Discus throwers specialize in putting a spin on things, so it's hardly surprising that Seilala Sua, who hurls not only the discus but also the hammer and the shot, aims to change our perception of the throws. "People see throwing as this huge person in a round pit, but I see it as grace in the ring," says spinmeister Sua, a UCLA sophomore who might be the greatest female talent ever in the discus. Sua has her sights set on the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and, even better, the Athens Games in 2004, by which time she should be at her peak.
But last week, as she stood in the blustery SUNY Buffalo stadium, Sua had a more immediate goal: to lead the Bruins to their first NCAA women's track and field team title since 1983. Eleven-time defending champion LSU was considered a long shot, so it was assumed that UCLA's main rival would be Texas. There would be few instances of head-to-head competition, because Texas was loaded with sprinters and UCLA with throwers. Indeed, the women's competition resembled one of those ancient fables populated by animals: Which would prevail, Longhorn speed or Bruin strength?
UCLA struck first. On the first afternoon of the meet Sua, ignoring pesky tailwinds (which hurt rather than help a thrower), whipped the discus 210'8"—a monster of a throw for such a crummy day. No one came within 18 feet of her.
"Conditions were horrible," said Bruins assistant coach Art Venegas, who estimated that the wind cost Sua as much as eight feet. Consider, then, that Carol Cady's 12-year-old U.S. discus record is 216'10" and that Sua's throw would have placed her fourth in last summer's world championships. When Sua's teammates placed
fourth, sixth and seventh in the discus, UCLA had 20 points. One of the most thrilling team battles in recent NCAA history had begun.
At 5'10�" and 235 pounds, Sua is a formidable champion. Her hands, she says, are bigger than those of anyone on the Bruins men's team. "Bear claws," says UCLA thrower Nada Kawar. "She's the paw."
"Those hands help her put a beautiful flight on the discus," says Venegas, who notes that Sua has been lifting weights only since becoming a Bruin less than two years ago and should get much stronger. "There isn't a woman in the world who throws that far with that little strength. She has so much room to improve."
Sua proudly traces her roots to the islands of the Pacific, where there's a tradition of strength competitions. Her mother, Charlene, is part Hawaiian, while her father, Muatapasa, who played football at BYU, is Samoan. At St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale, Seilala excelled in four sports, starring on the Raiders' state champion girls' volleyball team, playing power forward in basketball and, in her sophomore year, making All-America as a softball catcher. Track and field was almost an afterthought. Sua got an inkling of how good she could be only when she began to win awards and the scholarship offers started pouring in. She chose UCLA in part to work with Venegas but also to get closer to her family's roots.
Last Thursday, Sua was disappointed to finish sixth in the shot, but Kawar picked up the slack by placing third. Kawar, a Jordanian by birth, stands 6'1�" and weighs 225. A good deal of the poundage seems to be above the neck. She graduated last month with a 3.9 GPA in biology and was named female scholar-athlete of the meet. She plans to give throwing two more years and then enter medical school, with the aim of becoming an orthopedic surgeon.
At the start of the meet's final session, on Saturday, the Bruins had amassed a mountain of 40 points—30 in the throws-while the Longhorns were mired in a tie for 16th, with 10. Saturday's events were expected to yield a Niagara of points for Texas in the hurdles, the 400 meters, the high jump and the 4 x 400 relay, but would they be enough?
The men's team battle, meanwhile, was a logjam. Arkansas, which had won the previous six NCAA titles, was favored to win again, but Stanford, rated no higher than 10th in any major poll, had put itself smack in the middle of things on the first day, when sophomore Toby Stevenson cleared a personal best of 18'2�" to win the vault. In a discipline full of risk-taking zanies, Stevenson is an anomaly. When he vaults, he wears a black street-hockey helmet, a concession to his parents' concern for his safety. It probably saved him a cracked skull two months ago at the Mt. SAC Relays, when his spike caught in the track and he landed on the back of his head.