After a seven-year retirement, Teri Spiers didn't know what to expect the first time she threw the javelin in competition again, but she never thought it would be humorous. She took her first attempt and watched in disbelief as the javelin turned sideways, drifted right and finally struck earth at 142 feet - the equivalent of an airball. And then she heard laughter - from her own coach.
"His body was shaking," she says."It was about the worst throw she's ever had," recalls Coach Dan Walker. "It was embarrassing. I started laughing. That sort of broke the ice. She needed to relax and let it fly, and that's what she did."
Spiers' next throw not only won the competition, but qualified her for the U.S. Olympic Trials. Since then, Spiers (say it Spy-ers) has thrown the javelin 175 feet, 4 inches to place herself among the top 10 women in the United States. She will compete in the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, which will begin Friday in Atlanta. A top-three finish there would advance her to the Olympic Games.
Which was the point of her comeback. Spiers, a former All-American at Weber State (under her maiden name of Okelberry), is an assistant volleyball coach for the Wildcats. Since her college eligibility ended, she has married, had a baby, started a coaching career and reached the age of 29.
Her athletic career had ended in 1989. The only throwing she had done since then was for her co-ed softball team. Unsuspecting male base runners would see a woman with the ball in center field and arrogantly go for an extra base, only to be picked off with a rocket throw.
"You don't throw like a girl," she was told, not for the first time.
Then last year, with the Atlanta Olympics on the horizon, she began to consider a comeback, convinced she hadn't given the sport her best effort or best years. In college, she had never lifted weights or focused solely on the javelin. Besides playing for the Wildcat volleyball team, she also set school records in the intermediate hurdles, triple
jump, heptathlon and javelin. She might have been an outstanding heptathlete if not for two problems: she was terrible in the shot put and high jump.
Spiers was a three-time All-American in the javelin and in 1988 placed sixth in the 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials. A year later, she completed her eligibility and left the sport until May 1995, when she walked from her office across the hall to Walker's office and told him she wanted to make a comeback.
"In '88, everybody who finished ahead of me was around 30 years old, and so now I'm 29 and maybe I'm in my prime," she says. "It was now or never."
"She hadn't thrown for seven years," says Walker. "I wanted to see how much time she was willing to put into it to make sure she was going to do it right. The javelin is the most injury-prone event in track. I didn't want her to end up having to have surgery. She said she'd work harder than she did in college. She never was a dedicated weightlifter, and she was pretty spread out in college. After she became a coach she realized how important that part was."
Spiers still won't intimidate anyone with her muscles or her size. At 5-foot-8, 120 pounds, she's an anomaly in the javelin, where her rivals weigh 150 to 170 pounds. During her college career she was so small and thin that when her turn came to throw, meet officials would move up closer to the throwing line, anticipating the measurement of a short throw, only to have the javelin fly over their heads.
"They'd see this little twerp come up to throw and move up; bad idea," says Walker. "She's pretty small. But she has a very fast arm, like the fast-twitch muscles of a sprinter. Her arm goes through faster than anyone I've ever seen."
Spiers learned to throw while playing neighborhood sports with her big brothers and their friends in North Ogden. She also played rec softball and in junior high competed in the softball throw in track meets, once throwing 211 feet. At Weber High, she was all-state in volleyball and basketball and a two-time state champion in the javelin.
"I had planned to run (track races), but the coaches saw me throw in p.e. and asked me to try the javelin," she recalls. "I had no idea what a javelin was until they showed it to me."
Spiers, who ranked ninth and 10th in the U.S. in 1988 and '89, respectively, threw the javelin a personal-record 177-1 during her senior year at Weber State, a mark she has nearly reached this year despite the long layoff. She'll probably have to throw in the mid-180 range to make the Olympic team.
"She's worked harder than I thought she'd be able to," says Walker. "She's been a good role model for the younger kids at Weber. She's a 29-year-old mother and wife out there running bleacher stairs on her own."
"Family's first, then work, then I fit in workouts when I can," says Spiers, whose family consists of husband Kurt and daughter Bailie, 2.
Spiers is uncertain whether her comeback will continue past the Olympics. "I'd like to continue, but I don't know what I'd push for. But you never know."