There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Adelaide Aquilla is one of the world’s best shot putters. The 19.64m PB, which is an NCAA record. The four NCAA titles. The third-place finish at the 2021 Olympic Trials. The second-place finish at the 2022 USATF Championships. The recent 19.17m toss at the Bislett Games to score her first Diamond League points in her first year as a pro.
That would be enough to convince just about anyone, except maybe Adelaide herself, who still sometimes grapples with “walk-on imposter syndrome.”
She was, in fact, a walk-on at Ohio State University coming out of high school, but quickly proved she belonged in DI athletics by making it to the 2019 NCAA finals in Austin, Texas, as a sophomore. She threw a PB 16.29m there to finish twelfth, the first of many occasions that the NCAA Championships would bring out her best.
The following February, Adelaide threw another PB, this time 17.82m, to win her first Big 10 indoor title just before the world closed up shop. When the world opened up again a year later, she earned her second Big 10 indoor title, and first NCAA indoor crown, the latter by tossing a PB of 18.12m.
She smashed a 19.12m PB to take the 2021 Big 10 outdoor meet, and followed that up with a win at the NCAA Outdoor Championships and, shockingly, that third-place finish at the Trials which put her on the Olympic team at the age of twenty-two.
Adelaide had a great time hanging out at the training center the US established in Tokyo to keep the athletes Covid-free during the Games, and tried to approach the qualification round with the confidence she’d shown at the Trials, but after throwing 18.95m in Eugene to make the team, she topped out at 17.68m and did not advance to the final.
That resurrected some of the old doubts about whether or not she really belonged at the top level of the sport. “There was,” she recalls, “a big adjustment period coming back from the Olympics. I wasn’t happy with my performance, and I had to realign how I looked at myself and to realize I performed well at a bunch of high level meets in 2021, so one bad meet–even if it was the Olympic Games–did not define me.”
Adelaide also had to adjust to working with a new coach, as Ashley Kovacs moved on to Vanderbilt and was replaced by Travis Coleman.
There was a period of adjustment as she and Coleman got to know each other, and at the same time Adelaide was learning to deal with the expectations she perceived others had for her now that she was an Olympian.
That proved to be not so easy, and after opening the indoor season with two meets over 19 meters and taking her third consecutive Big 10 Indoor title, Adelaide struggled to a best of 17.95m at the NCAA Indoor Championships, which consigned her to second place.
Her slump continued outdoors, and she did not reach 19 meters during March or April.
Then, one day at practice, she had an epiphany. “One of the guys on the team was throwing a light ball and talking trash to me, as you do in practice,” she recalls. “And he said ‘I bet I can throw this thing farther than you can throw your four-kilo shot.’ This was like twenty minutes after I was done throwing for the day, but I put on my shoes and just got in the ring and beat him. And I was like, this is what’s missing! I need to have fun and be confident in meets just like I was that day in practice. It was a big mindset shift for me.”
Her new attitude paid off big at the NCAAs as she opened with that 19.64m PB and NCAA record. Two weeks later, she reached 19.45m to take second at the USATF Championships and qualify for Worlds.
Adelaide struggled in qualifying there as she had at the Olympics, but enjoyed the experience and looked forward to the 2023 indoor campaign, which would end her college eligibility.
She and Coleman had developed an excellent working relationship by then, and preparations for her final tour as a Buckeye were going well, until one day she called in an order to a Starbucks near her house.
“I went down there to get my coffee,” she recalls, “but I was walking downhill and it was icy. All of a sudden, I was sliding down the hill, and about to fall against a car–a Porsche, actually–so to avoid it, I fell backwards and hyperextended my ankle. That was not surprising for me. I’m very athletic in the ring, but that’s where it ends.”
Adelaide was not allowed to throw or lift for a month, and when she made her season’s debut at the indoor Big 10 meet, she fouled every attempt.
Next came the NCAA Indoor Championships, and her first four attempts there went 15.92m, 17.26m, 17.81m, and 17.17m. Her fifth throw was a foul.
“My throws at the Big 10 meet were out of the right sector,” she explained. “So at NCAAs I was worrying about getting them in instead of relaxing and having fun. Then, on my last attempt, I realized this was my last throw ever as an NCAA athlete, and somehow, I relaxed.”
The result was a 19.28m bomb for the win.
But that was it for college, and her experience this season as a pro has reminded Adelaide of when she was a freshman.
“I had to find my place in the NCAA, and I eventually proved that I belonged. Now, I have to do it again. All the girls on the tour have been welcoming to me, offering advice and encouragement, and that gives me a lot of hope. But I have to keep reminding myself that these girls have been pros for five or six years, and this is my first season. I’m just trying to prove to myself that I belong.”
The hardest part of life on the circuit?
Traveling alone and not having Coleman at meets to consult between throws.
That’s one reason Adelaide says she is excited about Saturday’s competition.
“It will be the first time outdoors that my coach will be there,” she says. “So at least if I think something is wrong, I have a second set of eyes to help me. And I have a level of comfortableness throwing at Hayward. I’ve had a lot of success there, and I know exactly what the ring feels like, so it’s easy for me when I do my visualization to imagine making a perfect throw.”
A perfect throw might not be in the offing, but competing at the USATF Championships has brought out the best in Adelaide Aquilla for the past two years. Will she capture the magic again on Saturday?
The women’s shot final begins at 6:15 pm Pacific time. Tune in and find out.