Breaking Sac State records two throwers at a time

Shantel Nnaji and Erin Whelan bounce back after COVID-19 pandemic halted competition


Kamelia Varasteh

Sacramento State track and field throwers Shantel Nnaji (left) and Erin Whelan (right) pose in front of Tahoe Hall Friday, April 29, 2022. Both have made their names in Sac State track and field history through succeeding in record-breaking throws.

Sacramento State track and field throwers and graduating seniors Shantel Nnaji and Erin Whelan have broken university throwing records this season after working through the struggles of being athletes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As throwers, they compete in discus, shot put, and hammer throw competitions. Nnaji has broken two school records, placing her name on the top 10 list for every throwing category at Sac State and Whelan has earned her way into the record books with the  10th best hammer throwing distance in school history.   

Nnaji said she didn’t imagine that she would have a future as a thrower before she started the sport in the tenth grade.

Nnaji,  played basketball for her team at Merrill West High School in Tracy before moving to track and field. It was her teammates, along with her parents, who encouraged her to try track and field for the first time.

“It took me a while to get into it,” she said. “I just tried it out, but I stayed for the people. My teammates were the reason I kept at it.”

Shantel Nnaji stands in front of Tahoe Hall at Sacramento State on Friday, April 29,2022. Nnaji broke her own school record in throwing this year and said that she likes to relax when she is not on the field. (Kamelia Varasteh)

Nnaji said she was already admitted into Sac State before she decided if she wanted to continue throwing. She decided to continue with the sport, and in doing so she found herself excelling in it and has been on the team ever since.

Having grown up in Rocklin, Whelan began participating in sports like soccer, softball, cross country, golf, and basketball throughout school but found that throwing in track & field was her passion, according to her. 

“I ultimately decided that my love for track and field and my love for throwing was more than my love for golf,” Whelan said. “I’m really happy with the decision I made and it definitely changed my life. The opportunities that I have had here at Sac are incredible.”  

Whelan said that despite struggling through a health related injury over the past year, she motivated herself to work harder than ever. 

“I was pushing myself as hard as I could and seeing the numbers increase and seeing the throws go as far as my goals,” Whelan said. “I am hitting my goals and I am excelling [in] my goals this year further than I ever have in any past year, so I’m confident going into meets.”

Senior Erin Whelan poses by the throwing cage at Sacramento State on Friday, April 29, 2022. This season Whelan earned her place on the top 10 list of female hammer-throwers ever at Sac State. (Kamelia Varasteh)

Sac State Throwing Coach Kyle Lillie said that he has been coaching both Whelan and Nnaji since he first took the position in 2018. 

“Both athletes have been working extremely hard and have been constantly improving,” Lillie said. “It is a testament to their hard work that they’ve put in not just this year but the last four and five years.”

Whelan and Nnaji were training throughout the  pandemic and said they did not see their massive success coming. Lillie noticed early on that both athletes’ hard work would soon pay off once things reverted back to normal. 

According to Lillie, training was tough at  the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, now that training has been  in-person again for the first time in a year, the athletes have shown tremendous improvements.

“I could see [their success] from a mile away,” Lillie said about Nnaji and Whelan. “They’re two of some of the hardest-working people I’ve seen on the team.”

Nnaji and Whelan both said that participating in their sport during the pandemic has actually helped them grow into the athletes they are today.

“People looking in from the outside thought I was doing great, but inside I didn’t feel like I was accomplishing everything I could have accomplished,” Nnaji said.

In order to make a comeback from the pandemic, Nnaji said she has been focusing on more than just the physical aspect of her sport.

“I’m learning to be more mentally and physically present during meets and practices,” she said. “I used to just hope for the best. Now I can really just tap into something different and go out there to compete the way I want to.”

It was difficult both mentally and physically to return to the field after the pandemic as well, according to Whelan. 

“I feel like I finally felt myself build confidence that I didn’t have before and I felt like my hard work was finally paying off this year,” Whelan said. “It has definitely been hard with the pandemic. It was mentally really tough for myself and I think having to push through that and coming out of it I knew what I could do and what I wanted to do.”

Even though the athletes practice every day of the week, according to Whelan, they still find time to unwind from school and athletics whenever they can.  

Nnaji said she likes to relax during her offtime, while Whelan enjoys spending time with her teammates. .

“We spend a lot of time together even outside of track,” Whelan said. “We’ll make dinners together or go bowling or just do fun stuff to relax because school and sports can be overwhelming and stressful at times, especially during finals week.”

Whelan said  she has been more confident this season than in any other and she feels like her hard work is finally paying off. For the past two years, the athlete’s training schedule had been changed a lot as they adjusted to the new conditions.

“It has definitely been hard with the pandemic,” Whelan said. “It was mentally really tough for myself and I think having to push through that and coming out of it I knew what I could do and what I wanted to do.”

When asked about persons of influence in her life, Whelan said she wanted to thank her sisters, the team, her coach and especially her parents for always supporting her. 

“[My parents] have been my biggest fans through the entire thing, even through the hard times,” Whelan said. “They never miss an opportunity to come out and support and make sure that they are cheering me on.” 

Both athletes have record throwing distances in hammer throw, discus and shot put and are finishing their seasons with several accolades. 

The next time Nnaji and Whelan will compete will be at the Big Sky outdoor championships in Pocatello, Idaho on May 11.