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Whitney Ashley follows unexpected route to Olympic berth


By Emily Giambalvo, USATF Communications

You can be great.

Four-time Olympian Aretha Thurmond told Whitney Ashley those four words in Moscow after the 2013 IAAF World Championships. Ashley finished the discus qualification round third to last, only ahead of two athletes who fouled on every throw.

“You may have had a bad meet today, but you can be our next Olympian,” said Thurmond, who is now the director of international and championship teams at USA Track & Field. “You can be our next world championship medalist. This is definitely in your future.”

Thurmond saw potential. She saw someone who could take the reins and lead the team, someone who might one day earn the ultimate seal of accomplishment in her sport.

Ashley said she was only half-convinced.

Now it’s not a question. No doubt remains as to whether or not she’ll reach that level. She’s there.

Ashley secured a spot to compete for Team USA in Rio de Janeiro after winning Olympic Trials earlier this month where she propelled the discus to 62.25m/204-3.

“I haven't really wrapped my head around it,” Ashley said. “I don't think I'm going to understand what that means until I land in Brazil.”


Rewind four years. Same place, same time of year. Ashley finished 22nd at 2012 Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, in the rain without a coach. Dorian Scott, whom she trained under that year at San Diego State, was in Jamaica to compete in a Trials of his own.

A few months prior, Ashley concluded her collegiate career with an NCAA title and was ready to move on.

“I was finished,” she said. “In my mind, I retired.”

Ashley planned to work toward a Masters in sports administration, while also writing for the media department at San Diego State. (She still, one day, hopes to pursue that route.)

After her rainy, near-the-bottom finish at Trials, Ashley opted to grab some chicken outside Hayward Field. There, she ran into Art Venegas. And there, a new — but still uncertain — path emerged.

Venegas told Ashley that she had “untapped potential.” He said he wanted to coach her and left her with his business card.

She had long aspired to train under Venegas, the former UCLA coach who has guided a laundry list of throwers to NCAA and Olympic success.

But Ashley began her NCAA campaign at Cerritos College, a junior college 20 miles south of Los Angeles. Two years later, Ashley had solid grades and San Diego State honored her scholarship. For Ashley’s first year at San Diego State, she was coached by Boldi Kocsor, who competed under Venegas from 2005 to 2009.

“It was like, 'Oh my gosh, you got UCLA at San Diego,’” her mother, Angela Washington, said.

Kocsor was a product of Venegas, but thanks in part to her meal decision in Oregon, Ashley finally had a chance to work with Venegas himself.

But she hesitated to take his offer — bound by fear, her mother said.

“She was so afraid of not being good enough,” her mother said. “She held onto that piece of paper until the very last minute.”

Three months later, Ashley called.

“I’m all in,” she told Venegas.


Since Ashley began training with Venegas at USATF’s Olympic Training Center Residence Program in Chula Vista, California, she has represented Team USA at the IAAF World Championships in both 2013 and 2015. Now she heads to Rio de Janeiro to again compete for the United States.

But if you had told Ashley when she was a kid that she’d earn a college scholarship for track and field, she would’ve said you had the wrong sport.

Her mother said track and field “wasn’t even on the radar.” Ashley’s mother played basketball and volleyball in college, and her father was also on the basketball team. Ashley played the sport throughout high school.

“Where did track come in? It didn't,” Washington said. “We didn't do track. We did basketball.”

Long after Ashley pursued track and field in college, she discovered that the 1948 Olympic high jump gold medalist, Alice Coachman, was her grandmother’s aunt. She realized this after Coachman died, so the two track and field Olympians never had the chance to meet.

Even if you had told Ashley when she was a high schooler that she would become an Olympian in the discus, she might have said you had the wrong event in mind.

Ashley didn’t pick up the discus until her junior year of high school, and she still feels like a shot putter despite what the Olympic roster says.

“I still throw the shot put,” Ashley said. “My coach lets me I think to just keep me sane a little bit because he knows where my heart is.”

That event was assigned to Ashley as a sixth grader when her family was strolling around the track at nearby University of California - Riverside. Her mother spotted a youth track and field team. Those kids seemed to be active and determined. Washington found the coach to ask how her children could be involved.

The next day, Washington and her three kids returned. The coach instructed Washington’s two sons toward the sprints, while he told Ashley to go to a different area.

“I'll never forget, he put his hand on his chin and he looked at her and said, 'You can send her over there,'” Washington remembers the coach saying.

“Where's that?” Washington replied.

“Shot put,” he said.

“What's that?” she asked.

Washington watched as her daughter learned to throw. Soon after, the John W. North High School track and field coach, Charles Leathers, asked Washington to come coach the team’s shot putters simply because her middle school daughter did the event.

The school produced 2004 Olympic champion Joanna Hayes and four-time Olympian Chaunté Lowe. Washington, who had only recently learned what the shot put was, felt somewhat intimidated to coach there.

Still, she accepted the position. A couple years later, Ashley began high school and with that, her mother became her coach.

Together the mother-daughter, coach-athlete duo took on the challenge of learning discus Ashley’s junior year. Washington had never coached the event. Ashley had never competed the event.

She continued improving throughout college, and it seems to have worked out well. Ashley heads into the Games as the world’s 11th best woman in the discus this year.

“It will be fun to watch her just grow in this moment and experience her first Olympics,” said Thurmond, one of Ashley’s mentors. “This is her time to shine.”


At Olympic Trials, four hours stood between the moment Ashley finished competing and when she had the chance to hug her mother.

By that time, the stadium had begun to empty after the day’s events. Ashley had already experienced her share of emotions. For her mother, on the other hand, it all started to seem real.

“She just kept repeating, 'My daughter is an Olympian,’” Ashley said.

Washington finally laid eyes on her child’s gold medal, not from the stands but in her own hand. When asked to revisit that moment, she just cried.

“I feel it all over again,” said Washington, overcome by emotion.

The medal was not simply the evidence of the top-three finish that sealed Ashley’s spot in Rio. For Washington, it was a tangible representation of what came before. It was the transformation from the kid who walked with her mother around the UC Riverside’s track to the Olympian who circled Hayward Field on her victory lap.

And she felt it with a former coach’s pride combined with a mother’s love for her child, a child whose name is now permanently attached to this accomplishment.

Whitney Ashley, Olympian.


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