COLUMBIA — Growing up in Barbados, Missouri thrower Shernelle Nicholls had two dreams: to compete in the Olympics and to become a nurse.
Thanks to her hard work and the opportunities she has received at MU, Nicholls is now closing in on both of those dreams.
In Barbados, much like in the U.S., sprints are the most widely popular track and field events. Throws are an afterthought.
It was through cricket, the national sport of Barbados, that Nicholls first got into throwing. When she was in primary school, Nicholls competed in what is called the softball throw, where athletes compete to throw a cricket ball the farthest.
Although she enjoyed that event, Nicholls entered high school thinking she would become a sprinter. But Nicholls was not as successful sprinting in high school as she was in primary school.
One day she saw some older students practicing the shot put, and she asked them about it. After they showed her what they were doing, Nicholls tried it and from there, she kept asking other people about the shot put and started practicing.
Nicholls was 13 when she started practicing. Now, 11 years later, Nicholls is the greatest thrower in Barbados’ history. She is a nine-time Barbados national champion, and she holds the Barbados national records for the shot put, discus and hammer throw.
Now a senior at MU, Nicholls is attempting to qualify for this summer’s Olympic games in Beijing in the shot put. In order to qualify, Nicholls needs a throw of at least 17.20 meters. If she can qualify, Nicholls would be the first thrower from Barbados to ever compete in the Olympics.
Nicholls’ personal best in the event is 17.14 meters, roughly 56 feet, which she set at last year’s Big 12 Championships. That mark was just 6 centimeters, or 2.36 inches, short of the Olympic qualifying standard.
Nicholls finished eighth at the NCAA Championships last season, earning her All-American honors. She is the Missouri record holder in both the shot put and the discus.
So far this season, poor weather and some minor injuries early in April have prevented Nicholls from coming close to her best mark in the shot put from last season. But with the Big 12 Championships starting May 16, Nicholls is ready to peak at the most important part of the season.
“Obviously we shoot for championships,” said Brett Halter, Missouri’s associate head coach and throws coach. “So we’re not looking to throw far early in the season, we’re looking to get ready for May and June.”
If Nicholls were to qualify for the Olympics, it would be up to the Barbados Olympic Association to decide if it wants to send Nicholls to Beijing. According to Halter, many times the decision of whether or not to send a qualifying athlete comes down to finances.
Small countries like Barbados can only afford to send athletes who have a legitimate chance to compete for a medal.
“She’s another Olympiad away from being a medal contender,” Halter said. “She certainly has that ability to move that direction if she chooses to do so.”
If Barbados does decide to send her to Beijing, Nicholls hopes that her performance can spark greater interest in developing throws in the Caribbean.
At times, Nicholls struggles slightly to find the right English words to convey her thoughts. But when asked about becoming a role model for younger throwers in Barbados, Nicholls did not need words to convey her thoughts. A huge smile spread across her face and she giggled joyously.
“I would be very proud to think, someone thinks I am a role model,” Nicholls said. “Once someone gets started, then everyone would wake up and see that throwers do have that potential.”
According to Nicholls, the quality of throwers has been improving over the past few years in Barbados. She gives credit to a growing number of athletes coming to the U.S. to train for that improvement. For throws, Nicholls could not have come to a better place than Missouri.
Missouri has a long tradition of producing world-class throwers, the likes of which are Christian Cantwell, Dick Cochran, and Ben Plucknett. Cantwell is a two-time IAFF Indoor World Champion in the shot put. Cochran won two NCAA Championships in the discus and won the bronze medal in the event at the 1960 Olympics. Plucknett is the U.S. record holder in the discus.
“Missouri is an attractive place for throwers,” Halter said. “I have the greatest sports psychologist in the world. I have some of the best physicians and sports massage therapists and sports medicine staff in the world. I got a weight room that’s unparalleled. And a throwing facility that’s Disney World.”
But it wasn’t only the facilities that motivated Nicholls to transfer to Missouri prior to last season after winning two NAIA National Championships at Missouri Baptist. Nicholls also came to Missouri to major in nursing, a degree program that Missouri Baptist does not offer.
When Nicholls was young, she saw members of her family and some family friends struggle to recover from medical problems like strokes or chronic diseases like diabetes.
She hopes to one day return to Barbados as a nurse to be an inspiration to people and help them understand that they can still live a full life despite one of these conditions.
Last season, Nicholls had a difficult class schedule that at times made getting the proper amount of training on the track a challenge. This semester, Nicholls is getting her first clinical experience. On occasion, she arrives to practice in her nursing uniform.
“Her commitment to doing that has been pretty extraordinary,” Halter said. “It’s fun to be able to see her succeed in both what her dream is as an athlete and what’s soon to be as a professional.”