Defending NCAA javelin champ Mackenzie Little prefers to keep busy. That’s why it’s no problem for her that the NCAA falls the weekend before Stanford’s fourth-quarter finals. “That is always a thing and it will be again this year,” says the senior premed student. “We’ll be going off and studying in the hotel and then competing and then studying some more and sitting those exams.
“Some people think it probably is less than ideal, but I must say that if I was at another school, just hanging out, just training, I think that wouldn’t suit me as much. I really need some balance.”
Little, who with teammate Jenna Gray was part of a Cardinal 1-2 sweep last year, is hoping to return to the top again. The process has changed a bit, as throws coach Zeb Sion has gone to Texas and Amin Nikfar has stepped into that position. “I’ve had 3 coaches in 4 years which is more than usual, but each of them have very, very good things that I can take from them,” says Little. “Coach Amin has been kind and respectful and engaged and communicative about making everything work. “I have gained so much in the past two years from Coach Sion as well—that’s been really amazing for me.”
That collaboration led to the NCAA title. “There were so many things going on and you can only control so much,” she says. “I don’t think I was surprised. I knew that I was going in as a favorite and I knew that I could win and so I think I was just happy to.”
Only because it was raining did Little even become a javelin star. An active kid growing up in Sydney, Australia, she ended up with hurdles as her first specialty. Then one day in her first year of high school, it rained. “Turns out the hurdles was called off and the javelin was still on,” she recounts. “And so I went over and tried javelin and the coach said, ‘Oh, you know what, you should just come back.’ And then I did. And then went from there.”
By the time she was recruited to Stanford, she had won the Australian Junior title and placed 2nd in the Seniors, hitting a best of 189-0 (57.60).
Throwing herself into both her studies and her throwing was the only way Little was going to make it. She explains, “I’m definitely more productive when I’m busy. I must say in the periods of my life where I haven’t been exercising as much or doing as much intellectual or curricular stuff, then I’m just not as happy and energetic and productive. It’s a perfect balance because training is the perfect release from schoolwork and I love being with my teammates and it’s a great social time as well.”
Little was actually born in the United States and has dual citizenship. Her parents, both physicians, were working at the Mayo Clinic at the time. “I’ve spent two weeks of my life in Minnesota,” she says, “but they happened to be the first two.”
In 2016 she pulled that citizenship card to compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials, finishing 17th in the qualifying round. A year later she again entered the USATF meet, but “about a week before they said, ‘Actually, you’re not allowed in.’” (She had represented Australia at the World Youth Championships in ’13). “It’s never been a big deal,” she shrugs. “The U.S. nationals is such a fantastic, high-quality meet there’s no reason why I wouldn’t want to compete there.”
She threw for Australia in the World University Games later that summer, which certainly sealed her affiliation under IAAF rules. That suits her just fine. After graduation, she will be returning Down Under to attend med school, as well as to continue to throw. She says, “I feel like making it work, finding the best of both worlds and balancing is the thing that I want to do and I feel like I can do.”
For now, though, Little, Stanford’s only women’s javelin winner ever, is looking ahead to her final NCAA season. In technical terms, her biggest challenge is patience. “Particularly in competition,” she says, “I will come so energized and ready to go that I’ll open up my left side really early. I’ll tighten up and shorten everything and come around really quickly.” Whereas, she explains, it’s better at that point of the throw to be long-armed and “loose and flicky.” She adds, “When I’m coming down the runway, one of the big things I’m thinking is just to be relaxed and to be calm and long. That’s what we usually try and work on.”
Being part of a winning javelin tandem, one would think she and teammate Gray would be training side-by-side. But Gray is also a volleyball star, and in past years has only had usually a day each week to practice the spear. “Hopefully the new coach is trying to get her to train with us a bit more if the scheduling works out,” says Little. “Hopefully I’ll have more to do with her in training this year. But we see a lot of each other outside of training and she’s definitely a big part of the team.”
In competition this year, Little says, “the key for me is just narrowing down my focus points. I’ll even write one or two letters on my hand to remind me of the words that we’re thinking of, so when I feel nervous or stressed I can just think about the things I need to work on. Usually, you know, you can trust in the training enough that you have the muscle memory and everything else will just work. So as long as you nail a couple of things, then it really works.
“I just have to go into those meets and put aside all the things that I hope to do and expect to do and just trust that it’s all going to come together. I’ve got some time to just work out what those things are that I really, really need to hone in on and then just do them.”