Janee’ Kassanavoid A Late Bloomer

WC hammer bronze medalist Kassanavoid didn’t make her first international championships squad until she was 27. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

ONLY 5 CENTIMETERS (just under 2 inches). That’s what kept Janee’ Kassanavoid off the ’21 Olympic team, and the resulting frustration is what put her on the podium at the next year’s World Championships.

She explains, “It was just coming centimeters short of making the Olympic team, but knowing that I was very able and capable… It was upsetting, but it just motivated me more to put my head down and work harder for the next season.”

Now 28, Kassanavoid hit the training hard with coach Greg Watson, who has guided her career since she came to Kansas State as a soph in ’14: “We had a very long training period going into this past season. Coach and I were just working very specifically on technique and then we changed some of our program in the weightroom to get stronger. It was my first time maxing in the weightroom. We usually stick to some pretty quick dynamic Olympic lifts, so that was different.

“I was at a point where I was just very strong. I was feeling good, numbers were going up. It was a very solid growth year for me. I developed a lot and then I felt super comfortable and confident in throwing and that’s just what took off for me.”

Kassanavoid only threw twice indoors in ’22, but it was enough to make her mark. She started with a PR 78-11 (24.05) for the weight throw in a meet on her training grounds at K-State. Five weeks later, she PRed again to win the USATF title with a 79-8 (24.28). “How I won, don’t ask me, but it was fun,” she says with a laugh.

Outdoors, she traveled to Kenya in early May, where she twirled a PR 252-0 (76.82). Two weeks later in Tucson, she improved again, hitting 255-11 (78.00), a mark that made her No. 3 among Americans all-time, and No. 5 on the world compilation.

At nationals, she won 2nd, and a place on Team USA with her 249-6 (76.04). Then came the WC, where the Eugene circle again worked well for her. In a remarkably consistent series, she topped 245-7 (74.86), a mark that would hold up for the bronze.

“Honestly, with how the season was going and how I felt, I didn’t not expect to claim a medal. I would have had to have had a really bad day, and I don’t want to ever imagine that scenario. So for me it was just, ‘What can I do to get better? How can I keep going farther?’ I just knew I could get a medal.

“Of course, bronze is amazing and a huge accomplishment, but I knew personally after the fact — coach and I both knew — I could have done better. We wanted better. But in the reality of hammer throwing, especially in the U.S., a bronze medal is a huge accomplishment.

“It’s something a lot of our throwers haven’t done in the past. And for my first World team, to get a medal, I can’t be anything but happy for myself and pat myself on the back. It was a super powerful moment, just solidifying that hard work pays off, and to trust the process, which is very hard at times. But getting the medal wrapped around my neck and performing in front of a very energetic crowd with the best athletes in the world, it really doesn’t get much better than that.”

A brief European tour gave her a couple of runner-up finishes, and then she closed her season with a gold at the NACAC meet in the Bahamas. In all, of the 10 best meets of her life, 8 came in the breakthrough ’22 campaign.

There’s no question that Kassanavoid has earned her place among the best in the world in a demanding event that rarely is in the spotlight. Getting to that point has been a long journey.

The fourth of four children in an athletic family, she grew up in Missouri trying all kinds of sports. When she was 8, she lost her father, whom she describes as her “a coach who brought us all to sport.” At Lawson High, she eventually was drawn to throwing, though she played volleyball and basketball as well. Her high school bests in the shot and discus, while not national class were solid at 39-3¼ (11.97) and 127-10 (38.96), but not even the best in her family (older sis Jasmine threw 42-6½/12.96).

But Kassanavoid was determined to study culinary arts, and she decided that throwing would be the key to get her to Johnson County CC, which has an excellent program. In her first year in the JC ranks — and her first year with the hammer — she won the national title: “I didn’t even know it was an event until I saw it when I was 18 and I was training in it for the first time.” She caught the eye of Watson and the next year she transferred to Kansas State.

While there were high points in Manhattan — her junior year she was Big 12 champion in and out and placed 4th in the NCAA hammer — Kassanavoid also struggled with a variety of injuries that resulted in three surgeries. “I think it was just constant wear and tear over time,” she says. She typifies the surgeries as “things that just needed to happen so that I could get relief.”

Toward the end of her Wildcat career, she talked with Watson about how to keep throwing: “I was like, ‘Other people are doing it professionally, but really how does that work? Whose choice is it? How do you get started?’ And he told me stories of his previous athletes and how the world of track & field works, if it’s realistic, if it’s feasible.

“For me it was just financially, like, ‘How can I not be in college and be on scholarship and pay for things, but I don’t have a sponsor?’ At the end of the day he’s like, ‘You know, I can’t tell you to do it or whichever, it has to be your decision.’”

In ’19 she earned her first U.S. Ranking, No. 5 after a season in which she hit 239-6 (73.00) and placed 5th at USATF. The next year, with most events canceled, she never threw the hammer at all in competition. But in ’21 she came out ready to go, hitting a PR 247-8 (75.50) in her final meet before the Trials. Then came that moment of finishing 4th at the Trials, her 240-11 (73.45) not quite enough to take her to Tokyo. Though surely disappointed at the time, she now credits that with inspiring her big ’22 season.

Along the way to the podium, Kassanavoid has increasingly embraced her indigenous heritage: “Being an athlete is a huge part of who I am and how I am represented. That’s how people know me. But being Comanche and having it tied to my father, who was full-blooded Comanche — and losing him at an early age to cancer… Having that loss of identity because I didn’t get to grow up with him and learn tradition and learn culture, learn the language, it was just a tie to wanting to do better and to get closer to him and carrying him through sports as well.”

As her athletic accomplishments drew more attention, the Native American community took notice. “Various Indian country news outlets kind of put me out there saying I’m a Comanche, and that built a community of people that have reached out to say, ‘Oh, you’re related to so-and-so.’ Having ties to Comanche Nation in Lawton, Oklahoma, has connected me.

“This summer I went to their fair and was recognized for the athlete part, but it was probably more beneficial for me to listen and learn and connect to my culture and be a part of something much bigger than myself.”

Being the first Native American to medal in the World Championships has given Kassanavoid a platform to be an inspiration to others. She was invited to the Native American Heritage Month celebration at the White House: “Something that I would have never thought was possible or would have been a part of, but I am. It’s been amazing speaking at Native summits for people really driven and a part of their communities wanting to do better and to see better.”

For ’23, she says, “I honestly am just hoping to come out even stronger because I’ve always been told, ‘The better you get, the harder it is to get better.’ And of course, I don’t want to take that for what it is, I want to flip that script. I want to still perform at a high level and go to international meets and be a top finisher, but ultimately just staying happy and healthy and loving the sport is huge for me.

“So as long as I’m happy in the sport and continuing to do it with love and just getting the opportunity to continue to be an athlete, it brings so much happiness. I think doing that and being a Native American woman, being a strong indigenous woman, and continuing to use that platform to speak and to promote health and wellness is just huge for me. And that’s my end goal.

“I’m just excited to push forward and see how far I can go in this sport.”