It has always been Natalie Kaaiawahia's particular and extraordinary talent to send objects of varying shapes and sizes hurtling away from herself, rapidly and with great force.
For a time, she focused her energies on the shotput and the discus--events she was so good at as a teen-ager that Art Venegas, the throwing coach at UCLA, still remembers her as "one of the all-time greats in the world for her age."
These days, it is mostly softballs that Kaaiawahia, 22, throws. On the occasions when she is in the outfield for any of the three recreation league teams she plays on, she is capable of throwing a runner out at first after an apparent single to left. "It has to be a slow runner," she concedes. Still, it is no easy feat.
In 1981, Kaaiawahia threw a 4-kilogram shot 52 feet 4 1/2 inches--farther than any American high school girl ever. She was a 15-year-old Fullerton High School sophomore then. Two years later, she broke her record with a throw of 53-7 3/4, a mark that still stands. In 1984, she missed making the U.S. Olympic team by six inches, and were it not for a foul on her final attempt, she would have made it with a mark of better than 56 feet.
But now, with the push for the 1988 Seoul Olympics just about under way, Kaaiawahia's name is nowhere to be found. She has not competed in a major meet since the 1984 Olympic trials. She has worked out only once since she left Arizona State in the summer of 1985 after she learned she would be academically ineligible to compete in the fall semester. Already she sat out the previous year--also because of academic troubles--after earning All-American honors in both the shot and discus during her freshman year.
She has lived with her family in Fullerton since. Softball, bowling, a job in the stockroom of an electronics firm--the duties of the sturdily built 6-footer include heavy lifting--and classes in criminal justice at Fullerton College have kept her occupied and apparently happy.
At meets around the country, her name still comes up, though it is mostly among the coaches, and less and less among the competitors.
"You become old news real fast in these sports," said Venegas, who attempted to recruit Kaaiawahia at UCLA. "The young girls know her as a name ahead of them in the books. She's becoming nothing more than a name in the record books. They know who Natalie is, but they don't know what she's about."
Whether Kaaiawahia has finished throwing for good is something not even she knows for certain.
"I can't say I've really quit the sport," Kaaiawahia said recently. "I just got tired. I needed a break, and I've taken a break, all right."
Prominent throwers and her former coaches agree that this break may already have taken her out of contention for the 1988 Olympic team, a team she seemed almost certain to make.
When Kaaiawahia stopped throwing, her distance in the shot was around 55 feet; her career best in the discus at Arizona State was 179-8--third on the all-time list at ASU, topped only by the marks of Ria Stalman and Lesley Deniz, the gold and silver medalists in the 1984 Olympics.
But while Kaaiawahia has been out of throwing, the marks have continued to rise. At the USA/Mobil outdoor track and field championships at San Jose last month, Ramona Pagel of San Diego, who two years ago was throwing perhaps a foot farther than Kaaiawahia, won the shot with a throw of 62-3. Connie Price of Hobart, Ind., won the discus at 212-5.
"I think it's too late for '88," Venegas said. "But I'm not saying it's impossible."
Roy Aguayo, who was the throwing coach at Arizona State when Kaaiawahia was there, said the projections at that time were for her to be well over 60 feet in the shot and well over 200 in the discus by 1988. He anticipated her making the Olympic team in both events.
All points are rendered moot if Kaaiawahia does not decide to throw again.
"I like doing what I'm doing," said Kaaiawahia, who adds that although the Olympics are not "a burning desire," there's still 1992, when she will be 27, an age at which throwers still can be competitive. "A lot of people want me to still continue throwing, but I wanted a break."
But while others speculate on what she is capable of doing and urge her to compete again, Kaaiawahia has been living a life without throwing.
Throwing was not something Kaaiawahia ever pursued completely on her own. In high school, her favorite sport was volleyball, she says, and she only went out for track after Hugo DeGroot, then a teacher and track coach at Fullerton High, approached her.
"One day when I was playing volleyball at (age) 14, he saw me. And just like that, he goes, 'Uh, I want you to throw shotput,' " Kaaiawahia said.
And so she did. In her first meet, she threw 36 feet. Later that year, she threw 48-11 1/2 in the state meet--a mark that won her the state title as a freshman. She won the state shotput title in each of her four years--no one had ever won four California state titles in one event before--and won the discus twice. The only Californian to have won as many individual state championships before was Clarence (Bud) Houser of Oxnard High, a three-time Olympic champion who won the shotput and discus in 1920-22.
"When she was throwing in high school, it became the big event of the meet, whether it was the Arcadia (Invitational) or the CIF championships," Venegas said. "She put everybody away early. Her last real competition was ninth grade, maybe 10th. Nobody had a chance when she was in the 11th and 12th. She was totally throwing alone."
So it was that Kaaiawahia became a prodigy of such proportions that DeGroot says, "even the East Germans" had articles on her.
Kaaiawahia says she does not think about throwing very often.
During the school year, she takes courses at Fullerton College in preparation for a career in law enforcement.
"She wants to be a highway patrolman--I don't know why," said DeGroot, who finds it all somewhat exasperating. "I tried to talk her into being a girls' track coach."
She works 10 hours a day, up to six days a week, at her job in the stockroom of General Power Systems in Anaheim, where she is on the first-aid and safety committee. She bowls from time to time, and she plays softball three nights a week, on two women's recreation league teams and a mixed recreation team. It is softball, these days, that seems to provide her with much of her happiness.
"I hit this one home run that was the best I've ever hit," she said.
Kaaiawahia came to bat with her team trailing by two runs in the fifth inning, she said, and league regulations limit games to seven innings or 1 hour 10 minutes, whichever comes first. The time limit was closing in.
"I was the last one up," she said. "And I hit this home run and it was just . . . I was happy with it.
"I didn't see it. As soon as I hit the ball, I didn't see nothing because I was running. There's no fence, but the field goes down into a creek, like, and then back up and there's trees up there. And I asked this one girl, and she said, 'You see those trees up there on the other side of the hill? That's where the ball hit and it rolled down and they couldn't find the ball anywhere.' "
There may be no one who would like to see her compete again more than DeGroot, now a walk-on coach at Mission Viejo High.
"I'd give anything in the world to see her get back into it," he said.
This spring, Kaaiawahia and DeGroot held one workout--her first serious one in nearly two years. As DeGroot tells it, Kaaiawahia was excited about the prospect of throwing again.
"She indicated she'd really like to get started again," he said. "I was just waiting for her to let me know what she wanted to do."
But nothing has come of it.
Aguayo calls it "a loss for the American Olympic team" because Kaaiawahia isn't competing.
But Meg Ritchie, an assistant coach at Arizona who finished fifth in the discus at the 1984 Olympics, offers this analysis: "Who can blame anybody if they plain don't want to throw? It's a perfectly legitimate reason not to."
Whatever happens, Kaaiawahia is at ease with her situation.
"I didn't plan this long of a break, but I've enjoyed it too much," she said. "If I throw shotput again, I throw shotput again."