Fokam, Simpson-Sullivan, Forbes excel at NCAA Championships
Courtesy of NCAA
Courtesy of NCAA
By Reed Myers 06/19/21 2:59 PM
The Rice Women’s Track saw three athletes finish in the top ten in their respective events at the NCAA Championships, which took place earlier this month in Eugene, Ore. Senior long jumper Michelle Fokam, first year pitcher Tara Simpson-Sullivan and first year runner Grace Forbes achieved the best performance in women’s track and field at a national competition in 20 years. Women’s head coach Jim Bevan was proud of her team’s scores and field goals against the top competition in Division I.
“We had a really exceptional meeting,” said Bevan. “Just to score is quite an accomplishment, and having three and scoring well is a huge accomplishment. “
On Thursday afternoon, Simpson-Sullivan found herself in 6th place as she entered the pitching circle for her final attempt at the women’s hammer. However, Simpson-Sullivan saved his best to last as his final throw of 68.78 yards earned him a fourth place finish in the competition. With his placement, Simspon-Sullivan was the highest ranked rookie in the competition. According to Simpson-Sullivan, her coach’s advice was factored into her approach when she entered the ring for her final attempt.
“This competition has been a great competition for me not only for my final fourth place finish, but also for the return to an uptrend and consistency in my throws,” said Simpson-Sullivan. “Before my last throw, something my coach always tells us came to mind: leave everything in the ring. So that’s what I said to myself, last throw better throw. I knew what to do, it just had to be done right.
After Simpson-Sullivan, her teammate Grace Forbes competed in the women’s 10K on Thursday night. Forbes has gained momentum in this race after placing first in his last two competitions, the C-USA Championships and the NCAA West Prelims. However, while Forbes did not continue her No.1 streak, she maintained a top-three position for most of the race before falling at the end of the race and eventually placing No.7. with a time of 32: 38.91. According to Forbes, she couldn’t achieve her game plan due to energy constraints.
“My goal was to stay with the leader and push the last one or two miles,” Forbes said. “It didn’t really happen because I just didn’t have enough energy in the tank to stick with the leaders. I’m proud to have been able to finish the race and get an all-American finish despite the fatigue. In fact, I lost my eyesight in the last 50 meters of the race because I was so exhausted.
Senior jumper Michelle Fokam, making her third NCAA championship appearance, completed the women’s team roster on Saturday night as she competed in the triple jump. Entering the competition, Fokam’s record jump for the triple jump was 13.60 meters. Five of his six competitive jumps surpassed his previous record, and in particular his third best personal jump of 14.04 meters earned Fokam a bronze medal. According to Fokam, even though she has competed in the NCAA Championships before, she always approached it like any other competition and, in the end, she was proud of her final performance as the Rice Owl.
“I’ve been here before so I know what to expect and have been able to see what it takes to be great at this level at other championships,” said Fokam. “However, I tried to think of this competition as another track and field competition. I am extremely proud of my performance. It warms my heart to know that I did my best the last time I met and came away with the best result. I am happy to have represented Rice so well in my final competition as an Owl.
Because of their performances, Simpson-Sullivan, Forbes, and Fokam all won All-American First Team honors. The women’s track and field had not seen a trio of First Team All-Americans since 2001.
“This is the first time in a long time for us that three different people have scored in the national competition,” said Bevan. “It says a lot about what they did. There were probably less than 20 schools in the country with three different people grading. When you consider the NCAA meeting to be a worldwide meeting with representatives from over 100 countries, it is a great accomplishment. He is truly the best in the world in U23 sport. All three have improved significantly in their careers at Rice.
Rice Men’s Track and Field also sent one of their own to Eugene. The only Owl was former pole vault-turned-javelin thrower James McNaney, who made his first NCAA championship appearance. McNaney entered the competition after a second place finish at the C-USA Championships with a personal best 71.41 yards and a sixth place finish in the NCAA West Playoffs with a throw of 66.90 yards. McNaney didn’t have the same success at the NCAA Championships, however, as his third throw from 63.96 yards earned him 20th place. Men’s head coach Jon Warren has been thrilled with McNaney’s performance all year, and now he can’t wait to watch McNaney for another season.
“James’s story from outfielder to javelin thrower is great,” said Warren. “And, contrary to what was initially planned, it’s not quite finished yet. The original plan, and the plan for a very long time, was for 2021 to be its last year. But, as often happens, plans change. And COVID has allowed an additional year of eligibility. So the new plan is that James will now be back for one more season. I can’t wait to see where this next chapter in James’ story goes.
The meeting marked the end of the Owls’ outdoor track and field season. However, Fokam and Forbes will continue to compete, their next stop will be at the US Olympic Trials. On June 18, Fokam finished fourth in the triple jump, earning a spot in the final round of practice; the top three will represent the United States in Tokyo later this summer. Fokam will also compete in the long jump on June 24 and Forbes will compete in the 10k race on June 26. Simpson-Sullivan will also compete for an Olympic bid, for Great Britain, in the hammer throw at the British Championships in June. 26.