When attending a track and field meet, fans' eyes are often captured by the swift runners flying past the finish line, leaping over hurdles or passing off a baton to their teammate. Very few spectators see what happens on the field.
Javelins soaring, jumpers bounding in the sand and metal balls landing in the grass with a thud — that is just some of the action found inside of the track.
Though often overlooked, UNC track and field star Jill Shippee demands attention in many field events, but none more than the hammer/weight throw.
As a star goalkeeper at Shenendehowa High School in Clifton Park, N.Y., Shippee initially had her sights set on playing soccer in college. However, it was the insistence of her eventual high school track coach that changed the course of her athletic career forever.
“Back then, I didn't really care about track and field that much because I was just decent at it, not super great,” Shippee said.
By her sophomore year of high school, Shippee found that many more doors opened thanks to her ability to throw a heavy metal orb rather than block a shot on goal.
“I played soccer up until my senior year but once spring came around, I was full-time track,” she said.
Her choice to switch sports proved to be fruitful in more ways than one, not just for Shippee, but eventually for student-athletes nationwide.
The rise of a star
In the fall of 2017, Shippee came into the UNC track and field program as a first-year on the throwing squad. She staked her claim inside the circle instantly.
During her first spring with North Carolina, Shippee earned second-team All-America honors in the hammer throw at the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships.
Moving onto her sophomore season, Shippee set not only an ACC championship meet record, but a conference record and her fourth school record of the 2019 season to win the women’s hammer throw title at the ACC Outdoor Championships.
Now, as a graduate student closing out her last track season as a Tar Heel, Shippee holds the school and ACC women’s hammer throw record of 69.76 meters. Currently, she is the only woman to claim three consecutive ACC gold medals in the hammer throw event — and she isn’t finished yet.
With only the NCAA Outdoor Championships left in the collegiate outdoor season, Shippee hopes to leave her mark at UNC with high athletic achievements and a record of student-athlete advocacy.
The power of sport
Founded at UNC, UNCUT is a student-led and athlete-driven organization that inspires student-athletes to be themselves. And who else to lead the charge than Shippee — even if she did accidentally fall into the role.
“It all started in November 2018 when a colleague of mine pulled me aside after class, and I just thought he was asking me to interview to be on one of their episodes,” Shippee said. “Somehow I got looped into a meeting where I was now going to be one of the co-founders.”
What began as a small online presence in Chapel Hill has grown over the past three-and-a-half years to reach an estimated 16 universities and numerous student-athletes across the country.
Whether it be short stories, interviews, video productions or podcasts, UNCUT gives the public a chance to see behind the uniform and grasp a better understanding of what it means not just to be a student-athlete, but also a human.
“It's just sort of exploded,” Shippee said. “We had a vision of what we were going to make but it's expanded in ways that we never would have imagined, so that's been a moment of pride for us.”
Passionate about the role of sport in enhancing personal development and societal unification, Shippee plans to use both her bachelor’s degree in sports administration and recent master’s degree in accounting to shift the perspective fans have of athletes.
‘The epitome of being a Tar Heel’
Excelling in the classroom, on the field and in the community, it isn’t hard to find people Shippee inspires.
“My first impression of Jill was that she’s a highly motivated person who wants to be successful in every way possible,” North Carolina throwing coach Amin Nikfar said. “I think her involvement in the athletic community rather than solely in track and field is the most impressive, I don't know how anybody can do that.”
During the regular season, the throwing sector of the track and field program will train on the field and in the weight room at least eight times a week.
James Joycey, Shippee’s training partner and a senior thrower on the UNC track and field team, gets the opportunity not only to see her perform in competition but to also witness the hard work that goes behind it.
“Coming in and seeing the success she's been able to train with day in and day out and seeing the way she goes about things makes both me and my other teammates believe in what we can achieve,” Joycey said. “I think a big theme that she's provided to the UNC throwers and the UNC track team is to believe in yourself and that if you put in the work, you can also achieve those things.”
With meets beginning early in January and occasionally running into July, it can be especially hard for track and field athletes to balance physical wellbeing, schoolwork and mental health for such a long time.
The hidden dilemma of student-athlete mental health has recently made its way to the forefront of the public eye, but Shippee has been working to combat this issue for years through her involvement with the Student-Athlete Advisory Council.
SAAC is composed of two appointed representatives from each athletic team who work to foster better communication and a sense of community among all UNC teams. Members of this council represent their teams in a monthly forum to discuss the betterment of the UNC Athletics program and its athletes, which includes the hiring of sports psychologists.
As president of UNC's SAAC, Shippee serves as the student-athlete voice to university administration, as well as conference-wide.
“Every summer, I would go to meetings with other reps from all ACC schools, then hear about what they're doing,” Shippee said. “It's really a moment of pride for our university.”
From the soccer field of Shenendehowa High School to the hammer throw circle of Chapel Hill and her advocacy for student-athletes, Shippee's exceptional work ethic has carried her through.
“Something to mention about Jill is the commitment to the wider life at UNC she has and that she is the epitome of being a Tar Heel,” Joycey said.