Tia Brooks will gladly exchange her spine-boarding experience for the spine-tingling ones she has consistently given throughout her redshirt junior season at Oklahoma.
Had this Grand Rapids, Mich., native listened to her doctors, Brooks, a Sooner shot put star, would not be competing at all. Nor would she be attempting to pair her indoor championship with an outdoor title at the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championships this week in Des Moines’ Drake Stadium.
The Division I Men’s and Women’s Track and Field Championship participants have been announced after qualifying at preliminary-round sites. Action is set for June 6-9 in Des Moines, Iowa.
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If ever she was going to win an outdoor title, it was going to be at Drake Stadium, a venue that has been abundantly kind to her. Previously she’s competed here four times losing in only her debut. Since then, she has been unstoppable. Her best performance came just this spring at the Drake Relays when she broke the event record four times on consecutive throws of 59 feet, 9½ inches, 59-10¼, 60-3¼ and finally 60-7¼.
“It’s my favorite track,” Brooks said. “I don’t know what it is about it. Maybe it’s the track being blue. I have a thing for colors. Pink is my favorite color, but I saw the track was blue and I freaked out. I fell in love with it and have been since.
“But really I feel like my training is catching up with my natural ability. I’m just now learning how to throw. I was injured my freshman year, and never really went hard in the weight room. I’d never done that before because I was hurt.”
Brooks was injured during a weightlifting session during her true freshman year. She was doing single leg squats when suddenly she lost feeling in her legs.
“I started crying not necessarily because there was pain,” Brooks said. “But that’s the scariest feeling your legs going numb and having to get spine-boarded and carted away. It hurt to move. I mean I was a two-sport athlete (she also played basketball her senior year in high school), and I never had these problems, so this was the scariest experiences of my life.”
A series of X-rays and an MRI revealed Brooks had two bulging discs, degenerative disc disorder and a narrowing of her spine.
There were so many contributing factors to the injuries. Genetics, her lifting weights, throwing shot put, playing sports and running. Due to her activity, the fibers around the discs, which under normal circumstances fray over time, were wearing out faster because of the disorder. It was discovered that torn fibers caused the fluid to leak out of two of her discs and causing them to bulge.
She faced significant rehabilitation ahead to address her back issues and she faced the prospect of a life without sports as well.
“The doctor was like, ‘I suggest you choose a different sport,’” Brooks said. “He said, ‘You should never lift another weight. You shouldn’t be a thrower. You shouldn’t do anything.’
“That was hard to hear. Throwing was just a way to get to college and get college paid for. I never really took it seriously. After he said that, I was thinking maybe I should give it up. Maybe I should hang it up, because I want to do stuff later on in life and I don’t want to make it any worse.
“I talked with Coach Blu (Brian Blutreich) about it. He said I care about you as a person. You’re not only an athlete to me. I have a wife who worked herself to death and I see the pain she goes through now. I don’t want that to happen to you.”
Blutreich assured Brooks even if she never threw again, she’d keep her scholarship and that the program would support her decision either way. Hearing that only made her more determined to work herself back into form.
“I didn’t want to be done,” Brooks said. “I made a conscious effort to do whatever it took to be able to throw, and to see where this would take me. People always were saying to me I was made to do this. And I realized I really did have a love for the sport.”
After a year off, Brooks was rested, but not rusted. She has been at the top of her game – especially the past two seasons. In 2011, she won the Big 12’s indoor title and finished second for the NCAA title both indoor and outdoor. This season, in addition to the Drake Relays success, she has been lights out.
She also won the 2012 NCAA indoor championship with a record-throw of 62-4 – only the second NCAA female to throw 62 feet or better in the event – and was the best throw in the event since 2004 (just six inches shy of the collegiate and NCAA meet record of 62-10). Brooks ranks ninth on the all-time indoor list amongst American women in the event and the mark is the ninth best in the world this year. And outdoor she won the Big 12 with a throw of 59-9.5. The only downside is for her competitors, because Brooks is virtually pain free coming into Des Moines.
“This is probably in the best shape I’ve ever been in,” Brooks said. “I manage [the back ailment]. You learn what hurts it and doesn’t hurt it. Stay away from stuff that hurts. Kind of like a trial-and-error period. I’ll do something that hurts and I learn, OK, don’t ever do that again.
“I’m doing a lot of floor exercises. Working on abs and lower muscles in the back and obliques – all kinds of little muscles that have gotten stronger and they’ll do the work to help take pressure off the discs. I am managing it and looking forward to getting back on that track.”