Brianna stepped up to the runway on her final throw. She carried her javelin and an enormous weight. The weight of defending three previous PAC 12 championships. The weight of a torn elbow ligament making every throw painful. The weight of one final chance to win. Brianna stepped up to the runway.
Brianna Bain is a record-breaking track and field athlete best known for her accomplishment of winning four consecutive PAC 12 (Pacific 12 Conference) championships for javelin - the only woman to have accomplished this since the PAC 12 has existed, and the third since the PAC 10 began. I interviewed Brianna as a part of our Vox Siren series highlighting local notable women. As an athlete myself, I felt lucky to sit down with a superstar.
When I was preparing for the interview, I read everything I could about Brianna. I learned we had a lot in common. We both play sports, we’re both tall, and we both went to high school in Beaverton. However, Brianna has the prestige of a scholarship and journalists clamoring to speak with her after championships. But we both play sports that don’t have much viable professional presence (my sport is ultimate frisbee). I hoped we’d end the interview with a bond of locker room sisters.
Talking with Brianna, I found myself most fascinated and impressed by her mental process when she stepped up to the runway on that final throw. For the last four years, she practiced a process she calls “go animal,” a phrase coined by her teammate Rebecca Hammar. To put it simply, go animal means she shuts off her thinking mind and relies only on her doing mind. When throwing in the final competition, thinking would only hinder her performance - to go animal would be to shut off her consciousness and get her body to do, in a mere 5 seconds, what she trained 20 hours a week to accomplish. After hours and hours of training, there is no more thinking, just doing. If Brianna truly goes animal, all those weights she carries with her become irrelevant.
Though going animal means shutting off your mind, one gets to that state through conscious effort and practice. Brianna, who graduated from Aloha High School in Oregon’s Beaverton District, went to Stanford to throw javelin and study psychology. She spent her time at Stanford training hard and studying hard. This is where she combined her classroom lessons on the human mind and her work ethic at track to discover the power of mindfulness meditation. Through meditating, Brianna practiced using a trigger word to turn off her thinking mind. She strengthened her muscles in the weight room, conditioned her footwork in drills, and trained her mind on a meditation cushion.
When we sat down together, Brianna wouldn’t tell me her trigger word to go animal. She did say she chose a different word each year though. (Eventually they lose their power if overused.) I asked her about her process leading up to her championship. She told me about her torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) - elbow tissue vital to any thrower - and the stress of actually toning down her training to deal with it. Until she got UCL reconstructive surgery, she was only damaging her arm more with each throw. If she got the surgery before the championship though, she wouldn’t be well enough to compete at all, and couldn’t defend her title and accomplish the feat of four consecutive championships.
I imagined myself not being able to train before my Ultimate National Championships. I get a lot of confidence from feeling prepared, and I imagined how I would get caught up in my head if I couldn’t train. Sitting at my interview with her, I thought about meditating, how if I was really committed to my sport, I would do that, too. Brianna aligned her academic and sports goals to compliment each other. Next to her I felt unfocused, as though my goals were pulling me in different directions.
When Brianna stepped up to the runway on her final throw at her last PAC 12 championship, she knew everything was on the line. Her torn ligament barely kept her muscle and bone together to get off a throw. It was her last chance to compete as a Stanford student. She had dedicated herself to the sport.
So she told herself her trigger word to go animal, the weights disappeared, and a few seconds later her javelin landed in the grass 168 feet and 7 inches from where she released it. A winning throw.
I’ve been thinking about Brianna a lot. Before the interview, I figured we had a lot in common. But learning about her made me realize how much athletes like Brianna are in a caliber above mere enthusiasts like me. Brianna embodies the discipline and passion of great athletes. Adding to that greatness is achieving it as a woman. While male athletes hone their talents, they simultaneously work toward masculine ideals. When female athletes hone their skills, especially throwers, they’re working away from classically held feminine ideals. Totally surmountable, but a hurdle nonetheless. Brianna said something that stuck with me. She said, “I challenge social norms every time I walk onto the track.” I believe it. Before she walked into the coffee shop I had imagined myself the biggest baddest fighter in sight. But next to Brianna, I just looked at my arms and reminded myself to hit the gym later.
I anticipated bonding about the trouble of playing a sport with an unclear professional path. How do you balance all of life’s pulls and demands? But Brianna appeared above that. Despite graduating, she’s returning to Palo Alto to recoup her UCL and continuing training. I’m guessing she’ll continue with focus and drive, to be the best at a single thing. With no excuses, no complaints, and going animal with a lot of weight.
Authored by: Kelly Hansen
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