Sarah Thornton looked up from the discus throwing circle at Hayward Stadium in Eugene, Ore., to pick a spot down the sector.
But that toss on July 1, however, was different from any previous throw the 29-year-old Lexington resident had ever made. When she focused down range, her eyes were met by banners promoting the US Olympic Team Trials for track & field.
“On my way here, I kept telling myself, ‘You are going to try out for an Olympic team’, and that kind of blows your mind,” said Thornton in a phone interview from Oregon last week.
“The experience is something that I will never forget. It hits you, but you have to try to not let it get to you, because there is still work to be done.”
Thornton heaved the 2-pound, 7-inch saucer 54.37 meters (178 feet, 4 inches), placing 18th in a field of 24 women. Her finish did not result in a trip to Rio for the 2016 Summer Games next month. But it was still quite an achievement for a highly-motivated athlete who punched her ticket to Eugene just a week before the trials with a throw of a lifetime.
Needing to reach the Olympic Trials qualifying mark of 57 meters, Thornton entered the qualifier for the Bay State Summer Games held June 25 at Bishop Fenwick High School in Peabody.
Her first three throws fell short of 57 meters. But when she stepped into the circle for her fourth attempt, she had a good feeling.
“Sometimes I step in the circle and [the discus] just feels good in my hand and everything feels connected,” said Thornton. “I threw it and it was heading toward a spot we had picked out that we had marked as a good place to be.”
Her fourth attempt sailed 57.93 meters — 190 feet — a personal record and an Olympic qualifier. It was the culmination of a journey that began in 2012 when Thornton came up two spots shorts of qualifying for the 2012 Olympic Trials (there are only 24 spots available).
Her training partner, Nate Hunter, said “It was really more about loosening up and enjoying the moment.
“She had trained really hard up to that point and she just had to imagine it would happen and it did. She had a heck of a PR in that meet. And it wasn’t surprising”
A native of Saugerties, N.Y., Thornton threw the hammer and the discus (with a personal best of 164 feet, 7 inches) at the University of Rhode Island, graduating in 2008. She stayed on at URI as an assistant coach before moving to Florida in 2010 to train fulltime.
Thornton is the first former, or current URI track athlete to qualify for the Olympic Trials since at least 1992, when John Melnick and his wife, head coach Laurie Feit-Melnick took over the program.
“It is a lifetime achievement,” said Melnick. “She is throwing 30 feet farther than she was in college. Were extremely thrilled for her.”
After failing to qualify for the 2012 trials, Thornton moved to Lexington and began training with Hunter and his coach, Tim Morse.
Eight years removed from college, Thornton now balances her training schedule with a fulltime position as a senior artist at Sephora.
“It’s very different. You don’t have a set schedule necessarily, you work when you have to and then train when you have to,” said Thornton. “I’m squeezing in practice sessions and lifting sessions.”
Said Melnick, “In college she had the facilities and the trainers at her expense that she could use, we take care of all their travel,” said Melnick. “Unless you’re getting sponsored, you are doing it on your own. It takes a lot of perseverance.”
Thornton trains nearly every day, mixing two to three lifting sessions per week with three or throw throwing sessions with Morse at Harvard’s athletic complex.
“Nothing is too tough for her,” said Morse, who also coaches at Hingham High. “For athletes when they get out of college, they have to get on with their life, find a job.
“For those athletes who have Olympic aspirations, the training regimen is like having another fulltime job.”
Thornton represents a number of post collegiate athletes who will be competing in the Bay State Summer Games competition over the next three weeks that compete at a high level in track & field, weight lifting, archery, and swimming. There are also Masters competitions for age groups over 40.
“Over the years people have thought of us a scholastic competition,” said Kevin Cummings, executive director of the Bay State Games.
“But the numbers have really grown in the post collegiate level and even the Masters level. We are trying to appeal to the athlete in all of us.
With track & field events wrapping up Saturday at Tufts University. Thornton will take some time to relax before beginning the journey to the 2020 Olympic Trials.
“This was just a taste, I’m a novice national competitor right now,” said Thornton.
“Four years from now I want to be at the top. If all things go right, 2020 is my plan.”
By the numbers
The Massachusetts Amateur Sports Foundation (MASF) was established in 1982 to host the first sanctioned State Games of the Commonwealth. This is 35th year for the Bay State Summer Games.
Summer games participants: 7,000 annually
Cities and town represented: 300-plus
Number of volunteers: 1,500
Sports offered: 27
Dates: July 8-30Michael McMahon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.