If there’s one shining example of Allison Updike’s quick ascent into elite high school javelin status in Pennsylvania, it came last year at the District 11 Championships when she was basically on one leg.
The then-Tamaqua Area High sophomore (Left in photo from 2008 by Don Rich) was only two and a half months removed from an ACL tear in her left knee. Logical advice would have suggested to take the postseason off to heal completely.
Updike went the other route, competing in two of the biggest meets of the year.
How’d she do? A bit reserved for her liking: a seventh-place finish with a throw of 125 feet, 11 inches.
“Last year she had her knee blown out,” Updike’s javelin coach of three years, John Kotchmar, said of her disappointing showing in the PIAA Class AA championships. “So she shouldn’t have even been throwing. She came back a little earlier than we should have given her.”
The Tamaqua junior, if it isn’t obvious now, has this thing about not letting things go very easily. Plus, there’s this understated rivalry she has going with Lakeview High senior Fawn Miller, the defending two-time state champion in the event.
“When you have someone out there that’s throwing better than you, you just want to go out there and try to chase her down and beat her,” said Updike this past Saturday at the 84th annual Shippensburg University High School Track & Field Invitational, where she placed first with a throw of 139-9 despite a heavy cross-wind.
She’ll get her chance very soon. On Thursday, Updike will compete in the 116th annual Penn Relay Carnival held at the University of Pennsylvania’s venerable Franklin Field.
Miller is the No. 1 seed heading into Thursday’s action. Guess who’s No. 2?
“To be the champ, you have to beat the champ,” Kotchmar said. “And she [Miller] is it.”
Learn before you walk.
Turns out, someone at Tamaqua has always been chasing Miller. Before Updike came on the scene, there was Casey Wagner, who now is a sophomore javelin thrower at South Florida University.
Wagner was the state champion in the event her junior year -- whereas Miller was fifth as a freshman -- and looked poised to do it again in her senior campaign.
But then Miller had one of those throws that will live in lore for years to come. It was one of those moments where everything clicked at the tight time in the universe. Her lead-up on the runaway was picture perfect, her crossover was beautifully crafted and her release was purely signature.
When the javelin finally landed a mere 167 feet, 2 inches later, heads turned on a swivel. Her mark as a sophomore stands today as the Pennsylvania state record, and she has yet to hit that mark since then, even as a senior.
In Updike’s case, she was only a freshman then, so she was noticeably wide-eyed and impressionable. She saw that throw and was thoroughly amazed before realizing she had a job to do. Wagner finished second in the event that year and Updike’s debut was a fourth-place finish with a throw of 136-02.
Now, Updike feels like she has inherited a role that began when Wagner was a senior and she was a freshman.
“I kind of just took that role after Casey, to chase Fawn Miller,“ Updike said. “So, I like it. It’s good competition. She’s a great thrower and she keeps my trying to throw farther.”
Kotchmar doesn’t believe in those kinds of competitive mind games. He’s a traditional track mind in that he believes athletes battle their own demons on the runaway. The only mind game is the one you have with yourself.
“I wouldn’t say she’s chasing someone,” said Kotchmar, who has been with Tamaqua for five years, starting when Wagner was a junior. “She’s self-motivated. You don’t have to motivate someone. In this game you’re not chasing, you throw the javelin. They measure it.
“You have to keep it like that. If you try to throw against someone, you’re beat. Throw as good as you can. You can’t control anybody but yourself.
Still, he understands the dynamic of competition and he believes big atmospheres challenge Updike to be better as a thrower. The Penn Relays are one such vehicle.
Over the summer, when Updike was finally back to 100-percent in her left leg, she hit her career best throw at the Keystone State Games with a mark of 148-4. Updike believed that throw was only the beginning of what she hopes to do in the future, particularly at the District 11 and PIAA Class AA Championships.
Miller may be a step ahead of everyone else in terms of consistency, but Updike is hoping to make a sudden and quick surge to challenge her. She admits her goal is to hit 150 feet by the end of the season, if not close to 160.
And that frame of mind explains a lot about Updike. It begins to tell a story about the type of competitor she is as a whole, not just in the javelin, where she one day will hope to compete in at he college level.
A complete athlete is a rounded athlete.
Kotchmar has experience in this kind of thing; managing talent rather than grinding it down to a pulp. He oversaw Wagner before she eventually flew off to South Florida, where she is a BIG EAST All-Academic student in the classroom and competitor in the field this year.
He didn’t pressure Updike to focus solely on throwing. He basically told her up front: have fun while you can, because at college it’s going to be all javelin.
“She only has four years to enjoy it, so let them do it,” said Kotchmar, who also threw javelin at Tamaqua back when he was in high school.
Turns out, Updike is a natural in almost anything else she does. She was the leading goal-scorer on Tamaqua’s girls’ soccer team this fall and has been on the varsity basketball team since she was a freshman.
“I was a guard until we had a shorter team this season,” Updike said. “I played forward this year. It was just kind of awkward. I went from point guard to forward in one year. Yeah, I do whatever our team needs.”
At roughly 5-foot-8, Updike has the typical build of a guard, but she’s got the athletic, toned body of a forward.
In the javelin, taller and more stride-heavy athletes are the prototypical body type. Updike is more compact, muscular in her upper body and like an ox below the hips.
She believes her attributes transition well to the runway. It’s her upper body that creates the torque necessary to thrust the javelin so far, and it’s her legs that produce all the power.
“I have the arm strength, but it mostly comes from your legs, the javelin throw,” she said. “I’ve been working on my strength with my legs lately.”
Ultimately, there’s no one that works harder.
Perhaps it’s cliché to say Updike works harder than any other athlete, but Kotchmar adamantly backs it up. Why else would you come back from an ACL injury in two and a half months?
During the spring, the pair not only work on the track, but they also critique her throws in the film room. Kotchmar tells her what she’s doing right and what she needs to work on -- right now, he says “A little more speed on the runway.”
Updike is fifth in her class academically and also manages a plethora of other activities. Over the winter, the junior found time to work on javelin technique while she wasn’t on the basketball court.
How she manages to do it all basically comes down to compartmentalizing.
“She’s just not an average kid,” Kotchmar said. “It makes me feel bad if I can’t make a training. She does more than any kid I know and she has more time because she’s so organized.
“She isn’t up until 11, 12, three in the morning, she’s not on the computer all the time. You have to get her out of the gym sometimes. She is that kind of kid. She’s motivated and sometimes a little hard on herself.”
Maybe Updike works that hard because she’s chasing. Maybe she’s that determined because there’s no one pressuring her but herself.
Maybe it’s as simple as this: the runway is her sanctuary.