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East County Wednesday, Mar. 31, 2021 9 months ago

Mustang throws herself into the spotlight

Prose and Kohn: Ryan Kohn
by: Ryan Kohn Sports Editor

Where does hard work get you? 

If you're Riley Simmons, it gets you exactly where you want to be. 

In 2019, Simmons, a Lakewood Ranch High girls track and field thrower, finished eighth in Class 4A in the shot put (38 feet, 8.25 inches) at the Florida High School Athletic Association state meet, a finish most people would be thrilled to have. It was especially encouraging considering Simmons was a sophomore at the time, in her first year of taking the sport seriously.

She participated as a freshman, but she didn't quite "get it" yet. She didn't even want to be a thrower at first, coming into the sport as a runner before the coaching staff took a look at her height — Simmons is 5-foot-11 — and her wingspan and said they had a better idea. So she became a thrower, and a good one. Like I said, she got eighth place at the state meet.

Pretty good, right? Not to Simmons. All her life, she said, she's dreamed of competing at the NCAA Division I level in something. At first, she thought it might be gymnastics. She competed in the sport for 13 years, but by the time she reached high school, she had simply grown too tall. Her body wouldn't cooperate like it did when she was a child. So she tried basketball, and she tried track and field.

It wasn't until that sophomore season that she sensed she had stumbled onto something good. College coaches started watching her throw and her own coaches started using the magical word — potential.

If she could just unlock her potential, Simmons thought, her dream could become a reality. So she cranked up her work ethic, starting to train by herself early in the morning and late at night. She hit the school's weight room to gain muscle. During last year's quarantine, Simmons even created a 7-by-7-foot circle of tape in her garage to practice her footwork. She also overhauled her technique, changing from a gliding throw to a spinning throw. 

"I get more speed and power out of a spin because of my height and wingspan," Simmons said. "The glide is good for shorter throwers or beginners. It's simpler. But the spin has helped me get my best throws."

She practices five days a week for up to two hours per session. Three days are spent on throwing and gaining power, the other two are spent on improving Simmons' quickness. 

The change in technique, and the work Simmons has done over last two years, has resulted in Simmons reaching her lofty potential. Now a senior, Simmons currently holds the top throw in Class 4A at 41 feet, 10 inches, which is 12.5 inches longer than second-place Megan Hague, a junior at Niceville High, and more than three feet longer than Simmons' best throw at the 2019 state meet. Her improvement has received attention from a number of high-profile colleges, and she signed with Mississippi State. Simmons said she and her family took an unofficial visit to the school's campus and the vibe felt right. Simmons said she believes that Bulldogs coaches can help her develop even further. 

Simmons is so improved, the state meet isn't even the biggest event on her calendar anymore — though she's still excited for it. No, her main focus is on the 2021 USA Track and Field National Youth Outdoor Championships, held June 22-27 in Rome, Ga. It's a chance to test herself on a countrywide scale, she said, which is important. Now that she's headed to a Division I college, Simmons has a new dream.

Reaching the Olympics. 

Can she get there? Based on how far she's come in two years, I'm not putting anything past her. 

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I’m the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. I was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. My biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. My strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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