LINCOLN — The door to an athletic dream — a great adventure that continues this week at the NCAA championships — opened at the foot of an orange cone more than 30 meters away.
In 2015, Chase Wolinski knew next to nothing about throwing a javelin. But the Lincoln Northeast graduate had one in her right hand. She’d gotten this far in a tryout with a softball toss — about the only thing she could do with a softball — and, to make Nebraska’s team as a why-not-me walk-on, she had to throw that javelin to the cone.
She had gone to NU already for one year — on a scholarship she learned about one week before the application deadline — without competing in sports. Her body felt “dormant.” So she cold-called NU’s track team. She wasn’t recruited.
“I kind of wanted to get it over with,” she said. She had no expectations of an answer. And yet Nebraska’s throws coach, Scott Cappos, said he’d find a time for Wolinski to try out and see what happened.
Just one of the better Nebraska walk-on stories you’ve read in awhile.
Let’s fast forward to the present for a second: Wolinski is the No. 2 women’s javelin seed in this week’s national meet. She might be one of NU’s best prospects for an All-America spot and is, along with Brittni Wolczyk and Sydney Otto, a part of one of the nation’s best javelin teams. All three qualified for nationals.
It takes flexibility and explosiveness to throw the “jav” well — cleans and squats in the weight room, and box jumps, too — and Wolinski has long been a good overall athlete.
Just not an overly decorated one at Northeast. She played volleyball, and loved it, but her family lacked the money to pay for the kind of club teams that lead to college scholarships. In 2014, her senior year, she finished 17th in the Class A state meet in the discus. That’s her Nebraska bio.
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So many walk-ons are functionally recruited to NU, star athletes who get a lot of attention but fall just short of a college scholarship. Wolinski was at Nebraska only because of a Susan Thompson Buffett Scholarship that her counselor told her to consider. Wolinski — academic All-Big Ten three years running — had planned on community college before that.
“I feel like all of my stories line up like this,” she said, laughing. “I remember emailing a teacher and telling them, ‘Please tell me you sent in my letter of recommendation.’ And they sent it in an hour before it was due. It’s been a lifesaver.”
That was 2014. She spent that year at NU as a student. She joked that she gained a little weight. She tried out for the team in October 2015, she said. The tryout was a series of events, so to speak, one of which was a softball toss. That strong, strong arm she’d used in volleyball came in handy.
But she still had to throw the javelin to the cone.
“I had no idea what I was doing, but I threw my jav right next to the cone,” she said. “ ‘All right, that’s it. Go tell them you made the team.’ It just happened.”
She got injured and redshirted, starting her career in earnest in 2017, when she placed sixth at the Big Ten championships. She placed fourth in the Big Ten meet and 22nd in the NCAA West Regional last year. She felt like an “understudy” to NU’s better javelin throwers, including Wolczyk, who’s on the track team’s season poster.
Wolinski just kept getting better. This year she won the Big Ten title by more than 2 meters. She finished second in the NCAA West Regional, qualifying for nationals. She not only has a shot to be an All-American. She could, on Thursday night in Austin, Texas, win the national title with the right throw.
She laughs at the thought. She laughs a lot in wonder at all of this.
“If what I’m doing now is considered good, I don’t think I ever thought I’d get here,” she said. “I don’t think it’s really clicked. I’m just having a lot of fun — in the least-clichéd way possible. It’s been an amazing experience for me. I’m going places I’d never go, I’m meeting people I’d never meet.”
Her counselors, teachers and coaches kept seeing more in her than she saw in herself, though she saw enough in herself to make a phone call. In an era when parents and club coaches spend years trying to craft a just-so path to college athletic excellence, Wolinski, a lifelong Nebraskan, wrote her own story, at her pace, with a little help in the right spots.
Nebraska’s football walk-on tradition isn’t lost on Wolinski, either. She remembers the Sam Foltz quote “Dream Big, Work Hard, Stay Humble.” That’s Nebraska, she said, to embrace an opportunity and “work your butt off.”
Wolinski majors in ethnic studies and sociology — she joked she shaved her head as a “two-year social experiment.” She wants to go to law school and do what’s been done for her.
“I just want to help people,” Wolinski said. “Gosh, there’s so much that can be done. I just want to help.”