How could Bryanna Hames make history if she didn’t know if she would be alive the next day?
That’s the question the senior thrower on Elon University’s track and field team asked herself when she looked back on her mindset during winter 2016.
She has the luxury of hindsight vision now. But back then, she thought her future looked bleak.
She didn’t know she had a lot to look forward to.
In a few short months, Hames would rewrite the record books. That spring outdoor season, she broke her own school record in discus throwing — not once or twice, but five times. She’d also become the first athlete to qualify for the NCAA Outdoor Championships in Elon’s 16-year program history.
But in November 2016, stress overwhelmed her while she grappled with who she was — someone who wanted to define herself beyond how far she could heave a metal disc or a heavy-weighted shot put.
Now, as Hames’ senior track season enters crunch time, she’s not relishing in her previous feats. She has lofty goals; among them are capturing NCAA gold, becoming an All-American and turning Elon into a “track school.”
But none of that is important if she forgets who she is, she said. She has a life to prepare for after college — a life that was almost cut short by her battle with depression. But she’s better for it and doesn’t hide from her struggles. If her story inspires others, her work is complete.
Her athletic success will just be an added bonus, she said.
“It’s great to have a talent, and I look at it as: God gave me this talent, what are you going to do with it — what are you going to do to show Him glory?” Hames said. “If I’m not bringing Him glory, then I’m not succeeding.”
Success in track has followed Hames at every level. The Charlotte native won a state championship at Myers Park, a high school in the southern part of the city. She lives a disciplined lifestyle — her breakfast of choice is oatmeal with blueberries and honey and you'll never see her eat beef or pork. Her devotion to her craft inspired head coach Mark Elliston to recruit her in 2014. When she came for her official visit, he and his staff knew they had to have her.
“We knew she was one of the best throwers in the state, so we were excited to have her on campus and definitely wanted her to be a part of the program,” Elliston said.
In her first two years, Hames’ contributions led to two Colonial Athletic Association conference championships for the Phoenix.
Individually, she won the CAA Outdoor Championships in discus throwing as a freshman and qualified for the NCAA East Preliminaries as a sophomore.
After the preliminaries, her mission was to qualify for the NCAA Outdoor Tournament, which is annually held in Eugene, Oregon, also known as “TrackTownUSA.” She’s had that goal since high school. Her high school coach even gave her a T-shirt with the words “Eugene in 2017” on it.
But those aspirations had to be put on hold as her life went into upheaval.
Hames has been a Christian since her ninth grade year at Myers Park. She wears a golden cross around her neck and is an active member of Elon’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). Every morning, she tries to listen to Elevation Church Pastor Steven Furtick’s devotional. Her warmup playlist has gospel music, and she said people have looked at her weirdly when they hear it leaking from her Beats by Dre headphones.
But last year, her faith was tested like never before.
That winter, Hames went through a relationship breakup and a “traumatic situation beyond that,” about which she did not go into detail. From there, her mindset slipped. It was a period of self doubt, a time where she wondered who she was. She went to counseling sessions in Charlotte, and her parents were extremely worried about her. At that point in her life, her dream of competing on the national stage seemed like just that — a dream.
“Honestly, if you told me you were going to make it to Eugene in 2017 at the point that I was at last November, I would have been like, ‘No, I can’t even see myself tomorrow half of the time,’” Hames said. “I’ve always had that goal, but I had to change so much in the last season — not
just as an athlete but as a person.”
To overcome that, she made a complete overhaul. She made a concerted effort to focus more on school and her faith. She reached out to friends, coaches, mentors and her FCA cohort. That was crucial because before then, she “really wasn’t surrounded by people on the same path.”
Without support, she doesn’t know where she would be.
“I can say they kept me alive,” Hames said.
In Hames’ off-campus apartment, she has two goals written on her mirror: relax and be patient.
Those words remind Hames daily of her progress, and they’re just as applicable on the track as they are off it. Hames wants to be a national champion; every athlete does. But if that doesn’t happen, her goal is to become an All-American — to place in the top 16 in the NCAA for her event. But to do that, she has to fix details.
Hames discovered this fall that she had protruding discs in her lower back. The tissues between the bone and her spine are “nonexistent,” Hames said. At first, this terrified her. Besides the obvious pain she felt, she was concerned about her training. No longer could she deadlift 425 pounds or be as intense in the weight room. Instead, she had to do things differently.
So far, it’s been working.
“I think the injury has helped me technique-wise because it started breaking those bad habits,” Hames said.
Throwing a discus or a shot put requires a full-body motion. One throw equates to one 100-meter sprint — and she and her teammates heave 30 to 40 throws per practice, Hames said. The thrower’s torso twists in an aggressive, fluid motion, using power from the legs while the arms guide the object. Hames said she tends to rush her left side, causing her throw to not be as effective. At every practice, she’s intentionally exaggerating her right side so when she’s in competition, both sides will align.
“If I can manage to get those things somewhat 50 percent, it will be a great season,” Hames said. “If those things happen, you’ll watch a disc fly really far.”
After performing poorly in her first indoor meet this season, Hames set another program record. She threw it 49’ 7.75”, breaking Charlise Morgan’s four-year record of 48’ 6”. In the outdoor season, Hames has finished in the top five for her events in every meet and set a new personal record in the shot put, throwing it 51’ 1.5” in the Raleigh Relays March 30. In the discus, she heaved it 160’ 10”, her farthest this season.
Only six meets are left until the CAA Championships. Hames sees those as six meets to improve.
But Hames is also trying to enjoy life outside the track. She ran for Homecoming Court in the fall, saw “Black Panther” as a treat to herself with her friends and recently celebrated her 22nd birthday April 1.
“I’m all about self-care,” Hames said. “I try to have a normal life; you have to find that balance between your social and your athletics your school.”
Elliston said he’s proud of Hames for creating more time for herself. If she’s happy, the team will follow.
“I always tell them to keep living right and to keep doing what they need to do, not only on the track or in the circle or in the weight room but away from it too,” Elliston said. “Because without peace of heart and mind, you really can’t have that peace while you’re trying to train and to throw.”
As a team, they have some unfinished business. Last year was the first time in three years the Phoenix did not win the CAA. Elliston knows they have the talent to win the conference, but it’s little things that will hold them back. When the time comes, Hames said she and her team will be ready.
“That’s one of those things that sticks out in my head on a daily basis,” Hames said. “It was a really big learning opportunity; it’s such motivation for this year. As a team, I think that we trained and we just did not implement where we needed to implement to be real. That’s just not going to happen this year; that’s just what I believe.”
After she graduates, Hames said she intends to have a post-collegiate professional career in track. She’ll be completing an internship in communications and continuing to train in Charlotte.
But while she’s here, she still has a legacy to cement. And there’s only one way she can do it, she said.
“It’s me taking gold at NCAA and becoming All-American; that is all that’s left,” Hames said. “But it’s also more than that. It’s setting the status so whoever is coming after me goes, ‘“She did it, I can do it and do better.’ Records are meant to be broken.”
Jackie Pascale, senior reporter, contributed reporting.