The grace of a champion

You can see her on a giant billboard on I-380, near the center field wall in Veteran’s Memorial stadium or even as close as your digital TV screen. she was a common sight during the BCS last fall and March Madness this spring.

Jenna Higgins, Mount Mercy junior and NAIA national champion in the javelin can be seen nearly everywhere. In short order she’s become the face of Mount Mercy.

It’s a role that fits her perfectly. In just three years, Higgins has become a dominant force in women’s track and field. In addition to her triumphs with the javelin, she earned conference titles in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, as one leg of the 400 relay and in the 60 dash where she is an indoor all-American. As a star, she’s a natural choice to represent the university and embraces her role. Yet, while her fame has been exciting, it has also been something of a shock. “I never thought I would be doing this,” she says.

So how did a small-town Iowa girl become one of the best sprinters and javelin throwers in the country? For Higgins, the secret has more to do with hard work and caring than talent or ability, although she has both in abundance.

The Evolution of a Champion

When you watch Higgins work out, you immediately pick up on her grace in motion. Although she looks like a natural at the javelin, she’d never even picked one up before coming to Mount Mercy.She grew up in Eldridge, Iowa, and excelled in softball, track and volleyball — one of those rare athletes who were strong in all three sports. In addition, she possessed what her Mount Mercy coaches called “a cannon for an arm.”

When Mount Mercy Assistant Men and Women’s Track and Field Coach Ryan Scheckel ’01, recruited her, he saw her potential right away. With the help of her high school track coach, he persuaded her to narrow her focus to track and field and introduced her to a new event. Although he had to teach her basic throwing techniques, she quickly adapted—the movements involved in spiking a volleyball are similar to throwing a javelin.

“She has great mechanics,” says Scheckel. “She may very well be the fastest, strongest and most powerful female athlete to ever to walk this campus. Right away she threw well.” How well? When only a freshman, she took 2nd in nationals. In her sophomore year she became a national champion and is now a three-time national qualifier. She’s also been a three-time Midwest Conference champion. This year, she broke the record with a 163-01.00 throw leading the NAIA and landing her among top 20 collegiate javelin athletes in all divisions, including NCAA Division I. To top it off, she almost qualified for the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials.

Driven to Give

Even with perfect form and natural ability, there’s something more that sets Higgins apart. Although she was recruited as an athlete, she came to Mount Mercy because of its nursing program first, track and field were second. Though she loves her sport and takes quiet pride in her accomplishments, she knows there is more to life than athletics and that success in both take hard work and determination — for Higgins, there is no such thing as luck.

“She’s special,” says Mount Mercy Women’s Track and Field Head Coach Jamie Jimison. “She continually finds ways to be better. This year, for example, she started her spring training much earlier than usual. Although she finished second this past season as a junior, she had a banner year and topped several tremendous personal bests. Not to mention how close she came to qualifying for the Olympic trials.”

She brings the same drive to her studies and her life on campus, whether it’s prepping for an exam or working her heart out on a track team service project to clean the school grounds around Hennessey. She wants to be as successful in her major and won’t let anything hold her back. “I want to do the best I can to keep moving myself and everyone around me moving forward,” she says. “I have my eye on the future.” More than anything else, that future means fulfilling her lifelong ambition to be a nurse.

A Servant Leader

A diabetic since childhood, it was her experience as a patient that shaped her worldview. When she was first diagnosed as an eight-year-old, she didn’t understand what was happening to her, nor did her parents. With no family history of the illness, they had little experience handling a major medical condition that presented many challenges, including a barrage of shots. Of all the people who reached out, however, it was the doctors and nurses who made the biggest difference. Consistently patient and kind, they devoted untold hours to helping Higgins and her parents understand diabetes, sending them videos,answering questions and being available at all hours. Such kindness had a significant impact on Higgins — it inspired her to devote her life to helping others, specifically as a nurse trained in pediatric endocrinology, who could share her experience and knowledge with other diabetic children and their families.

The drive to serve helps Higgins on the field as well. At the conference finals this year, she competed in five events just to help the team. At nationals, she sacrificed an All-American honor by running the 4 X 100 relay with a bad hamstring so that the team could make it to finals. She became someone people looked up to, leading by her actions and how she communicated.

“As a coach, we always look for athletes who will give to the team,” says Jimison. “With Jenna, it became obvious early on that she is the quintessential teammate. She’s looked upon highly by her teammates and works hard to get to know them as individuals.”

Her parents taught her early on to be respectful of the people around her. They have been among her most enthusiastic supporters, coming to every meet, bringing baked goods to fuel the team. She may have no bigger fans, however, than her grandparents. Even after a New Year’s Eve traffic accident sent her grandmother and grandfather to Iowa City and DeWitt hospitals, they stayed up late in their respective rooms just to watch her “Be a champion” cable TV commercials.

A Promising Future

In spite of the attention, Higgins is handling her successes very well. “If anything, her experience this year has made her even more humble. She grew tremendously. She never let the pressure get to her. She set out to make the Olympic trials and she would have made it had she not pulled a hamstring,” says Scheckel.

This combination of talent, hard work, drive and character add up to a bright future for Higgins. Next season, she could be among the best track athletes in the U.S. and quite possibly, the world. After she graduates, she wants to keep competing in the javelin — Scheckel believes she may very well land a spot at the 2016 Olympic trials.

For Jenna, however, establishing herself as a nurse and exploring the possibility of earning an MSN and becoming a nurse practitioner are just as important. Clearly, she thrives in an environment where competition and care have equal weight. The values she inherited from her family, her life experience and her role as a student from Mount Mercy — an institution founded on a heritage of care — have transformed her into a champion with impressive grace, character and inner strength. Her parting advice: “Care for others as much as you can.”