ERIC MILLER / UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA
Vera Simms earned a spot in the NCAA Track and Field Championships in the 400 meters.
The Michigan sprinter has given
everything she can, on and off the track
Ten days ago it seemed impossible.
Even last Sunday it was the longest of long shots.
But Mililani's Vera Simms is going to run in the NCAA Division I Track and Field Championships this week at Austin, Texas.
She will be the only athlete from Hawaii in the competition that some call the second-best track meet in the world.
Simms is ranked 23rd in the 28-woman 400-meter hurdles field and is not expected to even reach the semifinals.
But the fact that she is in Austin at all is testament to her courage and conditioning, her spirit and her determination.
IN LATE MARCH, Simms was ranked in the top 10 in Division I with a 400 time of 58.21 seconds.
Nagging injuries (knee, foot, hamstring) stalled her progress, but she was still ranked No. 1 in the Mid-East Region going into the Big Ten championships, which Simms had won in 2002 and 2003.
But three days before the Big Tens, Simms asked the team doctor if there was something he could do to relieve the discomfort in her throat.
"It had felt swollen for about two weeks," she says.
He did routine tests, then more, and then dropped a bombshell:
Simms had mononucleosis, a blood disease, and was out of the Big Ten meet and probably out for the season -- her last season.
"My jaw dropped; the whole team did," when Simms informed them, Michigan women's coach James Henry says.
Simms is Michigan's quad-captain, one of its most respected leaders.
Although she couldn't run, she could still lead.
"The medical staff didn't want me to do anything," Simms says. "They just wanted me to rest. But I felt all right and I didn't see why I should stay in bed."
She got a friend to drive her 333 miles to Indiana University, site of the Big Ten championships.
And there, a new side of Vera Simms emerged.
"She leads by doing, not saying much," Henry said. "This time she had no action to give, so she led through her talk. I told an assistant, 'Look, Vera can get boisterous, she can shout and cheer.' I saw a different Vera than I had ever seen and I was moved to tears.
"I've had teams that stepped up for a championship meet. This team leaped up. There were career-bests left and right. I will go to my grave believing that many of our athletes would not have improved to the level they improved in Big Tens if Vera had not been out there encouraging them."
Michigan won the Big Ten championship for the third straight year and, "We dedicated it to her," Henry said.
ANOTHER WEEK of rest and more tests later, the Michigan medical staff relented and said Simms could compete in the Mid-East Regional meet at LSU last weekend.
The result was not surprising. Still "kind of shaky," and admittedly "a little scared," she finished 11th.
"I thought the regional was her swan song," Henry said.
But on Tuesday, there was a good surprise for Vera Simms.
When new national rankings were posted, her 58.21 time on March 20 had slipped only to 23rd place, and 28 hurdlers go to nationals.
Simms is still recovering, and is not expected to get past her first preliminary race on Thursday.
"She will do what she can do," Henry said. "I haven't had an athlete of her work ethic and caliber in this event before.
"She has given us everything. If she only has 5 percent to give, then she will give that 5 percent."
For Simms, this is a dream long delayed.
Two months after she graduated from Mililani in 2000, Simms finished third in the national Junior Olympics.
"Since my freshman year I thought I'd be there (NCAAs)," she says.
She missed qualifying by 13/100ths of a second as a sophomore, and last year (when she ran a career-best 58.19) a technical error made by coach Henry in the regionals resulted in Simms and three teammates being disqualified.
"Wow, it's taken me four years," Simms said. "I am very happy. This is what I wanted to do."
On track: Simms received her bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering on May 1. She was awarded a Gem scholarship to get her masters and two days after the NCAA meet she will start a summer internship in the product development department at Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich.
A glowing feature story in the Michigan student newspaper this spring described Simms as the quintessential student-athlete.
Simms set two meet records and won four gold medals in the Hawaii high school championship meet in 2000.
Redshirt freshman Todd Iacovelli of Michigan (Punahou '02 of Kailua) ran a personal-best 1,500 meters of 3:56.09 in the Big Ten Championships on May 14, but was 13th and did not make the final.
Iacovelli, who also is overcoming illness, had indoor season-best times of 4:00.44 for the mile and 8:27.04 for the 3,000 meters.
BACK TO TOP
leads team to title
A good baseball season turned into a great season the last two weeks for Keahi Kapana as he helped Saddleback win the California Community College championship.
First baseman Kapana, a 2002 Campbell High graduate, left some special moments engraved in the memories of Saddleback fans.
He finished as the Gauchos' leading batter at .400 (54 for 135) with team-leading totals of 11 home runs, 49 RBIs and 72 runs produced in 40 games.
In two championship tournament games last weekend Kapana hit 3-for-6 and drove in or scored six of Saddleback's 14 runs.
In the regional tournament the previous weekend he gave a prodigious performance.
In the regional semifinal on May 22, Kapana drove in seven runs in a 17-12 victory over Santa Ana -- five of them in the first inning.
First he ripped a bases-loaded double off the wall to score three runs.
In the fourth inning, Kapana left no room for doubt. He hit a two-run homer well out of the park.
But his most memorable play may have come the next day, when Saddleback defeated El Camino 13-9 in the regional final.
He hit a 450-foot, solo home run in the first inning to set the tone.
One inning later, Kapana was trying to score from second on a single. The throw beat him to the plate, but the specter of the 6-3, 290-pound Kapana bearing down on him seemed to unnerve the El Camino catcher and he dropped the throw.
"The catcher was trying to focus his left eye on Keahi and his right eye on the ball and he didn't center it in his mitt," Saddleback coach Jack Hodges said. "It dropped at his feet. It's very understandable."
"He's another one of those Hawaiian Warriors. I have a fond place in my heart for Hawaii kids," said Hodges, a 1965 Kamehameha graduate who has averaged 28 wins a year in 15 seasons at Saddleback.