Julie Labonté may have initially struggled with the English language, but there is one thing did translate very well: her talent.
In just her sophomore season and first full year at Arizona, Labonté, a Ste-Justine, Quebec native, is the best shot put athlete in the Pac-10. She has not lost a competition to a collegiate competitor in 2011, a winning streak spanning 10 meets to the indoor season and including the NCAA indoor title in the event.
Clearly she has gotten a firm grip of her sport. But it was her grasp of English that was a bigger problem. She didn’t speak English until her senior season in high school and had difficulty passing a test on English proficiency that would allow her to attend school in America. Determined to pass the test, she took matters into her own hands.
“I went online and took random grammar quizzes,” Labonté said, the 2011 NCAA Indoor champion. “ I didn’t have a problem speaking English, but I needed people to understand what I was trying to say. I knew I had to get better. I always wanted to be bilingual and I wanted to go to school in the State.
“I had some problems understanding it so I worked on it. My whole family speaks French. It took me a while [to learn English], but I did it.”
That kind of work ethic is probably why she improved as rapidly as she has. She arrived from her town of 2,000 to the 40,000-student Arizona campus eager to learn. She got in coach Craig Carter’s training program and produced immediate results winning the Pac-10 outdoor shot put championship, was named 2010 Pac-10 Women’s Newcomer of the Year and earned All-American honors. Already Labonté holds Arizona’s record in the shot put indoors, is second place outdoors, and is the school’s second student-athlete to go over 17 meters in the shot put and first since Meg Ritchie in 1984.
“Her strength level has really improved,” Carter said. “Technically she’s improved. She was here just two weeks [in the fall] and we had her competing.
“She may not say it but I think a lot of her success also comes from the fact that she’s got five girls pushing her [on the team]. They all compete with her and they are all good friends. I think it’s great to be around people who are going to make you better. They push each other.”
“That’s true,” Labonté said. “All the girls are over the 50-foot line in practice. You want to do better because of them. We are all competitive and we help each other a lot. I know I needed it.”
Primarily because everything came so easy for Labonté. Admittedly, her training in Canada was lax, yet she was by far the best prep athlete around claiming the Canadian national shot put record holder indoors and outdoors, and the shot put champion at the 2010 Canadian National Track and Field Championships. The previous shot put record had been held since 1964.That all changed when Carter put her on a program.
“It was very hard at first,” Labonté said, who this season has been named Pac-10 Women’s Field Athlete of the Week. “When I was in the weight room before, I’d just lift at my own pace. I’d never had intense training and lifting and throwing every day. But I believe in Coach Carter and I can see progress every day.”
That’s what Carter was counting on when he found Labonté. He’d checked her results on international competition. IAAF, Junior and Youth competition. He eventually contacted her by email and set up a recruiting visit.
“I fell in love with it right away,” Labonté said. “I loved the campus and I’m glad I came down here.”
So is Carter. He is expecting a strong showing at the conference championships, which coincidentally is being hosted this year by Arizona. Labonte’s practices leading up to the competition have been encouraging as she has been throwing her personal best of 17.83 meters consistently all week.
“My goal is the 18 meter barrier,” Labonté said. “I have been pretty close and I am throwing really far. I hope it carries over [to the championships.]”