Throwing Like a Girl

Sports

Cyclone Christina Hillman carves out her own
space in the world of women’s shot put

By Kate Bruns

When Tina Hillman was an eighth grader growing up in Dover, Del., her gym teacher’s husband – a champion weight thrower – happened to see the tall blonde pass the pigskin to a classmate. Not an 8.8- pound shot put, but a 14-ounce inflated football. Really, there’s very little that a quarterback and a shot putter have in common, but the sight of it was enough to give him a feeling: This girl could throw.

By the time Hillman got to high school, she had added track and field to her long resume of athletics activities. She was a standout Delaware prep, winning seven state titles at St. Thomas More. Then-Iowa State assistant track coach Grant Wall was in the state recruiting and decided to swing by and check out the 6-foot, 2-inch Hillman, who was still trying to decide whether to pursue collegiate track and field or volleyball. Hillman could hurl the shot 39 feet, even with horrible technique. And Wall just got a feeling: This girl could really throw.

Iowa State was the first school that recruited Hillman, and she rewarded that loyalty by committing to the Cyclones after falling in love with the Iowa State campus on her official visit.

“I didn’t think I was going to come here,” Hillman says, “I really didn’t. But I love it here. The campus is beautiful. And I love the team; the team is like my family.”

During the summer before coming to Iowa State, Hillman began working with a personal trainer. In just a few months, she increased her throwing distance from 39 to 50 feet. In 2011 she won the New Balance Indoor National High School championship and the Penn Relays. As an ISU freshman, Hillman earned all-Big 12 recognition. She continued to improve. And she started to get a feeling: I really can throw.

When Wall and head coach Corey Ihmels left ISU for Boise State in 2013, Hillman began working with a new throwing coach: Fletcher Brooks. Hillman says she owes a lot to both of her coaches and has thrived under Brooks’ tutelage. She says his guidance has helped shape what she is today: The top women’s collegiate shot putter in the U.S.

Hillman won her first national title at the 2014 NCAA Indoor Championships, reaching a height she hadn’t even dreamed of pursuing in high school.

“I think I was almost crying,” she remembers. “I won it on my second throw, because the girl who was in first place threw such a PR [personal record]. She was beating me, but I said to myself in that moment, ‘No one wants this more than I do.’ It was a completely different mindset for me. It was the first time I truly believed I could win the national championship, so when I did I was jumping up and down on cloud nine.”

Hillman followed up that performance with the 2014 outdoor title, which she won on her last throw. “That one was almost kind of a relief,” she admits. “Once you win once, it’s like: ‘I can’t let another collegian beat me.’”

For Hillman, the bar has now been set extremely high: Not only does she want to win more national titles, but she is also passionate about making it to the 2016 Olympics. She will soon earn undergraduate degrees in psychology and child, adult, and family services and hopes to go on to earn a master’s degree and work with youth in the human services field. But she is willing to put plans on hold to pursue her Olympic dream. “I’ve heard that both training for the Olympics and going to grad school are full-time jobs,” she says, “so I’m not sure how that will work. But I’m open to going wherever I need to go.”

Despite her many successes, Hillman says she still believes there is potential to be fulfilled.

“I’m still relatively weak compared to a lot of the female shot putters,” says Hillman, who lifts weights about four days a week. “I love putting in the hard work and just testing my abilities to see where I can end up. It’s been such a blessing.”

Hillman also says she enjoys defying people’s stereotypes of female throwers. While she is certainly big and strong, she’s not what anyone would describe as masculine, with long blonde locks and painted fingernails.

“I wanted to show that you can succeed in a sport that’s deemed masculine, whether you’re masculine or feminine,” she says. “If [masculine] is your identity, that’s perfectly fine, of course. I’m very feminine; that’s my expression. Even in my sport it doesn’t have to be about masculinity or femininity. It’s about how hard you work and the effort that you put in.”

Issues of gender and sexuality figure largely in Hillman’s life; she was recently profiled by Outsports.com’s Cyd Zeigler, a national author and commentator on sexuality and sports, about her identity as a pansexual student-athlete – an identity Zeigler says adds “another color in the LGBT rainbow.” (“I think of it as being gender blind; I fall in love with humans” is how Hillman explains it.)

“I was open [about my sexuality] in high school because I was dating a female,” Hillman says. “But when I got to college I guess I went back in the closet, in a way, because it was a new place and I’ve always wanted people to know me as a person first. Once I’d made friends and established my networks, I came out and was accepted by almost everyone. Taking the next step and talking to Cyd was me realizing that maybe I could help some other athletes. No one part defines me, obviously. I’m an athlete, pansexual, sister, daughter…but if that one identity can encourage others, I would love to do that.”

As Hillman works toward adding another identity to that list – Olympian, she is relishing her experience at Iowa State.

“I hope my teammates would describe me as an optimist, as someone who is encouraging, generous, and thoughtful,” she says. “I love being part of a team: We support each other and are part of something bigger.

“But at the end of the day, what I do is completely up to me, and I like that. If I mess up, it’s my fault. If I do well, it’s because I put in the work. I love everything about it.”

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