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Mother’s suggestion helps lead Whitney Ashley to Olympics

“You got big hands,” Angela Washington told her daughter, Whitney Ashley. “Hold this thing.”

The thing was a discus. The year was 2004. Washington knew nothing about track and field, but the coach at John W. North High School in Riverside, California, needed an extra parent to help keep the kids busy. Ashley, then a junior, liked the shot put and basketball. But the team had no one to throw the discus at meets, so Washington forced Ashley to pick it up. For her first few seasons, Ashley didn’t even spin when she threw it.

“We learned it together,” Washington said Saturday, after Ashley, 27, won the discus at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials with a toss of 204 feet, 2 inches, earning a spot on the U.S. team that will compete in Rio.

Holding her daughter’s medal in her hands for the first time, Washington dissolved into tears, overwhelmed by the past 12 years of struggle and doubt.

Ashley focused on the shot put through junior college, then became serious about the discus at San Diego State. After winning the NCAA title in discus in 2012, Ashley graduated and was invited to train with legendary throwing coach Art Venegas. She strained her groin before the 2013 World Championships and finished dead last. In 2014, she added about 20 pounds to gain strength, but felt slow, got injured again and finished fifth at the U.S. championships. The following year, Ashley made the national team, but finished ninth at the world championships.

“I just didn’t see a future in it,” Ashley said Saturday. “I thought I would go to grad school and work toward becoming an athletic director.”

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Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.