South Xtra: Elizabeth Forward grad finishes third in javelin at NCAA championship

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Greg Paterra knows a thing or two about sports injuries.

A former star running back at Slippery Rock University who played parts of three seasons in the NFL, Paterra understands what it takes to compete at a high level when your body is too sore or just refuses to cooperate.

So it's no wonder that his daughter, Tori, would develop that same mental toughness and overcome physical adversity.

"I never really pushed her in sports," said Greg Paterra, drafted in the 11th round in 1989 by the Atlanta Falcons. "But with sports comes injuries and I know through all the years myself playing, you have to try to push through it. That's kind of what I did with her.

"When injuries came or when she had to tough it out, I tried to teach her mentally to push through it. I think it's helped her. Mentally she knows how to push through injuries and setbacks. As an athlete, you're going to have them."

Tori had them, all right, but not only did she push through them, she threw them down, stepped on them and laughed in their face.

Tori Paterra, an Elizabeth resident who is a senior track and field competitor at Miami University (Ohio), finished third in the javelin at the NCAA Division I Track and Field Championships June 11 in Eugene, Ore., with a toss of 182 feet, 3 inches.

It was her highest finish in four trips to the national championship and landed her first-team All-America honors for the second time. She was also All-American in javelin her sophomore season when she finished seventh.

It was after her junior year, however, when the career-threatening injury occurred.

Paterra, a graduate of Elizabeth Forward High School, said she always has had a little bit of back problem, but it started to get worse at the Mid-American Conference championships last year. At the regional meet, it nearly was unbearable.

"It got to the point where I couldn't even do cross-overs," she said. "I ended up wearing a back brace and a weight belt so I was just numb all around my torso.

"When I got to nationals I felt a big crack in my back in my first warmup throw. After nationals I went home and had a CT scan and they said I had three stress fractures [on the spine], two on the right, one on left and a complete fracture on my left side and degeneration on my L4 [vertebrae]."

Heading into her senior season -- and still wearing a back brace -- it wasn't until October that she finally began throwing the javelin again. But the pain persisted and she shut down the entire month of December to focus on physical therapy and getting stronger.

"I tell this story to everybody, but I remember back in high school I was playing in a softball tournament and I sprained both my ankles," she said. "My dad was there so he went to the store and bought some athletic tape and he wrapped the tape around my spikes so my ankles were tight in my shoe and told me to get back out there and play.

"He's never let me give up, he's always helped me fight through the pain and it really has helped me mentally. I have such a strong mental toughness from it."

That toughness paid off as the season progressed.

Despite cutting her approach down from 10 steps to five and eventually adding two more steps to her runway to protect her back, Paterra captured the MAC championship this season with a throw of 183-5, shattering her own school record and setting the MAC meet record.

"Tori came in to my office in August and we had a goal meeting and she said I'm going to throw 180 feet this year. I just laughed," said Miami assistant coach Stacey Wannemacher, who is in charge of the throwers. "I'll admit I didn't think she'd be able to hit 180 feet this year. I know she has the capability to do it but, coming back from a back injury, it was just incredible how far she's thrown."

Especially with the reduced number of steps on her runway.

"It affects a lot because when you have a full approach you have more speed going into the throw," Wannemacher said. "Right now she's not able to control her speed so she's throwing a lot with just her arm and upper body. Once she allows that speed to transfer into the throw, it's huge."

Her progress this season carried over into the national meet. It was on her second throw that she threw her third-place effort and narrowly missed an even farther throw on her third attempt when the tip of the javelin was just slightly elevated.

As frustrating as just missing a what-could-have-been throw, Paterra missed out on a second-place finish by just 1 inch. An inch.

Fawn Miller of Florida won the event with a throw of 190-8 while Oklahoma's Avione Allgood ended up edging out Paterra at 182-4.

"I keep going back to it and it's like, you've got to be kidding," she said with a laugh. "I didn't know it was one inch. I knew she threw 182-4 but I didn't know what mine was. I knew I was around 182.

"Afterward I was answering all my family's text messages, I asked them how much farther was hers? When they told me 1 inch, I was like, you've got to be kidding. I said, really? Really ... that was going to happen to me? I was very excited but then I was a little bit mad."

After practicing this week at Oxford, Ohio, Paterra will compete at the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships June 26-29 in Sacramento, Calif., where she will continue to compete against the country's top athletes in an attempt to qualify for the Olympic Trials.

And no doubt continue that long line of success for Paterra athletes.

"My dad has always been my biggest influence throughout my entire life," she said. "He's just always been there to make sure I'm ready to go and relaxed. He's always kept me really tough.

"Coming from his background of football growing up, I always wanted my athletic career to be just like his. I just wanted to make him proud. That's what I focus on, my dad did this so I have to be just as great. It's helped my drive to be successful."

Rick Davis: or 412-263-3789.

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