May 10, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin women’s track coach Jim Stintzi carefully measured his response to a question about the competitiveness of Dorcas Akinniyi, Jessica Flax and Deanna Latham; a trio of multi-event athletes whose uniqueness as individuals belies their single-mindedness as teammates; all of which was underscored after their 1-2-3 finish in the pentathlon at the 2012 Big Ten Indoor Championships.
“I’m trying to figure out a way to describe their competitiveness,’’ Stintzi acknowledged. “They push each other. They’re really good friends, but they’re really competitive. They all want to win. You’ll see them high five each other and get excited and lift each other up. But deep down inside, it’s like, ‘I want to beat so-and-so in this event’ just like they want to beat everyone else in the Big Ten.’’
Akinniyi pointed out how Flax “is good at all the stuff I’m not good at’’ while “I can push here in the high jump and the long jump’’ during workouts; making each better. Flax mentioned how athletes are just naturally competitive by virtue of their training and “when we do push each other it keeps us going’’ in the right direction. Latham advanced some of Stintzi’s thoughts on their resolve.
“There’s a certain competitiveness between us in practice which makes us good,’’ Latham said. “Obviously none of us want to lose to each other. But I wouldn’t say it was like a (personal) battle or anything like that.
“We really push each other not necessarily because we want to be better than one another but because we know that we can become better if we hold ourselves to a certain standard.’’
Akinniyi, Flax and Latham have set a high standard for Friday and Saturday’s competition in the heptathlon at the Big Ten outdoor championships on the track at the McClimon Complex. Flax is the defending champion. Akinniyi won the title two years ago.
“If we take one-two-three, I personally don’t care what the order is,’’ Latham said. “I guess it’s a little different for me because I’m an underclassman.’’
Latham is a sophomore from Newbury, Mass., (just outside of Boston). Flax is a senior from Pearland, Texas (just outside of Houston) and Akinniyi is a senior from Carollton, Texas (just outside of Dallas). “I look up to Dorcas and Jessica every single day,’’ said Latham. “If I beat them, that’s cool. If I don’t, that’s also very understandable. They’re extremely talented people. I aspire to be like them.’’
Akinniyi was asked if there might be the makings of a rivalry, however friendly, with Flax since they are the last two outdoor winners in the heptathlon. “I try not to think of it that way,’’ said Akinniyi, the three-time defending Big Ten pentathlon champion. “Especially with multi-events, it’s better that you focus on yourself; once you start focusing on other competitors, it takes you out of your element.’’
What do you get out of Akinniyi, Flax and Latham in their element? Flax suggested, “We’re extremely happy people.’’ Akinniyi noted “Deanna is more crazy’’ and “Jessica is more focused’’ and I’m in the middle somewhere.’’ Latham said, “During practice we’re constantly goofing around. But it’s a real positive atmosphere because each of us brings their own little different personality to the table.’’
Nonetheless, they’ve proven to be extremely good at what they do -- which is more not less; a little bit of everything. “They’re great all-around athletes,’’ Stintzi said. “They’re not super stars but when you put all of their events together, they’re phenomenal. What they have in common is they’re pretty cool, calm and collected, which you have to be for the heptathlon because it’s a two-day event.’’
As successful heptathletes, they have no interest in narrowing their focus, either. “Coming out of high school, I wasn’t really that great at any one particular event,’’ Akinniyi conceded. “So it was nice to have an event (heptathlon) that catered to being decent at everything. It can be exhausting -- you get about 30 minutes between your events -- but it’s worth it in the end if you have a good outcome.’’
Flax remembered her parents introducing her to the concept of participating in multiple events at a very young age. “As you would get older, you would do more events,’’ she said. “They would tell me, ‘You’re good at this and you’re good at that, so let’s try them all together.’ Now I would never want to be a single event person. I love competing in all the different events. It’s a lot more fun.’’
Latham got similar backing at home from her mom and dad, both of whom were track and field athletes at the University of Maine. “I guess it was something I knew that I would excel at -- kind of a calling,’’ she said. “My dad always pegged me for a heptathlete. It’s a lot of hard work but after I got started, I really enjoyed it. I’ve got seven events to play with. If I was a one-event person, I‘d get bored.’’
Fittingly, as multi-event competitors, Flax and Akinniyi have had multiple influences on their growth. Flax’s older brother, Jarrett, was a Conference USA champion in the heptathlon and decathlon at Houston. Akinniyi’s older sister, Deborah, was an NCAA qualifier in the triple jump at Stanford. She’s also had three brothers involved in college football at Arizona, Northeastern and West Point.
Since they spend so much time together in workouts, Flax and Akinniyi have willingly taken Latham under their wing. “If something is bothering one of us, it’s very clear and the others pick up on it right away,’’ Latham said. “I feel like they want what’s best for me and they’re always willing to help with boys or school. I feel comfortable talking to them about any aspect of life.’’
Meanwhile, UW assistant coach Nate Davis is largely responsible for honing their skills. While he refuses to take any credit for their development, they can’t say enough good things about his influence.
“He knows everything; he’s a genius,’’ Akinniyi said. “He knows how to fix any problem. Whenever we’re worried about something, he can tell us what we need to do and it takes a lot of pressure off of us.’’
Davis looks for certain inherent traits in his heptathletes. Flax spelled it out. “I would say maturity, the ability to put things in perspective -- focus, trust, believing in yourself,’’ she said. “A lot of times it’s like a roller coaster. You go up, you go down. You can do really good in one event and really bad in another. But you have to keep perspective and stay focused on what you’re doing at that time.’’
Not only are Flax, Akinniyi and Latham looking forward to the challenge of a Big Ten championship meet, they are excited about performing in front of the home crowd.
“I realize that’s not an area a lot of people are going to put time and money into,’’ Stintzi said of the commitment that the Badgers have made to the hepthalon, “but it’s something we’re going to hang our hat on.’’