A former Big Sky Conference champion in the javelin, Michelle Coombs is looking to win it again
By Fedor Gaponenko, EWU Sports Information
After winning the Big Sky Conference Championship in the javelin throw her freshman year, Eastern Washington University senior Michelle Coombs faced one of the biggest challenges in her life the following season.
It was in the preliminary round at the Big Sky Conference Championships when the defending champion made her first throw. What followed was what she described as the worst pain in her life. Not sure what happened and trying to hold back tears, Coombs wanted to try another throw, but her coach wouldn’t let her.
She later found out she had torn the ulnar collateral ligament in her elbow and had to have Tommy John surgery performed. During the 18-month recovery period, there were times she wasn’t sure if she would be able to ever throw the same again. Thankfully, she had a full recovery and this season hit a new personal best of 164-9 at the Duane Hartman Invite in Spokane. That mark ranks her fourth in school history and surpassed her best mark in her freshman season when she had her winning throw of 163-1 for the Big Sky title.
Coombs is ranked seventh in the NCAA Division I West Region and 14th in the nation among Division I competitors. She is currently ranked second in the Big Sky Conference, trailing only her teammate Cora Kellerman, who had her own ordeal to overcome with a rare heart ailment in 2010.
Although Coombs is happy with the rankings, the only thing on her mind this week is regaining the Big Sky Championship and competing at her best each time out.
What was it like winning the Big Sky Conference Championship in the javelin your freshman year with a throw of 163-1?
“Being a freshman, I had no expectations of doing well whatsoever. Afterwards, I really grasped how big of a deal winning the Big Sky was. At first it was just like ‘oh I won a meet’, it didn’t really seem like a big thing. Later I realized that it was probably my biggest accomplishment since winning state in high school. It was a really cool experience and helped motivate me to start my college career.”
Describe the disappointment of not being able to defend your title the next season because of the elbow injury?
“When it originally happened I didn’t know what I had done -- they kept thinking it was maybe a sprain. I kept trying to throw and I still went to conference. I already got myself into regionals, so conference was more or less a chance to defend my title even though I didn’t really need to. I remember I made one throw and it was the worst pain I felt. I tried not to cry hiding my tears from my coach because I wanted to try again, but she took me out after that. It was a huge disappointment and I remember later I found out that I tore my UCL and I thought I was never going to throw again. Obviously, I was overreacting. My coach and my mom said, ‘no you’re going to have surgery and you’re going to come back.’”
What was the biggest challenge of recovering from the Tommy John surgery?
“I would say that it was the time it took to recover and just stay mentally tough. It was such a long recovery to keep focused on my goals and wanting to be back, and then I doubted myself whether I would be as good again. I had 18 months and it was such a long time to just think and not throw; to think about what I will be when I recover. When I slowly started throwing again there was the worry that I would hurt myself again. Every throw I was really timid, because when I first injured myself it just took one throw and I blew out my elbow. After I started throwing more and more I began trusting it, and by now I almost don’t think about it anymore.”
It would seem like you’ve made a complete recovery after setting your new personal best of 164-9 at the Duane Hartman Invite in Spokane. How do you feel about competing for another Big Sky Conference Championship this year?
“I’m extremely excited and I’m more nervous about this meet than I have been in a long time. It’s excited nervousness and I’m glad because I throw better when I am nervous. Cora Kellerman and I push each other so well, and a few other girls in the Big Sky are really good throwers. I think the Big Sky is loaded with good javelin throwers, so I’m more nervous because I know I have to really show up to compete. I know I won’t get away with a decent throw -- I need to be at least around my personal record if not above it to win. I’m excited -- I hope I can win, but I know I will need to bring my A game and I think I can.”
Not only are you ranked second in the conference, but you are also ranked seventh in the Division I West Region and 14th in the nation among Division I competitors. What does this mean to you?
