Missing a championship by half a big toe stokes the competitive fire within Liz Wanless ’04.
By Matt Gagne ’04
She says she’s fine, but her friends know otherwise, and that’s why they’re hanging out in her room late on a Sunday night in March.
Eventually the friends head to bed, and it’s quiet now. No more singing and dancing, no more screaming along with whatever song blaring from the CD player, whether it’s stomp-on-your-face rap or my-dog-just-croaked country, everyone messing up the lyrics as usual.
With the quiet come the tears, finally, for shot-putter Liz Wanless ’04. Hours earlier, she had returned to campus from the NCAA Division III Indoor Track and Field Championships at DePauw University, where she finished second — losing to her arch rival from Williams College — missing a national title by half a big toe when she stepped out of the circle on a record-setting throw.
“I have this problem,” she says, drying a tear from her cheek. “I’m never satisfied. And that keeps me going, wanting better. It’s amazing — the way you feel when you win, the way you feel when you lose.”
That feeling, that drive, makes it so hard for Wanless just to sit there, knowing her hardest work was only good for second place. But as she gets up to sing and dance along with the Punky Brewster theme song — Maybe the world is fine, or just a little unkind, who knows? — she also realizes that this passion to achieve is why, at this very moment, she wants to be at Bates College, here in the basement of Rand Hall, more than any other place in the world.
Three years ago, Wanless turned down offers to play Division I volleyball and left her hometown of Belleville, Ill., to come to Lewiston. When she arrived on campus she looked like a watermelon that had sprung legs. She was fat and out of shape, but got by in volleyball and track because she was bigger than anyone else. She threw the shot-put for one meet in the indoor season, broke the school record (then 40 feet), and quit.
“I didn’t know if I wanted the time commitment,” she says. “But once I realized I did, I went balls to the wall.”
Things started to click her sophomore year. She returned to track and started making sacrifices, going to the gym every morning, running in the afternoon, eating less junk food, working out twice a day. The girl no one took seriously in high school started to take herself seriously. Little by little, 240 pounds became 200. “I’m much happier with myself,” says Wanless, who now captains the track and volleyball teams and is a two-time female Bates Athlete of the Year. “If you feel good about yourself it translates into other parts of your life. It makes things a lot easier.”
Last summer, Wanless stayed at Bates to train, at least four hours a day. She calls it the “summer of hell,” but the more time she spent on campus, the more Wanless, the product of a large public high school, realized that she and Bates were a perfect match. “There are a lot of motivated, goal-chasing people around here,” she says. “I’m just another person trying to achieve a goal, and there are so many around here — academic goals, sports goals, postgraduate goals.”
This past winter, Wanless had a bead on her own goal — to be the NCAA Division III shot-put champion. The battle came down to Wanless and Healy Thompson, a Williams senior. They had met before, most recently at the prestigious USA Indoor Track and Field Championships in Boston, an event showcasing Olympic-caliber track competitors. There, Wanless finished seventh, well ahead of Thompson and a host of Division I throwers.
At the USA meet, “Healy was a welcome face,” Wanless says. “She came over and was like, ‘Yeah NESCAC! Yeah Division III!'” But at the NCAA meet Wanless just wanted to do some cow tipping, Williams style.
Near the end of the throwing sequence, Wanless busted out a 50-foot throw, setting a facility and meet record. “I looked at [Healy] when I came away from the circle,” Wanless says. “She’s like, ‘Man, I gotta friggin’ throw a beast to beat that.'” Which Thompson did, breaking Wanless’ record by nearly 11 inches (50-10 3/4). Wanless’ immediate reaction was I know I can beat that. “I love when people push me,” she says. “I went in and I threw close to 52, but I fouled it. And that sucked. [The foul] was toward the side of the circle, a small foul. You could hear the crowd going, ‘Ooooh, man!’ I’m just like, it’s alright, I can do it again. So I did it again, and I fouled it again, and that sucked.”
Even for an interview, Wanless doesn’t try to sound like a Betty Bates. She says what she wants and seems to give little thought to what people think about her. Displaying a certain pragmatism, she zigs when others zag, like the time during her summer of hell when she didn’t have enough money for breakfast on campus, so she drove to the nearest motel in search of a free continental. When she’s inside the athletic arena, standing 5-foot-10 and now at 200 pounds, with her Midwest accent and take-no-bull approach to life, Wanless knows that “people are kind of naturally intimidated by me. And that brings some respect” from teammates and foes.
But outside the throwing circle, an intimidating persona has its drawbacks, Wanless says. “My love life is crap,” she laughs. “Not every guy wants to date a girl who leg presses more than he does, or bench presses more, or runs faster. Yeah, I feel insecure, but that doesn’t get in the way of what I love to do. So I try not to take myself so seriously. You can’t, especially when people like to make jokes” — she’s heard her share of Xena, Warrior Princess comments — “I just laugh right along with them. So far, that’s worked.”
The revelry of Sunday night has now become the solitude of a very early Monday morning, and Wanless decides to call her throwing coach, Jane Jawar, but hangs up after one ring — not everyone operates on a college student’s sleep cycle, she realizes. It’s been a long night and a long two weeks, and she thought talking to Jawar might help. “She’s a great part of the reason why I’m doing so well,” Wanless says. “I’ve had leaps and bounds with technique. What works best for me is not necessarily what the competition or the Olympians are doing. My legs are huge and they are strong, probably 100 percent stronger than my upper body. When I’m throwing, it’s all my legs.”
Wanless’ second-place NCAA trophy sits prominently on her desk amidst the clutter — books, papers, a broken laptop computer, food wrappers, spare change — for three days. Then it disappears. “It’s in a box,” she says. “I’ll keep it forever. It’s a symbol of how hard I’ve worked. But there’s no need for a showcase. Who needs to know it’s there as long as I know it’s there?”
Finally, it’s time to go to bed. There’s a philosophy paper to write and a 3.40 GPA to keep up. And the weight room, where she’ll take revenge for her loss to Thompson, awaits her presence. “I have an undying passion for working out,” she says. “Track is a team sport, but in your event it’s all about how hard you work. You’re throwing a little ball, and if you lift harder you’ll throw it harder.”
And farther. “Fifty-two feet” to be exact, Wanless says, smiling, eyes bright. “I want to kiss that 52 mark knowing I hit it with a shot-put.”
Nothing like true love.