Ponder's back to winning ways after rough years
CHAMPAIGN – For a long jumper who's never been the fleetest afoot, collegiate success came with sprinterlike swiftness for Tisha Ponder.
One year into her Illinois career, the former Junior Olympics long jump champion:
– owned Big Ten titles in the indoor and outdoor long jumps;
– held the school record in the outdoor long jump, breaking a mark that had stood for 17 years;
– was the Big Ten's indoor and outdoor Track and Field Freshman of the Year;
– and had NCAA Outdoor Championship meet experience under her belt, the only freshman long jumper in the country who could make such a claim that year.
"It really didn't hit me until that summer, after I went home and talked to friends and family," said Ponder, a native of San Jose, Calif. "It was kind of overwhelming. It kind of proved to me how good I could be, and not to be intimidated by anything."
That was 1997, when Ponder had every reason to jump for joy. Having taken the Big Ten by storm as a freshman, was there any reason to think the remainder of her Illini career would be different?
"I think her expectations were she was going to come back and win the Big Ten every year," Illini coach Gary Winckler said.
Ponder came back, but that was the only aspect of the great expectations that were fulfilled. Now a senior, she still is looking for her next Big Ten title and trying to make sense of what went amiss during her sophomore and junior seasons.
"It was a rough two years," Ponder said. "I kind of regressed a little bit. I really didn't progress much, not the way I wanted to."
There are signs, though, that Ponder is emerging from her two-year funk. During the winter, she set a personal record in the indoor triple jump (40 feet, 63/4 inches) and cleared 20 feet in the indoor long jump for the first time since her freshman season.
This spring, at the ultra-competitive Texas Relays, Ponder came within one-quarter inch of her school record in the outdoor long jump. The 20-93/4 leap, good for third place, ranks seventh in the nation and provisionally qualifies Ponder for an NCAA meet for the first time since 1997. Also at Austin, Ponder set a personal best for the outdoor triple jump of 40-113/4.
"The series (of jumps) that she had in Texas ... was a far more consistent series then she's ever jumped," Winckler said. "I think she's jumping probably better than she was (as a freshman)."
About time, Ponder said.
"I say, 'Whew! Finally made it,' " she said. "It's nice to know that I've still got it. I don't have to second-guess myself any more."
Ponder did plenty of that during her trying two-year period. As a sophomore, the reigning Big Ten long jump champion placed second in her specialty indoors, then finished third outdoors. As a junior, she was third indoors and fourth outdoors.
It wasn't merely the drop in the standings that bothered Ponder. After proving as a freshman that she could clear 20 feet in the long jump, Ponder was having a tough time reaching 191/2 – sometimes not even 19 on her worst days.
"I never imagined again jumping 18s and things that I hadn't even done since high school," she said. "So it was really a blow to the system.
"I knew what I could do, and I wasn't doing it, so I kind of beat up on myself too much, I think. And I never had that problem in high school. It was always, 'Hey, I didn't do it this time; go get 'em next time.' "
Instead, after a particularly tough day on the runway, the once-confident Ponder would let thoughts like "OK, I'm not good enough," creep in, to be followed by a disgusted "Don't do that to yourself. You can't psyche yourself out like that."
While Ponder waged her internal debate, Winckler tried to view things with a dose of realism. Winckler knew that because Ponder didn't possess the level of speed other top jumpers exhibited, her task is always tougher. Technique always is more important.
"Tish has always had a little bit of a limitation in her jumping in that she's not real fast," Winckler said. "A lot of the jumpers she's competing against have much better speed. But she utilizes what she has very well."
No argument from Ponder on the speed issue.
"Since I'm naturally not a fast person, I have to work a lot harder than the others," she said.
Another thing Winckler and Ponder agree on: It's not easy working with three different coaches in four years. That was Ponder's situation since the departure of UI assistant Ron Garner shortly before the start of her sophomore indoor season.
She then worked with current Illini aide John Baumann for two years before Winckler shuffled some staff duties this year and assumed oversight of the jumpers.
"To go from one coach to another sometimes is a very difficult thing for an athlete," Winckler said. "There's always that period of adjustment when they're really not sure who they should believe; whether they should believe in what they've done in the past or believe what they're doing in the present."
Ponder, who was recruited by Garner, admits to being shaken when he left to take the head coaching job at Clemson.
"Having that foundation and having that person to work with, and you suddenly lose them, it's a big adjustment," Ponder said. "It's not something I'm angry about, but it was just a learning process.
"I remember my high school coach telling me, 'Wherever you're going to go, you're going to have to adapt to change. You're going to have to do some adjusting.' And sure enough, I had to do some adjusting quickly. Unfortunately, it wasn't quick enough."
Ponder might be adjusting to as many changes this year as she's ever faced in her collegiate career. With a new coach has come a demanding training regimen to increase her strength and stamina.
"I felt that she probably wasn't strong enough, and certainly there wasn't enough of a running element in her program," Winckler said. "I give her a lot of credit because we have implemented a lot of changes in what she's done in the past, and she's listened very well and focused on what we're trying to do and had faith in it."
Perhaps the most obvious change is Ponder again taking up hurdling, an event she abandoned with Garner's blessing after high school. As a prep senior, the Del Mar High graduate swept the 100- and 300-meter hurdles titles in the Central California Championships.
Although the rust still shows, Winckler said, "I haven't ruled out that she could be a potential Big Ten scorer in the hurdle event for us."
Actually, it was Ponder who approached Winckler about becoming less of a specialist.
"I told him I definitely needed something else in my training," she said, "and I knew there was a little more that I could add to the team and also help to improve myself.
"It's definitely helped out. My recovery is a lot better. It just helps overall with my performance."
The Texas Relays were proof of that. Little wonder Ponder is confident she can put an exclamation point on an Illini career that began so promisingly.
"It's been a good ride," said Ponder, author of the top three outdoor long jump performances in UI history. "I'm just looking forward to nationals and definitely getting a better mark (in the long jump) going into the meet.
"I definitely want to see myself finish up well."
Three athletes with local ties to watch during Saturday's track and field meets at the UI Outdoor Track and Field Stadium:
– Jennifer Brown, Indiana – Junior shot putter from St. Joseph-Ogden broke ex-Illini Collinus Newsome's meet record at the Big Ten Indoor Championships with heave of 53 feet, 7 inches.
– Jordana Meyer, Illinois – 1998 state champ from Villa Grove placed sixth in the Big Ten indoor 600. Soph now training with ex-Illini and Olympic hopeful Yvonne Harrison in 400 hurdles.
– Quincy Washington, Illinois – With spring football practice done, Centennial grad putting speed to use on track. Sophomore ran on UI's fourth-place 4x100 relay in 1999 Big Ten outdoor meet.