DOHA, Qatar — Laulauga Tausaga’s year does not look like a typical season for a track and field athlete. For Tausaga, the 10 months of competition included winning a Big Ten Championship, being named Big Ten Athlete of the Year, NCAA discus throw champion, and an IAAF World Championship finalist.
On July 28 at the USATF Outdoor Championship in Des Moines, Iowa, Tausaga finished third in the discus finals to earn a coveted spot on Team USA. With the season over for the Hawkeyes, Tausaga started training for the biggest meet of her career.
“Through the whole process, as hard as it has been, I learned I needed to become comfortable with the idea of being alone if I was going to take my career to the professional level in the future,” Tausaga said. “No one else was still in season and it was hard for me to not practice with a team. But once you become comfortable with the loneliness, that’s when you become your most confident self.”
Lucky for her, Eric Werskey, University of Iowa throws coach, traveled with her overseas for the championship and provided a sense of home in a part of the world Tausaga had never experienced before.
“It was more like security for me. He was there to coach me through it all,” Tausaga said. “He made me an itinerary to follow because I’m still in that college mindset unlike most of the athletes that were there and no longer had coaches.”
“Coach Woody, who competed at that level in college understood what it was like to have your support system and coach in your corner during those major championships,” Werskey said. “The work had already been done, but from a comfort and psychological standpoint it went a long way. Thankfully, we had the resources to make it happen.”
Tausaga left for Doha, Qatar, on Sept. 27. She was not set to compete in the qualifying round until Oct. 2. She spent the days leading up getting comfortable with her new surroundings. With practices set in the evenings because of the heat, Tausaga was lucky to not take a hit from the time change and never experienced jet lag.
“I knew that I had made the team, but it didn’t really hit me hard until we actually landed and got off the plane. It finally hit me how far away from home I was,” Tausaga said.
“It was my first major championship, but I’ve been around others who have competed at several. I tried to be a sponge and remember those times and what they did,” Werskey said. “With Lagi, she is pretty smooth sailing with a lot of things, but once you get her there a switch flips. She was a champ in that sense because sometimes it would be the morning of and we’re still figuring out things.”
Long days included workouts, practices and meals with coach. She was surrounded by role models in the hotel, women she used to watch on YouTube. With the help of coach Werskey, Tausaga kept a focused mindset while the days went by.
“On the inside I was freaking out, yet on the outside, I looked calm and collected because one thing he’s always told me was that you need to fake it,” Tausaga recalled Werskey. “If you show up looking and feeling like you don’t belong there, it probably means that you shouldn’t be. You earned your spot here. Act like it.”
Warmups were not what Tausaga had experienced before. Practice was held outside with temperatures as high as 123 and 87 percent humidity. They were escorted to the stadium after practice to wait 30 minutes before competition. They were held in call rooms until their heat was called. The temperature change is one thing, but the psychological aspect held a bigger impact for athletes.
“We prepared for that over the summer. We would practice at the outdoor track and I had her sit in the shed for thirty minutes,” Werskey said. “She would come out and take only two throws. After, we would start charting. Although those practices may not have been the best, it made her feel prepared psychologically.”
Tausaga hit a new personal and school record 63.94m (209-9) on her second throw. The ring had one line to represent the qualification mark. Overwhelmed with emotion, Tausaga did not even look at her score to realize what she had just accomplished.
“When we got to the stadium for the qualification round, I told her that we would take a few throws to get her in the mindset. She told me she would prefer not to,” said Werskey. “I was taken aback, but she explained to me when she was in Minsk competing she did not take any throws. She did her drill routine and just kept looking at everybody. It made her nervous, but excited. She got a PR at that competition. I trusted it. It was a powerful moment for her, and I stood back and accepted it. I know this woman can compete with some of the best in the world and if she feels comfortable with her decision, we were going to roll with it.”
Tausaga had a day to collect herself and reset for the finals. Routine did not change, however. The goal of Tausaga and Werskey was to qualify for the finals. How she finished was up in the air because at that point she had already accomplished so much.
“The final day came, and coach told me the same thing. ‘You’ve made it to the final day. You’ve literally made it to the end of your season. You have nothing else you have to prove, but at the same time, these women aren’t looking at you. It’s best to come in as an underdog because you’re going to be able to beat these guys in the long run,'” Tausaga said.
On Oct. 4, Tausaga faulted on three attempts in the women’s discus finals at the 2019 World Championship. With the first two throws hitting the ring, the third felt like it could have been a PR and possibly medal worthy. Without realizing, Tausaga’s foot stepped over the line, causing her to go un-marked in the finals.
“I had the most amazing practice. I told myself win, draw, or lose; I’m not going to hesitate. I’m not going to give up. I’m just going to hit it, and the thing was, I did exactly that,” Tausaga said. “It’s just that it was so new to my body that I just didn’t know how to control it.”
Tausaga did not leave empty handed. She gained more experience and knowledge than anyone could wish for at her level. With one more year of eligibility, Tausaga looks forward to her senior season with a new perspective.
“I couldn’t be happier with my performance because I didn’t hesitate, regardless of the fouls. I went out and competed and executed the plan we set in place,” Tausaga said. “It’s something I have never been a part of, but now that I have experienced it, it will help me if I want to pursue this career after college.”
“On her third attempt, people had told me she was right at the 65 meter line, potentially medal worthy, but she had accidentally stepped outside her ring. When we left the stadium, her head was held high and I was still so proud. She ultimately was top five in the world and one of the youngest in the field. Obviously, we wanted a different outcome, but we accepted it and it played a huge role into what will happen for her senior year. We have big plans.”
Over the past year, Tausaga has been in a constant competition mode. Werskey knew it would not be healthy to continue the new season without a break. With the Hawkeye’s beginning their training in August, Tausaga was granted much needed time off.
“Coach gave me a mandatory two weeks off,” Tausaga said. “He gave me time to get my bearings back at school and rest my body so when I came back for the new season, I was ready and prepared. The two weeks started when I arrived back in Iowa after Worlds. When I got home, I ate some chicken strips and then took the longest sleep of my life.”
What’s next for this world-wide phenomenon? As the No. 1 returner in the NCAA, her senior year is looking promising as the 2020 Olympics slowly become on Tausaga’s radar.
Tausaga and the Hawkeyes kick off the 2019-2020 indoor track and field season on Dec. 13, hosting the Jimmy Grant Invite.