By Chase Russell
Big12 Campus Correspondent
A national championship is not something an athlete trains for in just an offseason or throughout a college career. It’s a lifetime achievement that encapsulates years of hard work, preparation and mental toughness. Iowa State thrower Christina Hillman holds all good virtues of an accomplished athlete, but she does not simply identify as the 2014 NCAA indoor and outdoor shot put champion.
“She is not the typical national champion. Sometimes you may think of a very cocky or out-there person, but she is so humble. She is the sweetest person you’ll ever meet,” Hillman’s best friend and teammate Kayla Sanborn said. “She may look intimidating because she has all of these championships under her belt, but she is just a sweet girl at heart and loves her friends and family.”
While a humble demeanor isn’t always commonplace among highly talented athletes, Sanborn described times when Hillman talked about her achievements. She would tilt her head forward, fix her gaze on the floor and appear embarrassed as she said, ‘I’m a national champion,’ Sanborn recalled.
“I just don’t think she likes to brag about it,” Sanborn added. “She doesn’t strictly identify as an athlete. She wants to be a good person and a good friend to people, so if she can be that, she’s satisfied.”
While the friendly, mild-mannered Cyclone has earned a reputation for humility, she is also known for her intense focus when it’s time to compete.
In 2014, Hillman crafted one of the best seasons ever by an Iowa State track and field athlete, claiming shot put titles at the Big 12 Indoor and Outdoor Championships and NCAA Indoor and Outdoor Championships. The Dover, Delaware native took first-place in all but one meet on the season and claimed Iowa State indoor and outdoor shot put records in the process.
For one of the top throwers to don the Cardinal and Gold, her historic championship run started at the end of the 2013 season.
“A national championship was definitely on my mind at the start of last year, because in 2013 I had a runner-up finish at nationals, and Tia (Brooks) – who was a very successful in shot put – had moved on,” Hillman explained. “So it kind of opened up the floor, but at the same time, I knew it was going to take a lot. Winning a prestigious meet like that was more like a dream instead of a reality for me at that point.”
When Hillman recognized the opportunity, she captured it, and established herself as the nation’s best college athlete in the event. The long, grueling workouts and hours of mental training translated into dominance, meet-after-meet, as Hillman mowed down competition en route to a pair of conference titles and a pair of national championships.
“Coach (Brooks) and I had goals, and we would talk about it, which put me in the right mindset. If you want to win a championship, you have to start thinking, ‘I can do this.’ Otherwise, you’ll never get anywhere,” Hillman said. “Every time we had a practice, I was there mentally, and that’s what it takes, just putting in the work, because practice makes perfect. At that point it was still a dream of mine, but I was working toward it more and more until the day of the meet, and everything came together.”
Not only did everything come together for Hillman the day of the 2014 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, it all tied together – the preparation, the mindset and the execution – in her final throw of competition, as she hurled 58’ 2” in a come-from-behind victory to claim the title in a personal record performance.
Her goals and expectations for this year, much like last, were set at the conclusion of the previous season. After signing off on a dominant 2014 campaign, Hillman is thinking repeat.
“I definitely have goals of defending,” the Iowa State senior said, “but there is a lot of tough competition. It’s not going to be a cake walk by any means, so I have been getting into the mindset of what I think I can do and what I need to do in order to repeat.”
Reaching a championship level is a tall task, but many coaches and athletes agree that returning to championship form is the real challenge. The mindset Hillman spent months to achieve during last year’s championship run is very much in the picture this time around, but there is a difference in her approach to defending a title.
“It’s definitely a different mindset in the fact that once you become a national champion, people expect you to perform at a high level, and I have placed those expectations on myself, too,” Hillman said. “I know that I’m competing against myself first and foremost, but there are girls who want it just as much as I do. It just comes down to that day and who wants it most.”
Hillman not only carries the burden of defending a national championship, but she is also brusing off the rust of a redshirt indoor season in preparation for the 2015 outdoor championship meets.
“It was really tough for her to make that decision, but she stuck with it every day, worked hard every day and cheered on her teammates in practice and in competition,” Sanborn said.
Rather than viewing the redshirt season as a setback, however, Hillman expects to see improvements in her performances as a result.
“Considering long term goals, I want to peak for this outdoor season – it’s a World Championship year – and the indoor collegiate record is something that’s been on my radar since last indoor season,” Hillman explained.