Sometimes a smile can veil the truth, at least part of the truth. Take, the scene on March 16, the day of the Oregon Preview track meet and the day Oregon multi-sport athlete Liz Brenner made her debut as a javelin thrower on the UO track team.
Beneath a white tent just off the southwest corner of Hayward Field, Brenner spoke to reporters about her performance. All the while, the 20-year-old sophomore smiled as she elaborated on her effort, the transition from playing basketball to track, and the 141 feet, 5 inches she threw for a third-place finish.
But Brenner, described by one of her former coaches as the “kid with the hugest smile,” was not entirely enthused about the outcome. A piece of the truth was revealed after the final question was posed: “Does it bother you that you finished in third?”
Without pause, Brenner answered: “Yes it does.”
Never mind that she’d only practiced twice before throwing for the first time since her senior year of high school in 2011. In fact, she said her total practice time was at most two and a half hours.
[gn_quote style=”1”]“I know obviously I haven’t had that much practice, and I probably wasn’t even picked to place, but I absolutely hate losing.”[/gn_quote]
That Kind of Competitor
Anyone who knows Brenner says the same thing: She is beyond competitive. She is the ultimate competitor. Family, friends, and former coaches alike insist that in Brenner’s case her hatred of losing is greater than her enjoyment of victory. This intense competitiveness has enabled Brenner to play four sports at Oregon, explains her older sister Mary Claire, a senior at Oregon State and a two-sport athlete herself. In just two years at Oregon, Brenner has participated in volleyball, basketball, softball, and track. She is the first three-sport female athlete at Oregon since Peg Rees, who played basketball, softball and volleyball from 1973-1976.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Mary Claire said. “I couldn’t do what she does, go between sports without rest or down time…It takes someone who loves competing like she does. I can play a game of cards and, OK, if I lose, it’s just for fun. It’s never just for fun for Elizabeth. She wants to win. It takes that kind of person.”
That drive is, in part, what has propelled Brenner to national prominence. On March 27, Brenner was named one of three finalists for the AAU James E. Sullivan Award for outstanding amateur athlete in the United States. The only multi-sport athlete of the 15 semifinalists, Brenner is vying for the award against with 4-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer Missy Franklin and weight lifter and junior world-record holder Darren Barnes.
This distinction comes after being named the Oregon Sports Awards amateur female athlete of the year and after playing a major role in the Oregon volleyball team’s run to a first-ever NCAA National Championship game. Though the Ducks lost to Texas in the championship game, this outside hitter became the first Oregon volleyball underclassman to earn All-American honors as a second-team selection.
Yet, before her achievements in high school or college, Brenner was simply a little kid from Portland. The middle child of an athletic family, even as a youngster she played multiple sports: T-ball, swimming, and racquetball. The daughter of two former college swimmers, Brenner began playing racquetball at 5 years old. Doug Brenner, her father, introduced her to the sport he played recreationally at a local athletic club.
“It was a good sport for her to get her hand-eye coordination developed, and that really helped out with her softball, basketball and volleyball,” Doug said. “And it helped her to be competitive out there and to have that drive to keep winning.”
At 5, Brenner went to the world championships. By her freshman year at Jesuit High School, the time she stopped playing racquetball, she’d won 11 world championships. It was during her freshman year Brenner came to the attention of Jim Hartner, the director for Oregon Northwest Volleyball Club. Hartner’s team faced off against Brenner’s club team. “She was extremely motivated, to say the least,” Hartner said. “We were king of the hill, and she wanted to take us down. She didn’t, but she did everything she could to beat us.”
The following year, Brenner appeared at Hartner’s club and told him, “I want to play the best people in the country.” Known for developing college players and traveling the country to play the top teams, Hartner’s club found a new team member.
“When she walked in the gym as a sophomore, I never had a doubt in my mind that she could play at (the Division I collegiate) level,” Hartner said.
Becoming a Teammate
There was a challenge, though. For all her drive, ability and athleticism, Brenner had to learn how to be a good teammate. Hartner describes Brenner at that time as more of an individual athlete. “In racquetball, she didn’t need anybody to pat her on the back,” Hartner said.
Initially, he said Brenner would stand apart from the team huddles during timeouts. She was hard on her teammates, in part, her parents say, because she couldn’t understand why they were unable to execute what their coaches instructed. This ability to translate a coaches direction into motor skills was a gift, but this gift also indirectly made it difficult for Brenner to be a teammate to others. “Growing up, she (was) the teammate that was going to tell you that you’re not doing your job,” her sister Mary Claire said.
In time, Brenner changed. Counsel from her coaches and a challenge from her mom that she’d lose the privilege of playing helped the matter. “She learned to be a great teammate,” Hartner said. “She had a fault. It wasn’t her fault, it was just the way she’d come up.”
Her high school years also forced Brenner to make a hard choice about what sports to pursue. With her club volleyball team set to compete in the post-season during part of the high school softball season, Brenner was told she had to commit to softball 100 percent or not play softball. “(That coach) lost her for softball,” Brenner’s mother, Jennifer, said.
“In high school it was tougher because, to the coaches, high school sports come before club sports. Kids can (play multiple sports) if there are coaches who can share.”
