SE: Post-Collegiate 'Cats Vying for Breakout Performances at U.S. Trials

Erica Twiss and Brittany Smith share very little in common.


Twiss was a multi-event athlete at Kansas State. Smith competed in the shot put and hammer throw for Illinois State. Twiss grew up in Texas. Smith was raised in a Chicago suburb.


What they do share is a post-collegiate dream and a similar site to prepare for it. Both are training for the upcoming U.S. Olympic Trials, and both do so at K-State.


Twiss’ time at K-State, which included Big 12 titles in the pentathlon and long jump, left her all too familiar with the support Wildcat athletes receive. That support, along with head coach Cliff Rovelto, helped keep her in Manhattan as an assistant coach for K-State this season.


“I really enjoyed the welcoming community that is here, and everybody, you can tell, is really invested in your success and your story,” Twiss said. “They really want to see you succeed, so it’s nice to see there’s so much support everywhere you turn.”


Smith’s stay in Manhattan hasn’t been nearly as long. Her K-State connection was formed when she hired Greg Watson, a K-State assistant for the past three years, as her personal coach in 2014.


“Manhattan is awesome. I actually like the weather,” said Smith, a native of Oak Park, Illinois. “Chicago is known for its crazy winters, so out here it’s pretty relaxed in the wintertime and the facilities are awesome. It’s perfect to train in, it’s a great team and there are great athletes to be around. I like it a lot.”


Aside from the support and, in Smith’s case, the weather, K-State has offered both an ideal place to grow in their respective events. Twiss got to continue working with Rovelto, an assistant coach for Team USA. Smith can now work closely with Watson, who is quickly becoming a household name for throwers around the country.


Twiss and Smith have narrowed their focus since college, where each of them earned All-America honors in multiple events.


Instead of preparing for seven events, Twiss is now working on just one: the 400-meter hurdles. The former Wildcat hit the Olympic standard (56.95) in early June, running a time of 56.50 at a meet in Georgia.


“It’s exciting to see the way I’ve grown and developed this year,” said Twiss, whose best 400 hurdles time at K-State was 57.95. “(The training) is a lot more specialized. In the multi, you spend a lot of time doing field events, jumps and throws, and now that I’m just running and just hurdling, I get a lot more specialized training.”


Smith dropped the hammer throw to focus on the shot put, an event she held the world’s top mark at one point in 2015. She currently holds this year’s 20th-best mark at 60-4.75 (18.41 meters), surpassing the Olympic standard of 57 feet, 9 inches (17.60 meters).


She credits a large amount of her progress to Watson, a coach she originally hired to train her in the hammer too.


“You don’t know what to expect, and then my first year (with him) I had huge PRs. He’s definitely teaching me a lot and working me pretty hard, but it’s been good with him,” she said. “He gives me a hard time all the time, but he’s making me tougher, he’s making me a stronger athlete and I’m pushing through a lot of things.”


Twiss and Smith have also benefitted from their coaching roles for K-State, even if they are on different levels.


In her first year as a staff assistant, Twiss said she has gained valuable perspective.


“It’s cool, especially coaching the events that I do because I see things that they do and I can relate my training to them, but I can also relate their training to me,” Twiss said. “It’s been a two-way street and I like that a lot.”


Smith serves as a volunteer coach but, for the most part, lets Watson handle instructing K-State’s throwers. Her benefit, she said, comes from being able to train in a team atmosphere. It was a part of Smith’s training she missed out on in her first post-collegiate season when she was the director of operations for the Illinois State track and field team.


“They push me too, and I hope I push them just as much,” Smith said of K-State’s throwers, highlighted by Dani Winters, who will also be competing at the U.S. Olympic Trials. “This year to come in and actually be in a team format was awesome again.”


Now, Twiss and Smith will compete for a chance to join the greatest track and field squad in the country: Team USA.


Twiss begins her journey in Eugene, Oregon, on July 7, when she will be making her first appearance at the U.S. Olympic Trials.


“That in itself is kind of a big accomplishment to me. At this point, this is all fun from here,” said Twiss, who will need to finish in the top three to earn an Olympic spot. She will compete against a field of Americans that hold five of the top six times in the world. “Once you get in, the playing field kind of levels out and it’s just who runs the best that day. I’m focused on having good, clean races and being as competitive as I can to work my way through the rounds.”


Smith, who will throw July 7, will not be new to the trials. She competed in 2012 after her junior year at Illinois State, finishing 10th in the shot put and 11th in the hammer throw despite being “dead” from an NCAA season.


“Prepping this year, I think I have a good chance,” she said. “It’s about who comes to compete that day.”


Smith’s competition will also be thick with world-class talent. Seven other female athletes from the U.S. have thrown a better mark than her this season, while 15 total Americans have hit the Olympic standard.


“The bottom line is the top three at the trials are going to go to (the Olympics), and you’re going to have really good athletes who are going to get left behind; that’s just the way our country works,” Watson said. “So in order to compete at that meet and do what you need to get to the Olympic Games, you’re going to be one of the best in the word already.


“I truly feel that she’s a special athlete and capable of good things. If it’s this year, next year, the year after that, whenever it may come, I know she’s capable of very good things.”


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