Rob Oller | Large and in charge: Ohio State female athletes enjoy throwing weights around

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State throws specialist Adelaide Aquilla prepares to launch the shot put at a recent Buckeyes practice. In March she won an NCAA indoor title in the event.

Start at Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium, cross Fred Taylor Drive and follow the paved road until it becomes gravel. Hang a left, descend a small hill and there you will find powerful women throwing their weights around. Out of sight and mostly out of mind.

Or out of their minds? That is how some critics still choose to see it. Ah, the hypocrisy. Strong men not only get a pass but get honored for feats of strength. Yet stigma still surrounds strong women.

Things have improved in the 50 years since Helen Reddy sang, “I am woman, hear me roar,” but negative stereotypes still surround larger women who lift and throw weights. “I am woman, hear me grunt” does not ring with the rallying cry of empowerment.

Adelaide Aquilla knows all about it. The Ohio State junior — as well as teammates who throw shot, javelin, discus and hammer — still hear careless comments.

Ohio State sophomore Adelaide Aquilla has learned to cast aside careless comments and insensitive comments about her size.

“Being a bigger person, I’ve had a handful of stereotypes and stigmas thrown at me,” Aquilla said this week while practicing for the Jesse Owens Classic that runs Friday and Saturday. “Like, ‘Oh, Adelaide will protect me if we ever get robbed.’

“Nobody ever talks to you face-to-face about it. I’m sure there’s stuff said behind my back, but I don’t let it get in my way. I know if I was only part of the size I am I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing at the high level I am.”

Look around the throws area located about a 200-meter dash from Owens Stadium and you won’t find many part-sized women. What you will see are toned athletes. What you will see are two national champions in Aquilla and graduate student Sade Olatoye.

The Ohioans — Aquilla attended Rocky River Magnificat, Olatoye graduated from Dublin Coffman — lead a throws program that is among the best in the nation.

Aquilla won the 2021 NCAA indoor shot put title on March 12 with a school-record throw of 59 feet, 5½ inches, and set the school outdoor record of 60-¼ last week at the Fighting Illini Big Ten Relays in Champaign, Illinois. Olatoye won the 2019 NCAA indoor weight throw (similar to the hammer).

“A lot of people mistake me as a runner or high jumper, because they’re so used to the stereotype of throwers being just big and not athletic,” said Olatoye, who also played basketball at Coffman. “But I know the work we put in, the cardio and circuit training and weightlifting. We’re very athletic.”

And strong. Aquilla set a personal best last week when she bench-pressed 275 pounds three times. Olatoye benched 255 this year, while teammate Divine Oladipo can squat-press 400 pounds.

What would they say to the average guy who claims he could lift more weight than them?

“Don’t embarrass yourself,” Olatoye said, drawing laughter from her teammates and Ohio State throws coach Ashley Kovacs.

Credit Kovacs for helping instill in her throwers a confidence borne of self-belief in who they are and what they can accomplish.

“These girls keep themselves together pretty well,” Kovacs said. “There’s a stigma, like when you’re in high school and all the kids who aren’t in good shape get thrown in the field events.

“But these girls are athletes, and that helps people realize you can be big and strong and aggressive. You can be all the things you need to be, to do this at a high level, and can still be feminine. Or you don’t have to be feminine. You can be whatever you want to be.”

Ohio State throws specialists, from left, Divine Oladipo, Adelaide Aquilla and Sade Olatoye all harbor dreams of competing at the Olympic Games in Tokyo this summer - Aquilla for the United States, Oladipo for her native Britain and Olatoye for Nigeria, her parents' birthplace.

That kind of empowerment goes deeper than a 1970s anthem. It says bigger women need not apologize for throwing a 8.8-pound metal ball farther than most men could dream of doing.

“A lot of people assume you look like this because of a lifestyle, but (they don’t see) you’re trying to develop as a person who has goals,” said Aquilla, who like Olatoye and Oladipo is close to qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics (Olatoye would represent Nigeria, where her parents were born; Oladipo, from London, would represent Britain).

Olatoye was more to the point.

“Ignore what people say about you,” she said. “As long as you know your identity and your aspirations, it doesn’t matter what anyone else says. At the end of the day, whatever you want to do in life, however you feel about your body type, should be any way you want.”

They are weighty and wonderful words to live by.

roller@dispatch.com

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