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So Much to Do

Transition from Lithuania to USC has put more within Stasiulionyte's grasp than a javelin title

May 01, 2004|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

Inga Stasiulionyte can be pardoned for thinking that track and field isn't her sole purpose in life. The champion javelin thrower for USC has immersed herself in much more than the appeal of collegiate competition.

The 22-year-old senior is a former competitive ballroom dancer with a love for beach volleyball. She also has an eye for computer design and has put her artistic side to work, creating her own website and helping with the school's track media guide.

The lure of big business is as much an attraction as a potentially lucrative career on the international track circuit. Going out with friends is just as thrilling as a long throw during competition.

"Every day is something new," she says. "I like to experience life. I'm learning how to live in the present."

Athletics has served as a bridge for the Lithuania-born Stasiulionyte. As a freshman at USC, the 5-foot-10 thrower was an NCAA champion in the javelin and helped the women's team win a national title.

In the last two years, she has been runner-up while becoming the record holder for the most points scored by a USC thrower in the NCAA meet. Today, in the annual dual meet against UCLA at Drake Stadium, she will try to win the event for the fourth consecutive year.

For Stasiulionyte, throwing the javelin has been the easy part. When she arrived at USC from Vilnius four years ago, Stasiulionyte spoke virtually no English and understood little more. Then there was the culture shock of living in fast-paced Los Angeles.

"You come to this airport and everything is crowded," she recalled. "Everyone is going somewhere, everyone is busy. I couldn't figure out who to call or how to get somewhere."

Dan Lange, who coaches the USC throwers, said the first few months were challenging. Bridging the communication gap was paramount.

"There were so many new aspects to her life," Lange said. "The language, the communication, the classes, the culture, this city. Her whole life changed on one flight."

USC assistant coach John Henry Johnson, who is also the recruiting coordinator, annually scouts young talent throughout Europe. Johnson spotted Stasiulionyte in 1999 at the European junior championships, where the high school senior finished sixth.

Toward the end of the meet, they were sitting next to each other when Johnson asked a simple question.

"I said, 'You want to come to the United States?' " he said. "She said, 'Yeah.' We had all the paperwork done in a week."

Johnson acknowledged that recruiting internationally isn't always smooth but in the case of the personable Stasiulionyte, being a student-athlete at a major university in the U.S. was an easy sell.

"Certain athletes are a little stronger mentally and are looking to do something different," Johnson said. "She has an adventurous spirit. She's not a shy, timid person."

Stasiulionyte threw herself into every new situation. An English dictionary was a constant companion until she learned to speak the language within a year. She went from having difficulty understanding her professors to enrolling in the Marshall School of Business and finding a career apart from track and field.

Johnson saw that she could quickly make an impact at the college level. At the 2001 NCAA meet in Eugene, Ore., Stasiulionyte became the first USC woman in 11 years to win the javelin throw, with a mark of 172 feet 4 inches. As a sophomore, she threw a personal-best 186-10, setting a Pacific 10 Conference record. The only problem, Lange says, is her interests are so varied that finding the right focus can be difficult. Winning the NCAA title as a freshman might have been to her detriment.

"When she can focus her energy and put her mind in the right place, I've never seen anyone better," he said. "I think she thought it was always going to be that way. Maybe she didn't take the competition quite as seriously because she came back the next two years and was beaten.

"She's a different person now. She's a woman on a mission."

Each time she competes, she thinks about her late club coach, Antanas Celiesius. He convinced her that she could succeed in the U.S., even as he and her mother cried at the Vilnius airport. Celiesius died of stomach cancer the day Stasiulionyte returned home last June to visit him."He had so much hope and so much belief in me," she said. "I didn't see anyone else who would love that event so much.

"If not for him and if not for the javelin, I wouldn't be here."

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