June 18, 2013
By Tyler Wooten
CARBONDALE, Ill. - The 2013 Track & Field season featured two of the finest throwers in SIU's storied history in seniors J.C. Lambert and Kim Fortney, who ironically were both set to play different sports at other schools before they decided to come to Southern Illinois.
The duo are classic examples of coach John Smith's eye for talent, potential and work ethic. He spotted Fortney -- of Hindsboro, Ill. -- and Lambert -- of nearby Harrisburg -- under the recruiting radar, and the duo became part of a golden age of Saluki throwers,.
Lambert had already agreed to play football at McKendree College before meeting Coach Smith.
"I saw J.C. at a high school meet and I talked to him about walking on," Smith said. "His numbers in high school weren't really that outstanding, but I liked the way he moved around for a big guy. I was at the Olympic trials in 2008, and J.C. calls and says, `Coach, you still got a spot on the team? I think I'm done with football. I think I wanna be a thrower.'"
In his first year at SIU, Lambert qualified for the NCAA West Regional, and during his sophomore season, Lambert won three Missouri Valley Conference titles and two All-American honors. His junior season yielded another All-American honor and two more MVC crowns.
The first half of his senior year in 2012 was spectacular, as Lambert earned NCAA Runner-Up in the weight throw -- when he fell within two-and-a-half inches of a national championship. Then came a setback. A bout of Rocky Mountain spotted fever -- a serious illness passed by ticks -- sidelined Lambert for the 2012 outdoor season.
In 2013, however, Lambert was back in prime condition and ready to dominate. In his first meet at the Vanderbilt Black and Gold on March 22, he shattered the all-time SIU and MVC hammer throw records by more than two feet each. That record didn't stand long, however. With his winning toss of 67.22m (220-06) in the hammer throw at the MVC Outdoor Championships, Lambert broke his old SIU and MVC records, along with the MVC Championships record.
At the national meet, Lambert finished in fifth place in the hammer throw for his fifth and final All-American certificate -- the highest-ever finish by a Saluki male in the event, the highest Saluki male finish outdoors since 1992, the highest finish for a Saluki male thrower since 1988 and the most All-American honors by a Saluki thrower in SIU history. The last note is the most significant, as the previous owner of that distinction was Saluki Hall of Fame member and two-time Olympic silver medalist George Woods.
Lambert also owns two all-time SIU records (weight throw and hammer throw), three Missouri Valley Conference records (all-time weight throw, all-time and conference championships hammer throw records), won seven MVC individual championships, qualified for the national meet six times across both the indoor and outdoor seasons, was named the 2012 MVC Indoor Most Valuable Field Athlete and played an instrumental part in the 2012 men's MVC indoor championship team -- which claimed their first team title in 20 years. Lambert has made a name for himself in the SIU record books at the national meet alone, scoring a remarkable 17 NCAA meet points over the course of his career indoors and outdoors.
"When I first came here I had no idea I would be this successful," Lambert said. "The toughest part has been the past year, because of my sickness, and I'm happy that I made it through all of that to keep everything going and still be able to throw far and compete at a national level."
Kim Fortney's rise to become one of SIU's most successful throwers is equally remarkable. She had an offer to play rugby at Eastern Illinois, and with modest high school throwing marks, collegiate track did not appear to be an option.
"I was a four-sport athlete in high school," Fortney said. "I never really liked to do one thing over the other, I did everything. Track was my side-sport."
"Kim is the definition of the overachiever," Smith said. "Kim was a 31-foot high school shot putter and was low in the discus, too -- basically, the kind of marks that when I see them, I just throw it in the garbage, and to be quite honest, I don't bother to go any further past that."
However, in Fortney's situation, it did go further.
"I had a high school buddy who kept telling me for three years, `I have this girl on my summer softball team, I think she'd make an excellent thrower for you,'" Smith said. "He just bugged me and bugged me, so finally I told him she could come and walk-on and I'll see what I can do."
"So she came in on a visit," Smith recalled. "I remember (three-time national champion) Jeneva (McCall) and (two-time All-American) Gwen (Berry) were throwing, and Kim was just standing there looking like she was scared to death watching them throw. She'd never seen anything like that."
Fortney walked on, scored in the conference meet as a freshman, and improved in the shot put from 31 to 47 feet.
"That was a monumental jump," Smith said. "She has the distinction of improving more in the shot from high school to a college career than anybody I've ever coached. She went from 31 to 55 feet (her current PR). People don't do that."
Fortney qualified for the NCAA West Regional each year and was named All-MVC four times across the indoor and outdoor seasons in both shot puts and the weight and hammer throws, and she won two of her three career second-team All-American certificates at the NCAA Championships last week in the shot put and hammer throw. In the latter, Fortney fell heartbreakingly short of advancing to finals in the hammer throw (10th place, 62.36m/204-07) and a chance for first-team honors. On the scoresheet it's listed at one inch, but it was even closer than that.
"To miss finals by two centimeters is gonna stay with me for a long time," Fortney said. "I fought and fought in the hammer for four years. I'm not really built for it, I've got a big upper body. To get 10th in the country is nothing to frown upon. It's disappointing, but at the same time I was 10th-best in the country that day."
Fortney ranks in the top-10 in every throwing category in Saluki history and the top-five in three.
"I've learned so much in four years," Fortney said. "Coming from nothing, I had everything to gain. I think that when you compete like that, you have nothing to lose. When you have nothing to lose you have everything to gain, and that's what I did."
The sun will finally set on the Saluki careers for both Fortney and Lambert -- in addition to fellow 2013 All-American DeAnna Price after one more competition. All three will compete at the USA Track and Field Championships this week in Des Moines, Iowa.