Michael Shuey’s Penn State athletic career will end Wednesday evening in Eugene, Ore.
The fact that he will even be at Hayward Field, throwing the javelin in the NCAA Track and Field Championships, is a testament to his perseverance after the way his body broke down. Two years ago, he suffered two torn ligaments at the Big Ten championships.
“It was pretty mental to accept that everything was fine,” the fifth-year senior said of his recovery, “to go through the normal motion and not develop any bad habits along the way. I tried not to baby the injury and just had to forget it was there.”
That perseverance wasn’t just limited to the physical either. Sometimes, the mental hurdles were just as daunting.
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After all, he almost didn’t even make it to this week’s national championship meet.
At the NCAA preliminary meet — east and west preliminaries are held Memorial Day weekend with the top 12 from each advancing to Eugene — Shuey was in 18th place after two of his three throws. On what could have been the final attempt of his career he finally unloaded a throw of 242 feet, 5 inches, vaulting him all the way to first in his preliminary.
“That’s the most mental meet that any NCAA track athlete will go to because it’s do-or-die,” Shuey said. “I had a lot of internal pressure I put on myself.”
“I feel like I’ve failed under my own pressure before, so I feel I’ve finally been able to tune it out and focus on the art that javelin throwing is. It was a roller-coaster of emotions, that’s for sure.”
By the time Shuey graduated from Johnsonburg High School, he was the PIAA champion, the New Balance Outdoor Nationals champion and had the No. 3 high school javelin mark in the nation. He also played football and was a high jumper, and coach Jim Gondak originally had Shuey pegged as a decathlete before having him focus on the javelin.
Shuey had ankle injuries in high school and also suffered a dislocated elbow. He developed a blood clot in his arm after he got to Penn State and also got bone spurs in his ankles. But it wasn’t bad until he got to the Big Ten meet during his junior year, when he tore the LCL and UCL ligaments in his elbow.
And so began the long road back — and having to trust the process.
“I’d see him in here very impatient, wanting to do this, wanting to do that,” Gondak said. “I’d have to tell him, ‘Mike, you do this now, you don’t know if you’ll be healthy if the time comes to matter.’ He showed some good restraint.”
Still, the coaches sometimes caught Shuey sneaking in to do extra work.
“He wants to be the best at everything he does,” Gondak added, “whether that’s a training session, a run, doing 200s in here, he’s always 100 percent. With people like that, you always have to work more to hold them back than let them go, because then they hurt themselves.”
Shuey said he worked on becoming a better athlete by running sprints, improving agility and using plyometrics.
The work ethic, whether it was sanctioned by the coaches or not, still caught the attention of teammates.
Sophomore David Lucas, who will be competing this week in the discus for a second straight year, was in his first semester on campus watching Shuey work through rehab.
“The kid came in every single day and pushed hard, as hard, harder than everyone else,” Lucas said. “That’s an awesome environment to have in practice, to have someone so committed to it. If someone is having an off day, if they just want to get in, get the work done and get out, Shuey’s there to push the rest of the group along.”
Gondak, who unfortunately has seen his share of major injuries over his coaching career, feels one of the biggest keys to an athlete coming all the way back is to keep him engaged with the team. If they are around teammates and friends for support, they are less likely to give up.
Even after he made it back to competition, it still took a while for Shuey to feel confident. Then, about two weeks ago, he had a momentary scare. He felt a pop in his elbow — but it was scar tissue breaking up. After that, his elbow actually felt better.
Shuey, who set the school record of 249-5 as a sophomore, also has another outlet to help settle the nerves — fly fishing. When he got back from the NCAA preliminaries, he and some friends went to Fisherman’s Paradise to drop a line in the water. He’s taken a fly fishing class and even gotten pointers from local fishing legend Joe Humphreys.
“College and track and maintaining a social life, it kind of gets overwhelming sometimes,” Shuey said. “Getting out on a stream with your friends, just catching fish, is good therapy.”
If he can keep his nerves settled, the prospects for Shuey and the 22 other Nittany Lions competing in Oregon look good.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Gondak, who had just seven qualifiers last season. “That’s a testament to the kids. They have been on a mission.”