SIU's McCall throwing in for Olympic bid

Daughter of former heavyweight champ is team contender in discus, hammer

John Smith, the throws coach at Southern Illinois, was among a dozen Division I track and field coaches watching the girls discus at the 2007 Illinois high school championships. Most were there to size up Bailey Wagner of Grant Community High School.

After the event ended, Smith asked his colleagues who their top two recruiting choices would be. He was hoping no one would mention Jeneva McCall of Thornridge.

No one did, which was hardly unexpected, given that McCall had finished a distant fifth. That allowed Smith to walk away with a smile on his face.

"Her throwing wasn't very pretty, and it was obvious she didn't really know what she was doing," Smith said. "But she had God-given size and explosiveness, and when I started recruiting Jeneva, she told me she would come to Southern. A lot of the good kids don't want to go to a mid-major."

McCall hadn't even thrown the discus until her junior year and didn't make the state final her senior year. She spent only two years at Thornridge after two at Bassett High School in Virginia, following a pattern that divided her childhood between the states, the Illinois piece spent with a grandmother in Dolton.

Now in her senior year with the Salukis, the daughter of former WBC heavyweight boxing champion Oliver McCall has become an NCAA indoor champion, member of the 2011 U.S. world championships team and 2012 Olympic team contender in two events (hammer and discus).

McCall has become the best three-event (hammer, discus, shot put) women's thrower in U.S. history.

Wagner, who won three Illinois prep titles in the shot and discus, has gone on to a good but unremarkable college career at Georgia Tech and Oklahoma.

McCall's lineage was among the things that convinced Smith to give her a full scholarship. Two of her sisters, Shirley (James Madison) and Tawanna (Ferrum), were conference all-stars in college basketball; a brother, Elijah, is a professional heavyweight boxer; and another brother, Mika'il, will be a sophomore running back at SIU this fall after transferring in January from Iowa.

"Her family is basically athletic geniuses," Smith said. "Jeneva has that speed and power and arm length (a 6-foot-4 wingspan on a 5-101/2 body) from her family, and she can out-practice anybody. She embarrasses the football team in the weight room."

McCall goes into this weekend's Missouri Valley Conference championships in Wichita, Kan., with the longest college throw of the season in the discus (195 feet), No. 2 in the hammer (227 feet, 2 inches) and No. 4 in the shot put (58-33/4). She intends to compete in all three at the conference and NCAA championship meets and the OIympic trials.

"We don't really know which is my best event," said McCall, who finished 15th in the hammer qualifying at the 2011 worlds, missing the final by 5 feet. "Every time one gets ahead of the other, something else jumps up. I think I have more potential in the discus if we can figure it out, but my coach thinks the shot might be my best event."

Both Smith and his wife, Salukis head coach Connie Price-Smith, work with McCall. John Smith coached Connie to 25 U.S. titles in the shot and discus and four Olympic appearances in the shot. She placed fifth in 1996, the best showing by a U.S. woman in the Olympic shot put since 1960.

"Coach John taught me how to throw (all three), and Connie helps my technique by working on the small things," McCall said.

McCall is an ambidextrous thrower: left-handed in the hammer, right in the shot and discus. That allows her to vary the stresses on her arms and legs as she puts an 8.8-pound shot, launches the 8.8-pound ball at the end of a 4-foot-long hammer chain and slings a 2.2-pound platter.

She has an evocative description of the differences in throwing motion among the three.

"The shot is thrown from your neck, like a punch," she explained. "The discus is from out by your side like you are hauling off to slap somebody. The hammer is done with two hands like you are dumping something over a fence."

McCall, 22, a psychology major who is trying to write children's books, will miss her graduation ceremony Saturday to compete in the conference meet. She plans to remain in Carbondale to keep working with the Smiths in disciplines in which athletes often reach their prime at 30 or older.

"The moment you leave is the moment you put your future in jeopardy," she said. "You have to stay in the place that made you good in the first place."

It is a place among elite throwers few would have imagined McCall getting to.

phersh@tribune.com

Twitter @olyphil
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