June 19, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – Vanessa Jules is “the most accomplished athlete” in Marshall Track and Field history. The 2013 All-American’s titles and school records say that as well as her quoted coach, Herd 18-season veteran Jeff Small.
So, as Jules makes the transition from collegiate athlete to hopeful professional, she competes perhaps for the last time in Marshall gear at this week’s USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships.
Jules, coming off her sixth-place finish for the Thundering Herd at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in Oregon two weeks ago, is one of 19 entrants in a star-studded heptathlon at the USA Nationals in Des Moines, Iowa. She will compete Thursday and Friday at Drake Stadium.
Jules and fellow senior MU teammate Crystal Walker (fifth in long jump) gave the Herd a tie for 36th place in the NCAA meet. The point Jules makes – as does Small – is that she could have done much better.
“The USA Nationals, this is the start of the next phase of Vanessa’s career,” Small said. “She’s improved so much and the way she is still improving, I don’t know why this wouldn’t be the first step in the next part.”
Jules, 22, of Silver Spring, Md., sees herself as a hopeful for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. She said she only learned Monday, while talking with Herd assistant coach Willie Johnson, that she can win and accept prize money if she finishes in the top eight in Iowa.
If she finishes in the top three at the USA Nationals, she qualifies for the 2013 IAAF World Championships from Aug. 10-18 in Moscow. If she falls below that, Jules still could be selected for the USATF Under-23 team and she could compete in the Thorpe Cup on July 27-28 in Chula Vista, Calif. – the USA versus Germany in the decathlon and heptathlon.
Meanwhile, the Conference USA champion and record holder – she also owns eight Marshall records (indoor and outdoor) – isn’t just doing the right things. She’s meeting the right people, too – like 1996 Atlanta Olympic gold-medal decathlete Dan O’Brien, at the recent NCAA nationals, where Marshall was stunningly in 15th place when Jules finished her heptathlon to add to Walker’s long jump success (see photo).
“At the NCAA, before the 200 (meters), I’m warming up,” Jules said earlier this week before leaving for Iowa. “It’s the last event of the first day (of the seven-event heptathlon), and Coach Johnson is standing there.
“This guy walks up – I didn’t know who he was – and sticks out his hand, shakes my hand and says, ‘You’re really good. I can see a lot of growth in you … you’ve got to keep working.’ I’m thinking, ‘OK,’ I thought he was just a regular coach.
(He is -- O’Brien is a volunteer assistant coach of the multis for Arizona State.)
‘Then he asked me am I going to USAs, I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘you know, we have a camp out in California, the Under-23 team, with USA versus Germany, and I’d really like to see you there.’
“So, it’s ‘OK, thanks,’ and he’s still talking to me and Coach Johnson is still standing there, and I’m wondering if Coach Johnson is going to say something, tell me to go warm up. He walks away and I don’t worry about it. I go run the 200 (finishing eighth).
“After the 200, walk up to Coach and says, ‘Did you see that coach just walk up and randomly talk to me before the race?’ Coach Johnson says, ‘Do you know who that is?’ And I said no. He said, ‘That’s only the Dan O’Brien. And I’m thinking, ‘Dan O’Brien … Dan O’Brien.’ And Coach Johnson says, ‘That’s only the guy that was the best decathlete in the world.’ 1996, I don’t know. I was 5 or 6 years old then, no idea who he was.”
Obviously, Jules’ performance – and potential -- impressed the Olympic gold medalist.
“The next day, after the hep was done, he came up again and said, ‘You did really well. I see a lot of growth in you. Keep on pushing. I’d like to see you go further. Come out to California and train at the Olympic Training Center.”
O’Brien wasn’t alone in his praise. San Diego State Coach Shelia Burrell, a U.S. Olympic heptathlete at the 2000 Sydney Games and 2004 Athens Games, also noticed the Herd star.
“I didn’t know her, either,” Jules said. “She came up, shook my hand, and said, ‘Wow, you came out of nowhere … Marshall University … You’re really good, I can see so much growth, you’re going to be great. Later, Coach Johnson tells me who she was, too. So, I ended up talking to two Olympians.”
Those kind of contacts can pay off for Jules, but only if she keeps pushing, keeps improving. Besides five of the top eight finishers from the NCAA nationals, the USA heptathlon field also includes three of the top four finishers in last year’s U.S. Olympic Trials – Sharon Day, Chantae McMillian and Bettie Wade.
All three have eclipsed 6,100 points in the event. Jules’ school-record 5,865 – set in the NCAA nationals two weeks ago – ranks eighth among qualifiers.
“Vanessa can get a better score,” Small said. “The way she continues to improve, it’s only a matter of time.”
“I still want to hit 6,000 (points),” Jules said. “I’d love to place in the top three, and anything can happen in the heptathlon. I want to make the top three and go to Russia, but if not, I’ll still be thankful, and I’d definitely like to make the Under-23 Team.
“I can get to 6,000. At the NCAA, if I’d have thrown the javelin 140-145 feet, I’d have gone from fifth to first. I threw it 116 (her personal best). Everyone else is going from a full approach, and I’m just standing there throwing it. It’s the same with the shot, just throwing it. My long jump is from a short approach, others long.
“So, everything can improve, that’s why 6,000 is realistic for me.”
The prize money in Des Moines ranges from $7,000 for a title down to $500 for sixth through eighth. Jules knows that, but it isn’t the part about her future that occupies most of her thoughts. She knows life outside the Marshall umbrella.
“It’s not going to change me, but it will be a lot tougher,” Jules said. “Doing weights are going to be tougher. Workouts are going to be tougher. I kind of have to approach it differently, be more disciplined. I might not have a coach all the time watching … I’ve just got to stay focused, stay motivated.
“I know my coaches are going to change, but I’m ready for it. It’s what I want.”
Back in high school, at Paint Branch (Md.), Jules placed in the Nike Internationals with her team. At Marshall, she was a three-time NCAA qualifier. She had the second best NCAA-qualifying score in the heptathlon in the nation this season.
She was named the Mid-Atlantic Region Field Athlete of the Year by the coaches’ association and C-USA Outdoor Field Athlete of the Year. And after her freshman MU season, she went to the USA Junior Nationals, finished fourth in the long jump, and was an All-American.
“I’ve accomplished so many things that I don’t even grasp it yet,” Jules said before heading to Iowa. “Three-time NCAA qualifier. Marshall records. Conference USA Performance of the Meet (this spring, as heptathlon and high jump champion).
“I’ve accomplished a lot that I don’t even really feel yet, but I appreciate it all. It shows what’s possible. I thought about it and looked at it the other day. And if was like, ‘Wow, I did all this?’”
She’s not finished by any means. It’s a long road to Rio.