Genetics and hard work played their parts in bringing UMBC's Cleopatra Borel to tonight's shot put final at the NCAA's Division I track and field championships in Eugene, Ore.
Borel, a senior from Mayaro, Trinidad and Tobago, has thighs that belong on an NFL fullback and a sense of balance that makes her look graceful even when performing the crude motion of throwing a steel ball that weighs nearly 9 pounds. Diligence keeps her grades at a 3.5 average (in pre-physical therapy), because she's studying when she's not training or working several part-time jobs.
But chance also has played a role. At Coppin State, the school where Borel started, or UMBC, athletes like her don't come around very often. "I waited nine years for her," said her current throwing coach, Brian King, who's in his 10th year of college coaching.
It means that given the rare opportunity to play a role in a world-class track and field career, her coaches - first Gordon Rackley at Coppin, then King at UMBC -- tried to make sure she would have the best chance at getting to this point.
"I would have never imagined this," said Borel, who competes at 9 p.m. EDT. Her top mark of 53 feet, 10 inches, set on May 19, falls far short of the 58-2 3/8 achieved by Clemson's Jamine Moten on April 13, but is still seventh-best among qualifying marks of the 21 competitors.
For her success, she gives credit to her coaches and to her boyfriend and fellow UMBC thrower, Balvin Brown. "They believed in me and pushed me along. Without them, I wouldn't be here."
Borel had no athletic aspirations when she came to Baltimore in 1997. She enrolled at Coppin on the advice of her high school math teacher, a Coppin alum. The school gave her an academic scholarship that paid her tuition. Unfortunately, her parents paid the money intended for her room and board to an intermediary, who disappeared along with the money.
By December, Borel had been left in a predicament, without lights or heat and facing eviction.
"He kept in contact, leading us along," she remembers. "Then, after a while, the calls weren't coming and we realized that he wasn't coming back.
"Luckily ... one of the deans helped to get me a room."
To get her mind off things, Borel joined the track team at the behest of Rackley, an assistant who worked with the throwers and was always looking for an extra athlete.
Even then, he noticed that she was someone who would be able to help the team, though she had only competed in a handful of meets in her home country.
"He saw something that I didn't see," Borel said of Rackley. "He was the best. He knew that I had the potential to do well and he worked with me."
In a short period of time, Borel improved to the point where she broke Coppin's school record with a throw of 44 feet, 3/4 inches at a 1999 meet. Meanwhile, Rackley had three heart attacks, prompting his decision to move back to his native Pennsylvania.
Before he left, Rackley introduced her to King. "His idea of a meal is a six-pack of beer," she remembers Rackley telling her about King, who was the head track coach at Johns Hopkins at the time. He took a position as an assistant at UMBC when it became clear that Borel would be going there.
"When I saw what a specimen she was," King said, "I thought, 'Oh, this is a good idea,' ... Anyone who saw her knew. She'd been my dream."
For Borel, UMBC carried the possibility of distraction because her boyfriend was there, but it was the only Division I school that would offer athletic scholarship money.
Making a transition
As it turned out, Brown was a great helper for Borel as she adjusted to the new school and to her new coach.
Brown got her to be less shy, and he also pushed her in the weight room. For early workouts, "I didn't want to go," he recalled, "but I had to act like I wanted to go because otherwise she wouldn't go."
Borel said that Brown's toughness helped her deal with King, whose coaching technique differs greatly from Rackley's. The transition took six months.
"I'm a stickler for little details," said King, whose biggest battle was getting Borel not to think about what she was doing in competition. "You have to feel; you can't think about it. Probably by the end of the indoor season last year, that's when she started to understand where I wanted her to go. ... She started telling me what she was feeling was wrong."
Because Borel hadn't competed much in track before coming to the United States, there was little for King to correct. Unlike most of the better shot putters in the country, she does not have a large upper body and her biceps are the only major giveaway of her strength.
But her legs look like cannons and she squats 315 pounds. That would be the area where her best throws come from.
"She's one of the most explosive female athletes I've seen," said Monmouth's throwing coach, Mark Gottdenker. "The down side is that she's smaller ... but she has a lot of lift in her legs. She went from throwing 40 feet, to 45, to 53. She has a good head for the event and Brian's done a good job of teaching a technique to fit the athlete."
By the end of her first season with King, she had the conference mark with a throw of 48-8. She broke the 50-foot mark for the first time at Virginia Tech's open indoor meet this season, with a throw of 51-11 3/4 .
That was also where she caught the attention of Ramona Pagel, a former American record holder in the event who has become a mentor to Borel since then.
Intensity wins attention
"The first thing I noticed was her intensity and her coach's desire to do a good job," said Pagel, who threw at Long Beach State. "This is a combination that you don't see from small schools too often and being from a small school environment, I appreciate the commitment."
Borel, who finished eighth in the shot at the NCAA indoors in March, got a sign of that commitment when UMBC's head coach, David Bobb, decided to supplement her Penn Relays date with a trip to the Mt. SAC Relays in Southern California. There, she finished fifth in the open division.
Bobb was in a similar position to Borel only four years ago, also representing UMBC against the bigger schools in national competition. In 1997, he finished second in the 100 meters at the NCAA outdoor meet and third in the indoors at 55 meters. He has no doubts that she can do the same.
"We sent her to Mt. SAC so she could see the girls she would be competing with," Bobb said. "She's a competitor, and she competes to the level she's competing against."
But while it was expected that she'd take it easy against lighter competition at the Northeast Conference championships earlier this month, Borel had perhaps her best overall performance of the season.
Between sips of pink Gatorade, she uncorked three straight throws of 52 feet or more - the only time that's happened for her - beating her earlier conference record by seven feet.
"It gave me confidence that I can go up to Oregon and do this," said Borel, who has a season of eligibility in indoor competition remaining. "You can throw 52 or 53 feet and have it be a lucky shot, but if you keep doing it, it makes you a little excited going out there."