Discus throwers specialize in putting a spin on things, so it's
hardly surprising that Seilala Sua, who hurls not only the
discus but also the hammer and the shot, aims to change our
perception of the throws. "People see throwing as this huge
person in a round pit, but I see it as grace in the ring," says
spinmeister Sua, a UCLA sophomore who might be the greatest
female talent ever in the discus. Sua has her sights set on the
2000 Olympics in Sydney and, even better, the Athens Games in
2004, by which time she should be at her peak.
This is an article from the June 15, 1998 issue
But last week, as she stood in the blustery SUNY Buffalo
stadium, Sua had a more immediate goal: to lead the Bruins to
their first NCAA women's track and field team title since 1983.
Eleven-time defending champion LSU was considered a long shot,
so it was assumed that UCLA's main rival would be Texas. There
would be few instances of head-to-head competition, because
Texas was loaded with sprinters and UCLA with throwers. Indeed,
the women's competition resembled one of those ancient fables
populated by animals: Which would prevail, Longhorn speed or
UCLA struck first. On the first afternoon of the meet Sua,
ignoring pesky tailwinds (which hurt rather than help a
thrower), whipped the discus 210'8"--a monster of a throw for
such a crummy day. No one came within 18 feet of her.
"Conditions were horrible," said Bruins assistant coach Art
Venegas, who estimated that the wind cost Sua as much as eight
feet. Consider, then, that Carol Cady's 12-year-old U.S. discus
record is 216'10" and that Sua's throw would have placed her
fourth in last summer's world championships. When Sua's
teammates placed fourth, sixth and seventh in the discus, UCLA
had 20 points. One of the most thrilling team battles in recent
NCAA history had begun.
At 5'10 1/2" and 235 pounds, Sua is a formidable champion. Her
hands, she says, are bigger than those of anyone on the Bruins
men's team. "Bear claws," says UCLA thrower Nada Kawar. "She's
"Those hands help her put a beautiful flight on the discus,"
says Venegas, who notes that Sua has been lifting weights only
since becoming a Bruin less than two years ago and should get
much stronger. "There isn't a woman in the world who throws that
far with that little strength. She has so much room to improve."
Sua proudly traces her roots to the islands of the Pacific,
where there's a tradition of strength competitions. Her mother,
Charlene, is part Hawaiian, while her father, Muatapasa, who
played football at BYU, is Samoan. At St. Thomas Aquinas High in
Fort Lauderdale, Seilala excelled in four sports, starring on
the Raiders' state champion girls' volleyball team, playing
power forward in basketball and, in her sophomore year, making
All-America as a softball catcher. Track and field was almost an
afterthought. Sua got an inkling of how good she could be only
when she began to win awards and the scholarship offers started
pouring in. She chose UCLA in part to work with Venegas but also
to get closer to her family's roots.
Last Thursday, Sua was disappointed to finish sixth in the shot,
but Kawar picked up the slack by placing third. Kawar, a
Jordanian by birth, stands 6'1 1/2" and weighs 225. A good deal
of the poundage seems to be above the neck. She graduated last
month with a 3.9 GPA in biology and was named female
scholar-athlete of the meet. She plans to give throwing two more
years and then enter medical school, with the aim of becoming an
At the start of the meet's final session, on Saturday, the
Bruins had amassed a mountain of 40 points--30 in the
throws--while the Longhorns were mired in a tie for 16th, with
10. Saturday's events were expected to yield a Niagara of points
for Texas in the hurdles, the 400 meters, the high jump and the
4x400 relay, but would they be enough?
The men's team battle, meanwhile, was a logjam. Arkansas, which
had won the previous six NCAA titles, was favored to win again,
but Stanford, rated no higher than 10th in any major poll, had
put itself smack in the middle of things on the first day, when
sophomore Toby Stevenson cleared a personal best of 18'2 1/2" to
win the vault. In a discipline full of risk-taking zanies,
Stevenson is an anomaly. When he vaults, he wears a black
street-hockey helmet, a concession to his parents' concern for
his safety. It probably saved him a cracked skull two months ago
at the Mt. SAC Relays, when his spike caught in the track and he
landed on the back of his head.
Stevenson's helmet seemed the perfect symbol for a meet in which
nasty winds and temperatures in the low 50s tightened muscles
dangerously. "This is a weird meet," said the UCLA men's sprint
coach, John Smith. "Who'd have thought Stanford's vaulter would
Who but their mom would have picked the Hauser twins, Brad and
Brent, to lead a one-two-three Stanford sweep in the 10,000
meters? From that race alone the Cardinal got 24 points, one
more than its predicted haul for the meet.
The conditions were perfect for cross-country, so it seemed
right that the men's team title would not be decided until the
5,000, the final individual race. The four Stanford runners,
needing to beat the two Arkansas entrants by six points,
discovered that the 10,000 had taken its toll, and they came up
short. Arkansas finished with 58.5 points to Stanford's 51,
giving Razorbacks coach John McDonnell an astonishing 30th
McDonnell tipped his hat to Robert Howard, the latest in a long
line of superb Razorbacks jumpers. Like Kawar, Howard is a true
scholar-athlete--a microbiology major with a 3.36 GPA--and plans
to attend medical school. He contributed 20 points to the
Razorbacks' cause, winning the long jump on his last attempt
(27'5 1/2") and his third straight triple jump (55'8 1/4"). He
finished his illustrious career with nine NCAA titles.
One couldn't help wondering whether the cold weather spelled
trouble for the Longhorn women, many of whom were running in two
or three individual events plus relays. Or whether their coach,
Bev Kearney, could impart to them her will to win. As small and
explosive as a firecracker, the 40-year-old Kearney is easily
mistaken for one of her athletes, especially since she began
wearing braces in January.
"I was supposed to get braces a year ago," she says, "but I told
my orthodontist I couldn't because I figured we'd win and I'd be
on TV smiling. We lost by one point." The loss was painful, but
Kearney is a survivor. "I won't say we were dirt-poor," she says
of her childhood in Tampa, "but we had to work hard for
everything we had." At Auburn she studied social work but soon
grew disillusioned with the field. "It wasn't about improving
self-esteem," she says. "Give people the tools to empower
themselves. That's what I do with my athletes. All of it
tempered with love."
Tough love. "She tells us exactly what we need to do," says
quarter-miler Toya Brown, "and she doesn't mince words."
When Kearney told the Longhorns they needed to win four events
on Saturday, they didn't blink. First, former model Angie Vaughn
ran a 12.82 to dominate the 100 hurdles. Suziann Reid won the
400, and Brown picked up five points by finishing fourth, though
she drew blind and windy lane 8. When Erin Aldrich slipped over
6'4" to win the high jump, Texas needed only to finish among the
first three in the 4x400 relay to slip past the Bruins. Leading
virtually from the start, the Longhorns won in 3:28.65. Final
score: Texas 60, UCLA 55.
"For the last 11 years, first at Florida and now at Texas, I've
been battling for this championship," said Kearney. "I can't
tell you what a joy it is."
She didn't have to, for just then she flashed a huge, eloquent
grin, braces be damned.
with nine NCAA titles.