MYRTLE BEACH — Amber Campbell’s career in track and field has taken her around the globe. She’s represented the United States on the sport’s biggest stage, has a Nike sponsorship and is recognized as one of the best in her craft.
And yet eight years after starring at Coastal Carolina, Campbell hasn’t strayed far from home. A few weeks before she’s set to make her second Olympics appearance while competing in the hammer throw, Campbell is in the old throwing cage in the fields behind Myrtle Beach High School putting on a demonstration for the television cameras and gathered media.
Her coach, David Vandergriff, is watching from behind the cage when he’s asked if she ever trains at Coastal anymore.
“Coastal isn’t actually long enough,” he says. “We hit the woods.”
OK, so she’s outgrown some of her track and field roots, but she’s remained close to the community where this all started. Fresh off setting the women’s hammer throw record at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Beaverton, Ore., last month and following that with a trip to France and Germany for a pair of international competitions, Campbell has been here in town working out almost daily behind the high school as part of her final preparations for the Olympics in London.
Vandergriff warns the assembled onlookers Thursday morning that there are a couple of holes in the old net draped around the throwing cage, and Campbell says with a smile that she had nothing to do with that.
She begins her routine, extending her right arm gracefully like a dancer while centering herself, before swinging the weight over her head and easing into her spin – a combination of balance and coordination that allows her to hurl the 4 kilogram ball and chain farther than any woman in the country.
“Next round you can put a little juice on it,” Vandergriff tells Campbell after a few throws.
“That wasn’t a little juice?” an observer asks him.
“Oh no,” he says.
Campbell, who was a 16-time Big South Conference champion and five-time NCAA All-American at Coastal from 2000 to 2004, finished 21st in Beijing in 2008 while making her Olympics debut, but this time around she believes she can be in the hunt for a medal. She won the U.S. Olympic Trials with a throw of 71.80 meters (235 feet, 6 inches) to top a talented field that included the previous trials record holder. And she thinks she can go even a little farther in London.
“I think I’m going to surprise a lot of people,” Campbell says. “On paper, a mid-72 throw doesn’t really seem like it’s going to be in the hunt, but in training and in competitions I’ve had a lot farther throws. So when I put it together, it’s going to be pretty cool.”
Her coach shares a cautious optimism that the former Chanticleer could indeed be in line for a special performance when she begins Olympic competition Aug. 8, though he waits until she’s out of earshot to say it.
“I don’t want to jinx us or anything like that. I’m probably more superstitious than I like to act,” Vandergriff says. “… I’m actually crazy optimistic about it. Amber is training meters further than she threw at the trials. She just threw almost what won the trials, and she was just throwing for fun to show you guys.”
Finding her niche
Campbell had never even seen the hammer throw until her recruiting visit to Coastal Carolina. A promising shot put and discus thrower out of Indianapolis, Ind., she was recruited to Conway by Vandergriff and made a campus visit while the Chants were holding an intrasquad track and field meet.
“I was like ‘What is that? I don’t get it,’ ” she recalls asking Vandergriff. “He was like, ‘Oh, that’s the hammer. I think you’ll be good at it. If you come to Coastal I’ll introduce you to it.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, probably not.’ But I ended up signing with Coastal and he did exactly what he said. … And it was so frustrating because it’s so complicated, but I just started really, really liking it. It was just a very explosive, athletic event and I just wanted to try to get the hang of it.”
And she would, of course, but it did take time. The hammer throw – and indoor weight throw – is one of the most involved track and field events because of the precision and technique required as an athlete quickly spins through the hammer circle, swirling the weight with great velocity before releasing it at just the right point to send it flying as straight as possible.
Vandergriff introduced Campbell to the event as a freshman, but they didn’t get serious about it until her sophomore year with the Chants.
“First, I had to sell her on [the belief] that I had a clue what I was doing,” he says. “So what I tried to do from the beginning was improve her shot and discus quite a bit so she became a believer in our program. Then I slowly introduced her to the hammer.”
Since then, her resume has only kept growing.
Following her feats at Coastal, Campbell has become a six-time indoor national champion in the women’s 20-pound weight throw, won an outdoor national championship in 2010 and has competed on three world championship teams – in addition to making two Olympic teams.
“It’s a tremendous thing,” CCU women’s track and field coach Alan Connie says. “A lot of universities don’t get to experience [anything like this]. … And Amber’s just been a continued source of pride and joy with all her accomplishments from the time she entered Coastal.”
All the while bringing a little extra notoriety to the university in Conway.
“The first time we were at outdoor nationals and she became an All-American, it was hilarious,” Vandergriff says. “We were in Eugene, Ore., … and I heard this at least a half dozen times: ‘Where in the hell is Coastal Carolina?’ And we would just smile. Eventually everyone learned – ‘Oh, that’s the girl from Coastal Carolina.’ ”
Campbell has remained linked to the program and community amid her rise in the track and field world. A managing partner and personal trainer at Sports Doctors in Myrtle Beach, she is also listed as a volunteer assistant coach with the Chants and has worked with some of the team’s throwers when time allows in her schedule.
“That’s a role that I love to play,” she says of being an example for the younger athletes. “Just letting them know no matter what their background, no matter where they came from, that if you dream, if you aspire, if you work hard, if you put in all the things, it’s absolutely possible.”
Campbell has maintained a grueling training regimen since returning from Europe, with morning and afternoon throwing workouts separated by weight lifting and brief rest periods most days, and she’ll continue with that routine until leaving for London on Aug. 3.
She’s skipping the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, which start July 27, to keep her focus on being as prepared as possible to make a run at the medal stand this time after that 21st-place finish in Beijing in 2008.
“I was pretty nervous,” she says of her first Olympics experience. “I really didn’t know what to expect, and they tell you how the rounds are going to go and things like that, but never having been in that situation, you’re not prepared for the grandioseness of it. …”
“The whole experience of it was very new, very different and I think I kind of got a little lost in just the festivities.”
A lot has changed in four years, though. She’s gotten stronger, gained considerable international experience and, as she puts it, been able to “mature” in the sport.
Vandergriff lauds her strict dedication to practice and training and notes that Campbell can squat as much as 700 pounds these days.
“To put that in perspective, a good friend of mine from the Soviet Union – Yuriy Sedykh, who has the world record in the men’s hammer – can’t squat that much and couldn’t when he set the world record,” Vandergriff says.
All that training and all the work the last four years is about to be put to the test. In a couple of short weeks, Campbell’s moment will come as Myrtle Beach’s own Olympian tests herself against the world’s best.
In the meantime, she says she’s been impressed by the support she received locally since the Olympic Trials.
“You know, living in a community like Myrtle Beach, because it is very small even though it’s spread out, everybody knows somebody,” Campbell says. “If I don’t know them personally, they know somebody that knows me. I could be in the grocery store or whatever and [someone will say] ‘Hey, you just made the Olympics, good luck!’ It’s just been very, very, very cool.”
Campbell admits she’s allowed herself to dream a little bit of late. She’s envisioned herself on the medal stand, in her United States uniform with a medal draped around her neck.
And if all goes as hoped in a couple weeks, well, it may just be more than a dream.
“I’m excited. I’m just trying to keep all of the wheels and everything hooked on, just hold it together and let’s get there,” Vandergriff says. “But I’m incredibly excited about her chances to battle for a medal – and she can battle for the medal.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.