It was the conflict between volleyball and softball that resulted in Brenner choosing to join her high school track team as a throwing specialist her junior year at Jesuit. Well before she made that decision, former Olympic gold medal discus thrower Mac Wilkins spied a potential track thrower in his daughter’s former high school basketball teammate.
“I mentioned that she should go out for track to her and her folks,” said Wilkins, who also threw discus at Oregon in the 1970s. “She smiled, laughed, and said, ‘Yeah, maybe.”
Maybe turned into reality after the conflict between volleyball and softball. Sometime thereafter, Brenner showed up at Wilkins’ throwing center for several practice sessions.
“He told Elizabeth, ‘If you want to go to the Olympics, this is how you do it,” Brenner’s mother said. “(Wilkins) had been encouraging her all along…I remember he gave Elizabeth a pair of (track) shoes he used in the Olympics.”
In two years on the Jesuit track team, Brenner finished with two state championships in the shot put and as a two-time state runner-up in javelin, both times finishing behind national prep record-holder and future Oregon javelin thrower Haley Crouser from Gresham. Brenner’s high-school best javelin throw of 155-12 would have scored points at the 2012 Pac-12 Championships. Wilkins estimated that Brenner’s prep track numbers placed her among the top 10 nationally in javelin and top 40 in shot put.
“She’s big, she’s strong, and she has great body control,” Wilkins said. “You throw 155 feet in your first year in high school, that’s pretty impressive. I just kept saying, ‘How many people are between you and the Olympic team in volleyball? And how many people are between you and the Olympic team in javelin or discus?’…I don’t think (the possibility of becoming an Olympic thrower) registered with her.”
Volleyball was to be her focus entering her freshman year at Oregon. It just so happened that injuries to key players on the Oregon women’s basketball team and the Oregon softball team resulted in coaches reaching out to Brenner, who was the 2011 6A high school state basketball player of the year and a 6A first-team all-state softball player as a sophomore.
In the two seasons she’s played on the UO women’s basketball team, Brenner has started in 26 of 41 games played, including 18-straight starts to end the season. As a forward, she averaged 7.9 points and 7.4 rebounds a game. On the Ducks’ softball team last season, she played in five games and finished with three walks and two runs in 10 at-bats.
Playing multiple sports is her norm. Whenever she’s asked about taking time between sports, Brenner remains consistent: “When I take time off, I get pretty bored. I’d rather be doing something. I love working out, going to practice and competing. So I’d rather be doing that than taking time off.”
Don’t expect the three-a-year routine to change. Brenner says she’ll continue this way until she exhausts her college eligibility.
[gn_quote style=”1″]“I wouldn’t say she’d get bored, but I think she’d miss competing in the other ones,” said Mary Claire, her sister. “I think she’ll feel something was missing if she didn’t play them.”[/gn_quote]
This spring she’s dropped softball to focus on the javelin, although she’ll also be practicing with the UO volleyball team. During spring break, she joined the volleyball team to play exhibition games in Australia. Volleyball is the sport that makes her smile, her mother says. And it’s also the sport that brought her to the attention of an AAU Volleyball official and resulted in her becoming a nominee for the Sullivan Award.
“I got the kid for you.”
The nomination came about during a lunch-time conversation between Hartner, Brenner’s former club volleyball coach, and AAU Volleyball National Chairman Roger Goudy on Dec. 14. The two men were seated at the same table during the American Volleyball Coaches Association All-America/Players of the Year Banquet in Louisville on the day before Oregon would play Texas in the national championship game. During their chat, Goudy mentioned he was planning to nominate someone for the Sullivan Award.
Hartner entered pitchman mode: “I got the kid for you. That kid right there on the podium.”
Goudy recognized Brenner, who was seated at a table on an elevated stage with other players who were being recognized as All-Americans. Two years earlier, Brenner and Hartner’s club team had won the 2011 AAU Volleyball World Challenge at the KFC YUM! Center in Louisville. Goudy remembered her from that.
“As soon as I got done (talking about her accolades), he said, ‘I’m nominating her,’” Hartner said. “(Goudy) said, ‘If anyone is absolutely the perfect description of the Sullivan Award and of being an all-around great athlete, she is it.’”
Within the week, Brenner had been nominated, and on March 1, she was named among the 15 Sullivan Award semifinalist.
Always the Competitor
Back on the day of the Oregon Preview, Brenner smiled an I-am-very-aware smile when asked about Stanford javelin thrower Brianna Bain, who finished second at the NCAA Championships last year. In their senior year in high school, Brenner and Bain competed against each other. Bain threw for Aloha High School and finished third at the state championships behind Brenner.
Not knowing this, a reporter asked, “Did you throw against Brianna Bain?”
“I did. I beat her.”
“She’s probably…you did? Because she’s probably the favorite in the NCAAs.”
“Yep,” Brenner replied. “I know.”
“So you know…are you in touch with her?”
“No, but I just know that she did good last year and is doing (well) this year.”
There was no masking it. The desire to compete against the best oozed from her smile. The truth is, Brenner has also had plenty to smile about.