It was all so simple. One javelin throw, a strong 800m time and a Junior Olympic National Championship was hers. But nothing in Olivia Vincent’s life is simple.
Vincent looked to notch the top mark in the javelin in the 17-18 women’s heptathlon on her final attempt. She took a deep breath and readied herself for the throw. When she planted to launch the winning throw, her left knee buckled. The same knee that almost ended her career.
Vincent is a gifted athlete. Her talents stretch beyond the oval to the basketball court. Starting as a sophomore for the high school basketball team that won a state title the year before, she lived the dream. Or so she thought.
Holy Names Academy enjoyed a 30-point lead in the fourth quarter against East Catholic. Vincent applied the press to the opposing point guard. An opportunity for a steal arose and she looked to capitalize. The next few moments are blurry, but Vincent lay on the floor in tremendous pain.
In the midst of belting out a scream, she caught herself. She did not want to draw attention to herself. Officials sent both teams off the court. The pain would probably subside like all the others she experienced over the years growing up. And it did.
Still, she felt unmistakable pain. Her eyes watered, but she would not let a single tear fall. Her left knee was hot, but from the inside. As she gazed up through the opposing basket, she thought, “why?”.
Vincent’s MRI a week later revealed unthinkable news, an ACL tear. She was done for the basketball season, and track season as well.
When she arrived back at school, she informed head basketball coach Lee Adam of the news. She requested her coach and teammates keep the news to themselves, but walking with a straight leg cast people always inquired.
The rehab process was arduous.Three times a day she lay flat on her back and placed her leg in a machine for two hours the first week after surgery to maintain flexibility and range of motion. Each session the bend increased five degrees, Doctor Lawrence Holland set a goal of 90 degrees on her first visit after surgery. Next, she went through physical therapy. The weekly visits consisted of electric stem treatment and stabilization drills.
“My quad shrunk three sizes. It was so tiny,” Vincent said. “I had one regular-size leg and one that resembled a peg leg. It couldn’t believe it.
“Can I come back from this?” Vincent thought. “Can I perform at the level I did as a freshman when I had a personal best?”
After a long nine months of rehab and therapy, doctors only cleared her return to practice. Vincent wanted to compete again. After she learned of her injury, she asked Dr. Holland for a timetable to return to competition. Only cleared to practice, her wait continued.
Vincent’s rehabilitation called for a gradual return to activity.
“I was able to run two laps for a couple weeks. It was limpy, but I was just excited to be out there,” Vincent said. “A month later, I did four laps. Then, I started back working with Coach Jack [Craig] because I was running with a limp, but he fixed that.”
Stepping back on the track proved two things to Vincent. She still loved track more than ever, but she was far from her expectations.
“I felt like I was an one-and-done athlete,” Vincent said. “I felt like I wasn’t good enough anymore. I had to work extra, extra, extra hard just to be average and hang in competitions. I worked my hardest in practice, but it wasn’t good enough. It just wasn’t good enough.”
The knee injury forced Vincent to make tough decisions and choose between basketball and track.
“I didn’t actually know until the day of basketball tryouts,” Vincent said. “I went to track practice and I was going to attend basketball tryouts after track and I said, ‘No, I’m going to focus on track.’”
So on her final attempt at the javelin at the Junior Olympics, Vincent exhibited no favoritism towards her surgically repaired knee as she prepared to throw. Her knee bent as she planted to hurl the javelin. Her courageous spirit did not allow momentary pain to prevent her final attempt.
Vincent wanted to win the javelin event. She hoped her final throw would seal the victory, but it fell short. Despite not winning the event outright, she maintained a 29-point lead headed into the final event. However, her knee injury placed serious doubt on whether should could perform in the final event of the day. Vincent immediately sought the advice of her coach.
“She tweaked her left knee on the last throw,” Coach Craig said. “I didn’t know if she would be able to run the 800m. I want her to win, but her health is my number one concern.”
Vincent and Craig separated by a steel fence talked for 15 minutes. Vincent performed slow knee bends and stretching exercises with her fingers clenching the openings in the fence for the entire conversation. The decision for Vincent to compete for her first Junior Olympic title rested with her.
She choose to compete. Her knee was not close to 100 percent, but it did not matter. Vincent wanted to finish what she started. The third and final heat of the heptathlon 800m would decide the overall heptathlon winner.
She shared lane four with her challenger Stefani Kerrison. In the stands, Trey Vincent, her grandfather, connected with her mother, Erica, back in Seattle, Wash.
“Her mother and I stayed on the phone the entire race,” Trey Vincent said. “I could barely get a word in because her mother bawled just thinking about her daughter finishing first.”
Vincent led wire-to-wire to secure her first Junior Olympic National title.
“People came up to me and said, ‘Nice job, Champ’ and I didn’t know how to respond,” Vincent said. “I’ve been working towards this goal my whole life. I’ve come close so many times and it feels great to finally break through.”
Vincent is a junior at Holy Names and is fully committed to the heptathlon. Vincent wants to compete collegiately as a heptathlete, but hasn’t decided on a school yet. Beyond college, she already has her sights set on the 2016 Olympics.
“I want to be in Rio de Janeiro so bad,” Vincent said. “I feel like if I pick the right college, work with the right coaches and there is the right fit, I can improve a lot. Once I get to college, anything is possible.”
USA Track & Field