Regardless of the sport, the Pac-12 Conference has a strong competitive reputation throughout Division I collegiate athletics.
Take last summer’s Olympic Games Rio 2016, for example. If the Pac-12 had been its own country, the 55 medals won by conference-affiliated athletes would have ranked fifth on the overall medal count.
So when Oregon freshman Rhesa Foster did what she did at the recent Pac-12 Track & Field Championships earlier this month, plenty of eyes opened.
Foster, a true freshman from Clovis, California, won the Pac-12 women’s long-jump title with a leap of 20-6 ½, helping the Ducks win their ninth women’s outdoor conference title in a row.
In doing so, she became the first freshman to win the Pac-12 long jump title since Erica McLain did so for Stanford in 2005 (McLain went on to compete in the Olympic Games Beijing 2008). Foster is only the fifth freshman to ever win the event, and her jump already puts in her in Oregon’s top 10 all-time.
For Foster, the long jump victory erased frustration she felt earlier in the day.
“In the 100 hurdles I hit the fifth hurdle and that took me out of the finals. I was very upset,” she said. “I had a couple hours between events. I knew I had to bounce back, regroup, gather my thoughts and go do my best in the long jump. I got my mind right for it.”
Foster, whose father and her longtime youth coach, Robert, was a hurdler for Jamaica in the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games and a 1994 Fresno State indoor and outdoor national hurdling champion, now turns her attention to this weekend’s NCAA West Preliminary Rounds, which begin Thursday in Austin, Texas. A top-12 finish at the regional in the long jump sends Foster to the NCAA finals at home in Eugene, Oregon, June 7-10.
A 2016 California state high school long jump champion, Foster said her improvement in the event stems from the programs Oregon has in place for its athletes.
“I struggled with injuries in high school,” Foster said. “As soon as I got to Oregon, the doctors identified the weaknesses I have and we worked on them and strengthened them. Oregon has been extremely helpful in maintaining my health. Since I’ve been here I’ve gotten a lot stronger. I’ve lifted a lot more weights. I’m also faster, so I can apply power and speed down the runway so I have a better takeoff from the board. That’s helped improve my marks.”
For Foster, she focuses on two things when she takes off down the runway.
“Every jumper is different, but for me speed is my strongest asset,” she said. “The other thing is not reaching when I get to the board.”
The allure of the long jump for Foster has to do with its different format than running events.
“I don’t get stressed out with the long jump,” she said. “With a race, you are one and done. With the long jump, if you mess up, you have the opportunity to fix it. It’s a fun event for me.”
Foster’s long-term goal is to hit the 21-foot mark. Her personal best is a 20-9 ¼ established at the Columbia East/West Challenge (indoors) in New York in late January.
“That’s been my end goal, but I try not to reach for numbers,” she said. “If I execute on things and concentrate, it will come.”
Foster, who won a bronze medal in the long jump at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China, becoming the first American to medal in a track and field event at that competition, said while the Pac-12 title accomplishment as a freshman is important, age is far from the first thing on her mind.
“I wanted to go out there and represent Oregon and my hometown in a positive way,” she said. “I try not to think about the fact I’m a freshman. I don’t think about jumping against seniors, juniors and sophomores. I know I’m capable of doing this. If I go out and do my best, whatever happens, happens. If I execute the best I can, I am going to meet my goals.”
And as far as a long-term outlook, Foster wants to take this long jump gig as far as she can.
“If it’s in God’s plan for me to make the Olympic team — I want to go as far as I can,” she said. “It’s going to be a process. I know I have to keep working at this and hopefully I will peak at the right time.”
Mike Miazga has written about Olympic sports for nearly 25 years and is the former editor in chief of Volleyball Magazine. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.