CHAMPAIGN – Like a wide-eyed child witnessing her first fireworks display, Gia Lewis could not keep her eyes off the other discus throwers.
There was Seilala Sua of UCLA, a two-time U.S. champion in the process of winning her record-fourth NCAA outdoor title.
There was Cheree Hicks of Syracuse, the third-place finisher in 1999 who would place runner-up this time.
There was DeShaya Williams of Penn State, the reigning Big Ten champion and a sixth-place NCAA finisher in 1999.
"I was just mesmerized," Lewis said.
And then there was Gia Lewis. In this Who's Who of collegiate discus throwers, the Illinois junior must have struck many of the entrants at last week's NCAA Women's Track and Field Outdoor Championships as a Who's She?
"I kept telling myself, these are the best kids in the country," she said. "And sometimes I felt, 'How did you get here?' "
Understandable. Lewis' track and field background hardly suggested that she would one day match discus flings with the best collegians in the nation. Would one day enter the NCAA Championships as the 13th seed out of 28 qualifiers.
"Never in a million years," she said.
From the time Lewis took up the sport at age 8, running was her thing. Sprinting, to be more specific.
"I never did a field event," she said.
That changed during her senior year at Centennial High School, although not because Lewis had a sudden change of heart. This was a pragmatic move suggested by Charger coach Greg Walters and agreed to by Lewis, ever the team player.
With discus talent in the area sparse that spring and sprinters on the Charger roster plentiful, Walters saw an avenue to a few extra team points. The Centennial coach was confident Lewis could score in the discus. And he was just as confident her teammates could pick up the slack in whichever race Lewis didn't enter (individuals have a four-event limit per meet).
"As tall as she was and the wing span she had and the body strength she had, we thought she could do it," Walters said. "She's a relatively quick learner. Obviously, she did very well."
Well enough to break the Big 12 record with a throw of 138 feet, 3 inches at the conference meet. Well enough to win again in the sectional meet, throwing 127-4, to qualify for state.
In this case, ignorance was bliss.
"I didn't know what I was doing, but I liked it," Lewis said, "because my whole focus was running, so it was this nice diversion."
The throw at the Big 12 meet so impressed Illinois head coach Gary Winckler that she was offered a partial scholarship. But the multisport athlete already was committed to being a walk-on with the UI women's basketball program.
"I was really into basketball at the time," said Lewis, a News-Gazette All-Area second-teamer her senior year.
Following a freshman season in which she played a total of 12 minutes in six Illini games, Lewis reconsidered her collegiate sports direction. Maybe track and field was her niche after all, Lewis thought. So she approached John Baumann, the Illini throwing coach.
"John and I had a good relationship, so I continued to pursue discus," Lewis said.
It was slow – and often painful – going for Lewis her first few seasons as a collegiate thrower. She quickly learned the muscle groups that did most of the work in this event weren't the same ones that got a workout in basketball.
"A lot of times, people think it's your arms," Lewis said. "But usually it's your leg muscles, your back and your stomach that are very essential to throwing the discus correctly.
"My back was severely weak. My stomach was severely weak. I didn't have the endurance."
She also didn't even the rudimentary elements of discus mastered.
"I remember John teaching me how to hold the discus my sophomore year," Lewis said. "I mean, to hold it!"
In Lewis' case, Baumann figured nothing could be taken for granted. After all, her total previous experience in discus competition at that point totaled no more than 31/2 months.
"In reality, you really can't count her high school and freshman years," he said.
As her sophomore year unfolded, though, Lewis and Baumann could see progress in practice. Meets, however, were another matter. And with Lewis being her own harshest critic, Baumann had to work at convincing this discus novice to keep things in perspective.
"I showed a lot of promise in practice and I just didn't understand why it couldn't carry over," Lewis said. "And John was like, 'What do you expect? You've been throwing this for a year.' "
Whatever Lewis lacked in experience, she proved capable of making up for with speed and leverage in the throwing circle. That much has long been obvious in practice, Baumann said.
It wasn't until this spring, though, that Lewis made her long-awaited breakthrough in competition. In her first outdoor meet, the Illini junior reached 152-7 to place second in the Purdue Open. In the history of UI women's track, only two others had thrown farther.
"It made me feel wonderful," said Lewis, whose UI best to that point was 136-0. "I felt like I really had a chance to do some good things this year."
But Lewis quickly learned she still made miles to go in attaining the consistency her top rivals possessed. In her next meet, at Miami, the former Charger couldn't exceed 137-0.
"Some meets I'll throw awesome, some meets I won't," Lewis said. "I haven't been throwing long enough to be consistent."
Or long enough to go an extended period without guidance and correction from Baumann. At some of the bigger meets, where coaches don't have ready access to their throwers while they are competing, Lewis is on her own.
"And if one thing goes bad, I didn't have enough knowledge on how to correct it," she said. "If one thing went bad, everything went bad."
When everything goes right, though, Lewis can turn in discus throws that rank with the best ever seen at the UI. During a home dual meet against Indiana in April, she uncorked the second-longest throw in the program's history: an NCAA-qualifying 175-7. That heave missed Laura Mindock's school record by a mere two inches.
And at the Big Ten Championships last month, Lewis finished third with the sixth-longest toss in UI history: 163-7. To show how high Lewis had raised her personal bar by then, she walked away with bittersweet feelings.
"I was leading for several rounds," said Lewis, who finished 2 feet, 3 inches behind Penn State's Williams. "It was really kind of heartbreaking, but at the same time I felt good because a lot of throwers didn't even know I existed."
Lewis presumably faced the same reaction last weekend in Durham, N.C., at the NCAA meet. This time, she couldn't respond with a performance that would inform her rivals. Instead, Lewis readily admits, she let the big-meet atmosphere get the best of her. Even Baumann's attempt at a wake-up call didn't work.
"After my first throw, John said, 'You've got to get your head in this. You can't keep watching every person throw,' " Lewis said.
Despite Baumann's admonition, Lewis could do no better than 145-10 – her second-shortest performance of the season – and placed 21st.
"I was so mad at myself afterward," she said. "If I had just thrown what I've been throwing all year, I would have been fine. It wasn't like I would have had to do something extraordinary to do well."
Baumann is betting Lewis won't make the same mistake on her next trip to NCAAs.
"There's no reason she can't make top eight easily next year," he said.
As it turns out, Lewis won't have to wait long to learn whether her NCAA lesson took hold. In July, she'll be throwing against not just the best in the collegiate ranks, but in the nation. That 175-7 toss against Indiana was good enough to get Lewis into the U.S. Olympic Trials.
A chance to go to the Olympics? At this stage of her career?
"That doesn't even make sense," Lewis said with a laugh.
Then again, who would have predicted two years ago that Lewis would reach the collegiate championships as a discus thrower?
"Now that I've been through the NCAA meet, I realize I just have to go and throw," she said.