By Jeff Nations
Rachel Speaker was so proud of herself down in Radford.
For nearly two full days, the Strasburg High School senior had mastered a swirling mix of emotions -- mainly alternating between worry and joy -- as she worked toward winning a state championship in the discus at the Group A state track and field meet.
With one throw to go, Speaker could congratulate herself for holding it all together throughout that agonizingly long day of waiting and an equally tense day of competition.
Just one throw to go ... and then came a surprise. Right before that final toss, Rams throwing coach Tommy Simmons strolled over to his star senior, gave her a hug and whispered something into her ear.
"Right after my biggest competition didn't even hit above 113, he gave me a hug," Speaker said. "I was like, 'What?,' And he said, 'You're a state champion. I'm so proud of you.' Then I'm like, 'Oh my God, don't cry, don't cry.' And then I had to throw right after that."
Speaker uncorked one last throw in the 110-foot range, not her best that day, but not bad -- and not that it mattered, really. Speaker was already a state champion before she even went into that final spin. Afterward, Speaker got a lot more hugs from teammates and coaches. And yeah, she finally felt free to let loose a few tears.
"My goal overall, I honestly wanted to improve and I did," Speaker said. "In my junior year, you never knew if I was going to have a good day or bad day. Coach [Simmons[ said if I stayed consistent on a daily basis, then I would be the one to beat. And I did everything I could to be consistent."
That consistency and excellence when it counted most separated Speaker from the competition and makes her the Northern Virginia Daily's 2013 Girls Track and Field Athlete of the Year.
Longtime Strasburg head coach Glenn Proctor lauds Speaker's solid work ethic combined with plenty of natural ability.
"Rachel Speaker is an extremely hard working girl," Proctor said. "She is richly deserving of any and all honors bestowed on her. Everything she accomplished has been through a great work ethic and dedication to her sport."
Speaker started preparing for this one last shot at a championship right after volleyball season ended, hitting the weight room on a regular basis and doing special training for both the shot put and discus. She put in her time for both events, but Speaker always knew that the discus was her best chance.
"I had that mind-set going into this season that I'm going to finish on top, or at least in the top half," Speaker said. "At the mid-point of this season, I started to really believe that, 'Hey, I've actually got a shot.'"
Speaker could see the improvement in meets and practice, both in distance and in the regularity in which she was throwing long.
"I was starting to be more consistent at practice and I was starting to be more consistent at meets on throwing higher throws, like 110s on a daily basis," Speaker said. "Coach Simmons, he's always telling me consistency always brings farther throws."
A real breakthrough came during the regular season at the Stonewall Jackson Invitational. At that meet, Speaker unleashed a discus throw of 120 feet, 3 inches. It was a personal record for her, and remains so.
"I was really surprised because their throwing area is a little bit different than ours, but I had a really good day there," Speaker said. "I wasn't really expecting it. One thing I noticed from that meet -- I was really calm. I was calm, collected and focused on my throws. I wasn't focused on outcome. I kept on sticking with that all season, and it's been pretty good ever since."
Speaker took care of business in the weeks leading up to the Group A state meet, winning the discus championship at both the Bull Run District and Region B meets.
Down in Radford for the state competition, Speaker had plenty of company. Fellow Strasburg throwers Taylor Showalter, Kymbryanna Jackson and McKenna Orndorff also made it to the state competition. Still, Friday was a long night.
"I tried not to think about it too much, but in the back of my mind it was always there, that tomorrow's the day," Speaker said. "I tried to surround myself with all my teammates, and we were all trying to laugh and stay calm. That really did help."
Speaker also credits her older brother, Josh, as a calming influence. A former thrower for Strasburg himself, Josh Speaker was always there to offer a tip on throwing or a soothing word when the pressure started to mount.
In the state preliminaries, Speaker opened with a strong throw of 109 feet. That, she knew, was at least good enough to get her into the finals. The pressure -- some of it, anyway -- was off.
"There were a few throws that I wasn't too happy with, but I got out on my third and final throw in prelims," Speaker said. "I threw a 113, and it got me in first place. I just held on."
That final throw in the preliminaries of 113-02 wasn't Speaker's best, but it was the best that day.
"In the finals I could not break 113. I was a little disappointed, but getting a state title ... I mean, I put so much hard work into that," Speaker said. "So it was bittersweet, more sweet than anything, though."
Speaker is off to Lord Fairfax Community College in the fall, and is considering her option for a four-year school down the road.
"Most likely, I'll be throwing in college," she said.
Proctor is already making plans to add Speaker's photograph to Strasburg's Wall of Champions, which displays each and every state track and field champion the school has produced over the years. Speaker has looked at that wall often.
"It means a lot," Speaker said. "We've had so many great athletes that came through here, and now I get to be on that wall with them. It's people like (former distance runner) Katlyn Ayers -- I admired her when she was in school, and now I get to be on that wall with her. That means a lot. I look up to most of those people that are on that wall, and it's just exciting that I get to be a part of it."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>