“It’s pretty cool. The top 12 regionally go to the NCAA Championships, so it’s cool to know that I’m up there. Knowing that I’m ranked nationally is really great because I haven’t been there since my freshman year, and it’s a relief to know that I’m back where I want to be. I don’t want to get caught up in the rankings too much, though. I want to be able to consistently hit good marks. It’s nice to know, but it all depends on who shows up and hits the big numbers when it counts.”
What is it like competing and training with another excellent thrower in Cora Kellerman?
“It’s awesome -- I wish I had her on the team all five years. I’m a competitor and I know she’s a competitor, so we push each other. Training with her has been great. Although we push each other in practice and in competition, we are also super supportive of each other. We create a great atmosphere by being positive, and those kinds of things really help everyone compete well. It’s not like either one of us gets discouraged if one does better; we just rise to the occasion and compete. We are also great friends now, so it has been an amazing season having her on the team.”
How do team dynamics work for track and field given that it’s mostly an individual sport?
“We have such a great group of athletes this year. Even though it’s very individualistic, you can also tell when someone isn’t giving it their all and it reflects on the moods of other people. When someone shows up to practice hard and compete, that also reflects on everyone. We push each other, we compete with each other and we get results together. Our team as a whole is doing great this year. I work hard because I want to get the results. Even though I can’t force someone else to work hard, people see the attitude.”
Apart from your accomplishments at throwing the javelin, you are also 10th all-time at Eastern in the 55 hurdles with a time of 8.55 and are fourth all-time at Eastern in the 60 hurdles with a time of 9.07. How were you able to perform so well in different events?
“I had no idea I did that well. I haven’t hurdled in awhile and I actually never hurdled in high school. I picked up hurdles my freshman year and I really liked it. I think I would be better at hurdling if I was faster, but it is also a very technical sport. I guess it’s just hard work, and if you put in the time and learn the technique, you get results. I’m also a competitor -- I compete really hard and if it’s within my reach, even if it’s ugly I’ll do it.”
What made you decide to stop hurdling?
“I actually really like hurdles, but for one it’s really hard to find practice time for both. Another reason is the year I came back from surgery I planned to do outdoor hurdles, but I really wanted to focus on my javelin. I was going to do it again this year, but it’s my senior year and I just wanted to focus on javelin. It has helped too -- I feel like I’ve gotten stronger and more in shape for javelin. I think it’s great to give your mind and body a break by trying other events. I wanted to do something different this year, but I didn’t end up doing that. I do miss hurdles though -- they’re really fun.”
This is your final season on the Eastern track and field team. What will you miss most?
“That’s really tough because I’ve had such a wonderful time here. My coaches, my trainers and my teammates have all been great. I’m going to really miss my teammates and the practicing, and just having something to look forward to and strive for. Most of all, I think I will miss the competition. I love the competing, the adrenaline the tension and emotion of it. I’m definitely going to need to find something to keep competing in -- maybe I’ll even keep throwing if I can stay healthy. I think I’ll realize what I’m going to miss more when I’m done. Things like even the bus rides with my teammates, all the small things. I don’t think there’s much I won’t miss.”
Outside of track and field, how has your experience at Eastern been?
“I’d say it has been very good. I doubted my choice of coming here my freshman year, but looking back now I can’t imagine ever wanting to be somewhere else. I like the small-town atmosphere and all the friends I’ve made here. In academics, I love my major of psychology and, as a whole, I’ve just had a great experience here.”
What made you decide to pursue clinical psychology?
“I think I decided that in eighth grade. I just find it really interesting how our minds work and why we do what we do. It was something I always wanted to do, and as I started taking classes it only solidified that decision. I’m still undecided what exactly I want to do with the major, but it’s something in that ballpark -- I just want to help people.”
What are your plans after EWU?
“I don’t have any specific plans yet. I’m kind of a leaf in the wind right now. I want to either be a school counselor or coach; it’s kind of between those things right now. I also kind of want to take a year off for myself and go live in Hawaii or somewhere for a year with no husband, kids or work to worry about.”