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'I’ll figure it out': Madison Wiltrout finds solace away from javelin

Photo courtesy of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

In May 2022, Madison Wiltrout threw 60.03 meters in women’s javelin at the ACC Championships, a UNC and ACC record. 

But during her senior year, just four weeks before the 2023 ACC Championships, Wiltrout told her coach she wanted to stop throwing javelin.

According to Wiltrout, that’s what she should have done when she fell ill with mononucleosis only days before the 2021 NCAA Championships. Even before that, Wiltrout was in pain and frustrated in practice.

But she pushed on, ending with a 16th place finish at those NCAAs.

This season, the frustration came back. Wiltrout’s teammate, graduate student Cash Rodriguez, could tell she was off at the Tom Jones Memorial Meet in April. 

Wiltrout normally needed very few cues from throws coach Amin Nikfar on her performance, but she was convening with him more. 

"The number matters, but if your body doesn't feel right, you're not going to feel good about it,” Rodriguez said. “It was more obvious that day than most that she just wasn't feeling right and was trying to fix it.”

Wiltrout could no longer push through the pain in her left foot.

She was in pain management mode for plantar fasciitis, but walking up the stairs or to the bathroom was painful. The Tuesday after the Tom Jones Memorial, Wiltrout told Nikfar she needed to stop throwing.

As a sophomore in high school, Wiltrout threw a national high school record 56.59 meters. Then, a few weeks later, she tore the ulnar collateral ligament in her elbow, making her doubt if she would ever throw javelin again.

She would come back for her junior year of high school, but she threw in fear. When more injuries hampered her in college, she wondered if she would ever do what 15-year-old her did again.

“I had a picture of me throwing the record,” Wiltrout said. “I would sit in bed, look at the throw and try to understand what I did technically that was so good. I was like, ‘How did I do that? I don’t understand. I can't do it now.’”

Then came 2022, seven years after the high school record throw. At the ACC Championships, she not only smashed her 56.59-meter personal record, but she also broke the school and ACC records for women’s javelin.

“I thought that it was gonna be a celebration in terms of, ‘I'm finally back,’” Wiltrout said. “But it was more so a respect for who I was before and a birth into a new me.”

But four weeks off during her senior year of college? Nikfar and the team backed her decision, but even when she woke up, she thought she was crazy.

For the past year, through talks with Brendan Carr, a UNC Athletics sports psychologist, Wiltrout learned to answer her questions.

What if she lost? Focus on what’s true and present, Carr taught her. Her friends and family were in the stands and would love her no matter what.

Wiltrout and Duke graduate javelin thrower Dana Baker became friends when they competed against each other in high school.

Even now, the two support each other at competitions. Wiltrout said she tells Baker at every meet that there’s no one she’d rather lose to. When Wiltrout was thinking too much about her distance at this year's NCAA East First Round, Baker reassured her to save her best throws for nationals.

“She’ll make her eyes really big and her mouth super small in a serious situation like where they’re reading out our order of throws,” Baker said. “I’ll just be scanning around, and she’s already looking at me just like that.”

So when Wiltrout took time off in April, it was time to cherish her relationships. After she told her coaches her decision, she visited her family in Pittsburgh, Pa.

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When she got back to Chapel Hill, she lifted twice a week and only held a javelin when she practiced her run-ups. No throwing.

Well, some throwing — if the object was a softball or basketball when she and Rodriguez hung out. Sometimes, she would invite her teammates over to play video games. 

This approach led her to a season-best 58.51 meters and third ACC title in May.

Wiltrout said throwers and coaches ramp up reps as a championship season progresses because they don’t trust the work done earlier on. Wiltrout, though, trusted her body.

“Whether you think I'm crazy or whether I think I'm crazy, I'm still gonna say, 'No, this is the best decision,'” Wiltrout said. “'I know what I'm doing. I’ll figure it out.'”

She avoided throwing javelin again between ACCs and the NCAA East First Round — where she threw a first-place 56.37 meters on her first throw.

And again she would not throw javelin from regionals to the NCAA Championships in Austin, Texas. Wiltrout’s body and foot felt fine — even while doing her full run-up — but she couldn’t find her mark on the approach. Her rhythm was disrupted — she was trying her full run-up at half approach distance.

Wiltrout ended up finishing eighth, five spots below her pre-meet national rank. 

“My family came out and we had a birthday dinner,” Wiltrout said. “I was just with people that I love. I enjoyed the day after. I was like, ‘I'm not gonna let this dictate my attitude on this trip.’”

Javelin isn’t everything, is it?


@DTHSports |