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Two Lady Engineers Track All-Americans

By Stanley Hu

STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Princess Imoukhuede ’02 stood transfixed in the thrower’s ring of the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championship, knowing she was running out of chances to dig herself out of trouble. Only two throws left.

Over in the pole vault, Vanessa Li ’02 stared down the runway and tried not to look up at the bar. Only one attempt left.

If they faltered here, they would end their indoor careers with lasting images of disappointment.

But Imoukhuede and Li would have none of that last Friday. Both soared above the pressure, as Imoukhuede catapulted a 57'0.75" throw to place second and Li cleared 11'10.5" to capture fourth in the pole vault. They earned All-American honors and shattered their own varsity records along the way.

“I was really excited after I released [the weight] because I knew it had gone far,” Imoukhuede said. “It felt like a new personal record, just the feel of the throw. I hadn’t felt that all season. I was really excited about what I had done compared to where I had started off.”

Imoukhuede nearly missed finals

Imoukhuede started the day worrying if she had even qualified for the finals of the 20-pound weight throw competition. After a brief snafu with the check-in process, she struggled to toss within five feet of her personal best in the trials. She squeaked into the finals with a 7th place throw.

“It turns out when I was in the ring in the trials, as soon as I went through my first turn, my mind went completely blank, and that threw me off because I’m used to having something running through my mind at all times,” Imoukhuede said.

Imoukhuede gathered her thoughts, got a pep talk from coach Tory Dolben, and returned for the finals. On her second to last attempt, she finally launched a winner. “The first place athlete told me that her heart stopped when I threw that because it looked that it was farther than her throw,” she said. “Actually, it was about three inches shorter.”

Imoukhuede’s second place finish was her best performance in five trips to a national championship.

Li just clears bar to take fourth

For Li, she earned her first All-American award -- a sweet outcome after all too many past disappointments. “We’ve gone to Nationals the last three years, and I flunked out every time,” Li said. “So it was like, this is finally it.”

Li’s toughest test came with the bar set at 11'10.5", a height that she had never cleared. She missed her first two attempts. But for her final attempt, she decided to try something different.

“When I really want it, I close my eyes,” Li said. “I closed my eyes, praying for it ... I hit the bar, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, right, this is definitely going to fall off.’”

She was wrong.

“I’m on the other side of the bar, and my eyes are still closed,” she said. “But everybody starts cheering at me. I land on the pit and look up, and [the bar] is still there, and I’m like, ‘No way.’ I just sat there for a while, thinking that it was going to fall down.”

The bar stayed, and the celebration began. The audience applauded. Li smiled and waved to the crowd. And then it was the coach’s turn. “I was asking for my step, but Sluggo (Coach Paul Slovenski) didn’t have it because he was jumping up and down,” Li said. “He was freaking out. I was walking back to where all the girls were, and I was crying because when you’ve cleared [close to] 12', you’re a good pole vaulter. I’ve wanted that all my life.”

Finishes lift MIT’s ranking

Imoukhuede and Li’s performances boosted MIT to 10th place out of the top 59 Division III schools in the country, the highest finish ever by the women’s indoor track team. The team even held the first place spot with 13 points for a time on Friday.

“These deserving seniors should be so proud,” Slovenski said. “They were freshmen during the inaugural season of varsity indoor track at the Institute four years ago ... and to cap off their indoor careers in such a special way was just great. They together put the MIT women’s program on the top ten map.”