After a record 38 individual athletes and three relay teams qualified for the NCAA East Preliminaries at the end of May, seven moved on the compete at the highest level — the NCAA Championships held at the University of Oregon in Eugene earlier this month.
Four Tar Heel runners including Jesse Hunt, Brandon Tubby, Conor Lundy and Thomas Ratcliffe qualified for the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships alongside three throwers — Daniel McArthur, Jill Shippee and Madison Wiltrout.
North Carolina's dedication and consistency were evident, and athletes shined amongst tough competition. Runners Tubby and Hunt finished 18th and 21st respectively in the men's 1500-meter. Lundy finished 18th in the 5000-meter while graduate student Ratcliffe set a school record, placing 7th and earning first-team All-America honors in the 5000-meter. Women’s javelin thrower Wiltrout placed 16th, while teammate McArthur placed 18th in men's shot put.
The throwing team's performance was highlighted by Shippee, who finished 3rd in the hammer throw on her way to earning first-team All-America honors.
Shippee threw the hammer 227 feet and 9 inches (69.42 meters) for a lifetime best. The junior thrower attributed her performance to her mindset, saying she throws her best when she is relaxed and confident.
Shippee didn't take all the credit, though. She said she was grateful for the patience and commitment from Assistant Throwing Coach Amin Nikfar throughout the season.
Nikfar said his team's strategy is consistency and confidence to help manage high-stress competitions like Jil's championship throw.
"When we get into stressful situations like bigger meets, we have enough technical tolerance to be able to get in and operate and execute," Nikfar said.
McArthur said Shippee is the perfect role model for the hard work and consistency that their coaches preach.
"Day in and day out Jill Shippee has put her head down, worked, grinded, battled back from some injuries and has always been a good competitor," he said.
He said her third-place finish is just a testament to how the coaches taught the athletes to be successful.
Nikfar knew just how much this success meant after the season was canceled last year due to COVID-19. Given the pandemic cancellations, this season has felt even more special for the athletes.
"The team had a sense of loss from not having an outdoor season last year," he said. "The team has been really good about just pressing forward every chance they get and seizing the moment and taking advantage of opportunities."
The loss of an outdoor season in 2020 was certainly an inspiration for Shippee.
"The ability to compete this year after having the season canceled last year meant so much. Outdoor track was the only team at North Carolina that never started their season last year," she said.
After putting together the best series of throws in her life in one of the most competitive fields in NCAA history, Shippee stood there on a field in Oregon smiling.
"I couldn't have been happier standing on that podium in Hayward Field," she said.
In that moment, each and every mask, COVID test, and irregularity of the 2021 season was worth it, and the dedication and hard work Shippee is known for paid off.