pate’s top mark of 207-2.
“Don’t always take you can’t do it as a final answer,” Pate said, reflecting on what she’s learned at UNI. “Always come into every day with a purpose and work hard.”
Beyond track and field, Pate will fulfill another long-term goal this summer when she begins an internship with Hallmark.
“When I was in fifth grade someone asked me what I want to do when I grow up,” Pate recalls. “I said, ‘Design for Hallmark.’ I’ll be doing production, but being that close to that childhood dream is pretty cool.”
CONFERENCE OUTLOOK: UNI’s women are coming off a third-place finish at the MVC Indoor meet, while the men were fourth. The Panther men placed second behind Wichita State in last year’s outdoor championships before the Shockers abandoned the league. Wichita State also won the women’s 2017 team race with UNI finishing fifth.
UNI coach Dave Paulsen anticipates a competitive battle with the Panthers joining Southern Illinois, Illinois State and host Indiana State as the teams with the strongest outlook for points.
In addition to Pate in the hammer throw, UNI athletes have the top time or mark in seven events.
“The key for the weekend is to maximize our opportunities,” Paulsen said. “We have a lot of opportunities all over the place. We’ve got to get those kids that are ranked up high to do their job and hold place or better, and we have to have guys that are sitting 10, 11, 12 climb up into the rankings and find a way to make a final.
“This is the most excited I think I’ve been going into a championship because there’s no wiggle room anywhere from top to bottom. No one is given anything. You have to earn it.”