Jessie Merckle never imagined she would be throwing the javelin at the University of Oregon’s Murray Field.
As a junior at Fort Cherry three years ago, Merckle thought her future would be in Division II or Division III basketball.
Instead, she competed last month at “Track Town USA,” at the NCAA Track & Field Outdoor Championships.
Merckle, a sophomore at Wake Forest, qualified for the championships with a throw of 167-8 at the NCAA East Regional.
Not only did Merckle compete, she became Wake Forest’s first track All-American with a throw of 160-8 to finish 12th overall.
“It was amazing,” Merckle said. “People go to the meet not knowing anyone involved, but they just love it so much. Having so many fans there and so many people screaming, it was awesome. When I got there, I could tell everyone was so good. It was really cool to be in that environment.”
Less than a year ago, her sophomore season was in jeopardy after back-to-back injuries during off-season training.
Merckle, who won WPIAL and PIAA gold in 2012 as a senior at Fort Cherry, did not take long to become one of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s top javelin throwers. As a freshman, she became the first Demon Deacon to win the ACC women’s javelin title with a throw of 165-1. It was her first meet at Wake Forest after battling shoulder and elbow injuries.
She placed first in her next three meets before a hernia ended her freshman season and hopes of a trip to the NCAA Championships.
Fall rehabilitation and training had her back on the runway honing her craft, but mishap in the weight room resulted in a broken left wrist.
Undeterred, Merckle was back in the weight room a few days later, training with one arm. She could not lift with her left arm, but using the right was no problem. Merckle dedicated herself to training that focused on her core stregnth and tossed a weighted ball to keep her technique sharp.
“I learned at Fort Cherry that you have to deal with what you have,” Merckle said. “Fort Cherry didn’t have a lot, so it’s a good thing we weren’t really spoiled there. It makes you work even harder for everything you have.”
Working with Wake Forest strength and throwing coach Zeb Sion, Merckle reached minor milestones. First came three-step throws; then lower body training could resume. She finally got back to using her left wrist and was progressing when a severely strained left calf forced her to train with one leg.
“There were so many times I felt my season was over because I thought it would take a lot of recovery,” Merckle said. “I still can’t do certain things with my wrist. I had trouble thinking I was going to even be able to throw. It helped me become a better athlete.”
The rehab process began all over again. First it was soft tosses while sitting in a chair then bench presses with her left foot resting over her right leg. Her days began with rehab, then one-to-three hours of practice. She would finish things off with a second rehab session.
After spending the majority of her offseason on a trainer’s table, Merckle broke the 170-foot barrier in her first meet and found herself back at the ACC Championships. Despite more competition after conference expansion and Virginia Tech having throwers with the two best marks of the season, Merckle finished first with a school record and personal best of 177-0. She finished her season last week with an 11th place finish at the USA Track & Field Championships in California.
“Her successes this year are absolutely a testament to her hard work and perseverance,” Sion said. “She battled back from two serious injuries that at critical times during her training, could have ended her training. She embraced the challenge of training differently and trusted me 100 percent the entire time.”
Fort Cherry head track and field coach Ben Maxin still recalls watching Merckle play basketball as a freshman. Her work ethic and desire for success were attributes he wanted on the Rangers’ track team.
“She always had that super competitive edge, where, regardless of conditions at a meet or how she was feeling, she did whatever it took to win,” Maxin said. “It’s great to think of Jessie coming from small Fort Cherry and now she’s a two-time ACC champ and finished in the top-12 at the NCAA meet.”
Merckle’s unexpected rise through the collegiate ranks is magnified by her roots. She became a state champion at a high school without a track and only two javelins for the entire team. It is a stark contrast from Wake Forest, which has a state-of-the-art throwing facility and a weight room that is unlike any she had seen before.
Merckle still recalls learning the nuances of the sport with Maxin. Little did she know that the hard work of throwing a javelin up the hill next to Jim Garry Stadium would carry her to the top of her sport.
“It’s unreal,” Merckle said. “Never in my life, until my senior year, did I think I was going to call for track and field. I thought I would be playing basketball at a small college and then it just happened that I became pretty good at the jav. It’s crazy how life throws things at you.”