ORONO — In hindsight, they should have made t-shirts. Rachael Bergeron was focused on the America East outdoor track and field championships, so determined to win the hammer throw title that eluded her the previous year when she fouled on each of her three attempts. Just like that, Bergeron went from clear event favorite to also ran. Now a senior, Bergeron simmered about that failure and was determined not to repeat the experience.

Bergeron’s teammates on the University of Maine track and field team noted her resolve, and gave the conference championship a nickname. To the Black Bears, it wasn’t just the America East Conference championship. It was the Rachael Bergeron Revenge Tour.

“For me, it was the goal, getting the title and redeeming myself for last year,” Bergeron said.

A Waterville native, Bergeron earned that title, and her throw of 61.07 meters (200 feet, 4 inches) shattered the 15-year old meet record, 59.89 meters (196-6) held by Natalie Grant of Boston University since 2003. Bergeron’s throw was her personal record, and came so close to the school record, it serves as both frustration and motivation. Bergeron was two centimeters short of the Black Bear record. That’s less than an inch. It might fall within the standard deviation of the laser measuring system, which means it’s possible Bergeron broke the record and will never know for sure.

“It’s frustrating to be so close, especially when I heard the mark. Some people told me I had broken the record,” Bergeron said. “To be on the high and find out that you didn’t actually break it, it just fuels me more to want to get it.”

On Friday, Bergeron won the New England title with a throw of 59.63 meters (195-8) at the New England Championships at Dartmouth College. Bergeron has at least one more chance to earn those two centimeters and more. In two weeks, Bergeron will throw at the NCAA East regional meet in Tampa, Florida. Bergeron ranks 21st in the East and 41st in the nation in the hammer throw. The top 12 from each of the two regionals advance to the NCAA Division championship meet in Eugene, Oregon, June 6-9. Bergeron’s coach, Gerhard Skall, estimated she’ll need to add a couple meters to her throws to qualify for the championship meet.

“Those big championship meets are always a different beast. They all have to come and perform to their best, because whatever they throw at that meet will determine if they go to the nationals or not,” Skall said. “If you’re No. 1 seed and you choke, then no matter what you did before that, your whole season is over. It comes down to that one meet. Sixty-two, 63 meters will definitely make it.”

NEW TO THE EVENT

As a Waterville Senior High School senior in 2014, Bergeron won the Class B state title in the shot put and was second in the discus, helping the Purple Panthers win their eighth consecutive state title. When she joined the Maine track and field team the next season, Bergeron knew Skall had plans for her in a new event. You’re a good shot put thrower, Skall told Bergeron, but we can make you great in the hammer.

“When she came up for an official visit here, I saw and I knew (shot put and discus) are not going to be the events she’s going to be excelling in. I immediately started working with her on the hammer and the weight,” Skall said.

On her second throw at the America East championships, Bergeron fell. A key component to a good throw is the spin. The thrower builds momentum of energy, which transfers to the hammer upon release. On her second throw, on her second to last turn, Bergeron’s feet betrayed her. She tripped herself, and went down hard. She cut her left hand and hit her head. As Bergeron put it, it wasn’t great.

“People said that they didn’t think I was going to get up, but it pushed me, it motivated me, to want to get that throw in,” Bergeron said.

“When she fell, I knew she was going to be OK. It has more to do with the mental and emotional preparation than with the physical hurt. After a fall, if you get up and show them I can do that, it shows what you’re made of, the kind of caliber of athlete she is,” Skall said.

The hammer is actually an 8.8-pound ball attached to a steel chain, which is attached to a grip. All told, this ball and chain is almost three feet long, and throwing it requires a motion that’s completely different from throwing the shot and discus. In those, the thrower spins on their toes, and could find themselves in the air as part of the throwing motion.

“In hammer, you’re alway contacting the ground and you turn on both your heels and your toes,” Bergeron said. “Before I went to college, I had thrown it once at a summer camp. It really interested me. Coming on my college visit, I could see we have some really great hammer throwers here.”

With a dancing background, Bergeron likened the spin of the hammer throw to a nimble dance step. It felt natural to her, but still, it was a process to learn how to throw the hammer correctly. Bergeron never felt like abandoning the new event in favor of shot put or discus, where she’d had so much success in high school.

“Coming here, I fell so in love with the hammer. I said ‘Screw it. I never want to throw a shot put again.’ I still did, but all my practices I really focused on the hammer,” Bergeron said.

Bergeron’s abject infancy in the hammer throw when she arrived at Maine was a positive, Skall said.

“It’s a benefit for those who come into it without any prior knowledge, because then you can teach them the basics, the way it should be done. When I recruited her four years ago, she was state champion in the shot put and did very well in the discus. Ever since then, I think (hammer’s) her favorite event.

Not that I say we do everything right here, but if you come in there without any bad habits it’s a lot easier to get them to the point where she is right now,” Skall said.

BECOMING A CHAMPION

Bergeron showed steady improvement throughout her first two seasons throwing the hammer. It was last season, as a junior, when Bergeron felt she turned a corner. At the 2017 Penn Relays, she threw 59.43 meters and placed second behind Brianna Heilsnis of Auburn.

Bergeron credits not only working with Skall for her development, but former teammates like Robyn McFetters, who holds the slim two centimeter lead for the Black Bears hammer throw record, and Emily Boardman as well. Those upperclassmen were able to pass on their technical knowledge of the sport, and offer encouragement as Bergeron improved. Now, Bergeron tries to be a leader and mentor to younger teammates like freshman Alice Barnsdale, who placed second in the hammer throw to Bergeron at the America East meet and took fourth place at the New England championship Friday.

“From when I got here, I’ve always been the youngest thrower. It was new to me having freshmen under me. I’d like to think I was a good influence and could help them develop athletically,” Bergeron said.

Bergeron was set to graduate on Saturday with a degree in Bio Engineering, with a minor in math. She hopes to work in designing medical devices, things like prosthetics and implants. Competing in the New England meet at Dartmouth means Bergeron missed the graduation ceremony. Last year, the Maine track and field team held a graduation barbecue after the New England meet for the seniors, who wore their caps and gowns. On Wednesday, Bergeron wasn’t sure if that celebration would happen this weekend.

“I’ve heard that I’m not missing too much (at graduation), sitting in the heat for a long period of time. I’m sure my family is a little disappointed,” she said.

Last spring, Bergeron placed 31st at the NCAA East Regional, with a hammer throw of 54.67 meters (179-4) at the University of Kentucky. Of the 49 other throwers joining Bergeron in the top 50 nationally, 29 compete at a school in one of the power five conference: the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, SEC and PAC 12. The Rachael Bergeron Revenge Tour was a success. Now, Skall is eager to watch Bergeron hold her own against throwers from the bigger schools.

“The most satisfying and rewarding thing for me is, the homegrown girl from the state of Maine is representing the state of Maine, the University of Maine, in the big meets,” Skall said. “If you want to become an elite athlete, it is possible. You don’t have to come from the big school programs. With dedication, with determination like she has, anything is possible.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

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Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM