Josh Priester had such faith in Barbara Nwaba’s potential in the heptathlon that he quit his job as associate director of track and field at UCSB and launched a nonprofit program to train post-graduate female athletes, the focal trainee being Nwaba. It was called the Women’s Athletic Performance Foundation (WAPF).
Nwaba was coming off a fifth-place finish in the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials and had placed second in the NCAA Championships as a UCSB senior. Her score of 5,986 points was oh-so-close to the 6,000-point milestone that is the equivalent of a .300 major-league batting average, marking her as a big-time performer.
But in its inaugural season, the WAPF’s star spent most of her time in physical therapy to treat tendinitis in her left knee. For several months, she underwent something called the Graston Technique, whereby a steel bar was pressed down on the inflamed tissues. “It was painful,” she said.
Entering 2014, Nwaba had a new lease on health, and the WAPF had taken on a new public name: The Santa Barbara Track Club (SBTC). “Nobody could relate to the old name,” Priester said, “and now people can see it’s from our community.” A youth program is part of its mission.
Nwaba welcomed the change. Tom FitzSimons, a decathlete from Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, joined the club. “Having guys train with us is a good thing,” Nwaba said. “Tom and I ran a lot of hills here [above the club’s training track at Westmont College] to get ready for the season.”
At last month’s U.S.A. Track & Field Championships in Sacramento, the fledgling SBTC put two athletes on the podium — Nwaba, second in the heptathlon, and FitzSimons, third in the decathlon.
Nwaba, who achieved a breakthrough score of 6,043 points at Azusa Pacific in April, bounced her personal best to 6,307 at the nationals. She is now the 14th best American performer since the seven-event heptathlon made its debut in 1984. Sharon Day-Monroe, a two-time Olympian, outscored her in Sacramento, but not by a whole lot (6,470). Nwaba made significant improvements in the shot put (47’8½”), long jump (19’9”), and javelin throw (143’6”).
“Not being able to compete last year was hard,” Nwaba said. “I would have been discouraged if it wasn’t for my coach keeping my eyes on the prize — the real goal, 2016 [the Rio de Janeiro Olympics]. That’s what I’m fighting for.”
Priester’s belief in her has been validated. “Josh was not so much surprised as relieved,” said Cody Fleming, a UCSB coach who is helping out with the SBTC. “Barbara was this hurricane waiting to happen.”
FitzSimons vaulted to third place in the decathlon by winning the final 1,500-meter race. His score was 7,645. Both he and Nwaba will compete in the Thorpe Cup, a multi-event competition between U.S. and German athletes, on July 26-27 in Marburg, Germany.
Finishing sixth in the U.S.A. decathlon was Dos Pueblos High graduate J. Patrick Smith, who capped his collegiate career at Chico State in May by winning his third consecutive NCAA Division II title. Smith was named the Chico Sportsperson of the Year.
UCLA-bound Stamatia Scarvelis ended a long season, during which the Dos Pueblos senior won her third state shot-put title, by placing fourth in the shot and seventh in the discus at the U.S.A. Junior Championships in Eugene, Oregon.
NO MAGIC WONDO: Mike Wondolowski’s scream of joy might have traveled from Brazil to Santa Barbara if his nephew had put a point-blank shot into the net in the waning seconds of a scoreless draw between the U.S. and Belgium during the World Cup knockout round. Alas, Chris “Wondo” Wondolowski, trying to lift the ball over the Belgian goalkeeper, made like an NFL kicker and sent the ball over the crossbar. After Belgium won in overtime, 2-1, Chris sent out a sad tweet: “I’m gutted to have let down everyone but especially my teammates.”
Thanks to the heroic efforts of goalkeeper Tim Howard, the U.S. had a chance to steal the game from a superior Belgian team when Coach Jürgen Klinsmann called on Wondo, known for his knack of eluding defenders by making well-timed runs — like the one that placed him in front of the goal during stoppage time. “Everything was set up for the moment,” Mike said. “But then sport collided with the Hollywood script. … The tiny difference between Chris’s shot going over the crossbar versus finding the back of the net is the difference between the U.S. winning with Chris being a national hero and the U.S. losing in extra time. That type of wild swing is so often the case in sports.”
He noted that Chris did everything else right during his time on the pitch, “but his inability to finish on that one touch is what defined his World Cup. That is really tough.”
A comment on social media compared Wondo to Bill Buckner (tricky little grounder, 1986 World Series). Buckner was a fine ballplayer, and Wondolowski is back with the San Jose Earthquakes, hoping to continue racking up goals in Major League Soccer. He added something to his tweet: “I know this will make me stronger.”