The highs and lows of athletic competition have all visited Cara McClain this year.
McClain, 19, who just completed her freshman year on the Modesto Junior College track and field team, overcame the lows and hit her top form in the hammer throw at the USA Track and Field Outdoor Junior Championships on June 20 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Her first-place throw of 190 feet, 11 inches — her best yet by more than 8 feet — put her ahead of 17 competitors from around the U.S.
The gold medal qualifies her for 2013 Pan American Junior Championship in Medellin, Columbia, from Aug. 23 to 25.
McClain said her workouts with her father and coach Ken McClain and MJC coach Bob Mackay went well all year, but nothing worked right in competition until the end of the season.
She finished the college season with a gold medal throw (174-10) at the California Community Colleges Athletic Association Northern California Section meet on May 17. She followed that up with a second-place throw (170-0) in the CCCAA state finals.
At Des Moines, McClain focused on having confidence in her training and then let her instincts take over.
"I was just trying to feel how I felt way before I hit my slump and go back to basics, reset my mind and relax," she said.
All of the elements of a good throw converged on her fifth attempt, when she hit her winning mark.
"It was just perfect," she said. "It was so easy, so fluid."
McClain, at 5-foot-5 and 120 pounds, is much smaller than many women who specialize in throws, but her strength and speed compensate for her size.
Launching the hammer — a 4-kilogram ball attached to the end of a thick metal wire about 1 meter long — depends on the athlete’s ability to build momentum in the throwing ring.
"It’s the more mental event in track and field," she said. "There’s a lot to do and a little time to do it."
The Pan American Junior Championship is her first international meet, but not the first time she’s qualified for world-class competition.
Two years ago, McClain set a meet record at the USA Track and Field World Youth Trials in South Carolina with her gold medal throw (162-4).
That qualified her for the 2011 International Association of Athletics Federation World Youth Championships, but the size of the U.S. team was limited that year, and McClain would have ended up going against girls from other countries who were regularly throwing 195 feet or better.
This time around, based on her finish at the national competition in Des Moines, McClain expects to be competitive against her international rivals.
"I definitely came into juniors with a chip on my shoulder, saying, ‘I’m not going to miss another (international) team," McClain said.
This is the last year she is eligible for junior-level competition. After the Pan American games, she will advance to USATF women’s open competition.
"I’ll be competing with all of the elite women. That will definitely be a big change," she said. "And I will still definitely be the tiniest one out there."
• Contact Bob Brownne at 830-4227 or email@example.com.