Introduced to track and field at Neptune High School, Damien Valentine, currently a graduate student javelin thrower, was looking for a way to occupy the football offseason. Initially, he was interested in the shot put, but the coaching staff had other plans for the football player that could throw a ball 50 yards standing.
Now, in his college career, Valentine has become a standout javelin thrower, asserting his presence through his confidence, conviction and consistency. And this presence has earned him a spot in the NCAA Division III Outdoor Championships.
Nick Serpico, a javelin coach for the Red Hawks, says that if he had to describe Valentine in one word, it would be focused.
“The fact that he’s so focused and into the sport [means that] I can say, ‘Hey, you got any drills you’d like to do?’ and he’ll say ‘Of course,’ and come to practice prepared with what he wants to work on,” Serpico said.
Ian Carter, head coach of the track and field program, said Valentine is one of the most mentally-strong people he has ever met, and the athlete’s character, maturity and values exceed his years.
“[Valentine] is very rare in the sport,” Carter said. “A lot of guys get one throw in and that’s their best of the day. [Valentine] could throw 60 throws in a day, and the first one to the sixtieth one will [land] around the same spot.”
This season, Valentine fulfilled many responsibilities between attending graduate classes, completing coursework and commuting an hour away for work. Juggling all these obligations temporarily hindered Valentine’s performance, but he didn’t let these setbacks hold him down for long.
“I was coming off a slump, so the way I prepared was [by] reflecting on everything I had [accomplished] and knowing that I had the ability to do it [again],” Valentine said.
In the training leading up to Regionals, it was important to Serpico that he and Valentine work on “the block,” which allows the forward momentum from the run-up to be channeled into the arm, adding power behind the throw.
“Being as big and strong as [Valentine] is, he can get the javelin out to 170, 180 feet just relying on his arm,” Serpico said. “The block was a huge thing that we worked on, and coming out of that first meet, he was hitting that block.”
Carter recalled what he said to Valentine before his event at Regionals.
“He knows what I’m gonna say to him before I say it,” Carter said. “I didn’t say anything other than ‘This is it, make it count,’ and he did.”
During the opening day of the regional competition, Valentine reached 59.61 meters on his third attempt, clinching the first place spot and winning the event by over two meters.
This helped Valentine qualify for the national stage alongside sophomore discus and shot put thrower John Griffith, who will be competing in those respective events. But even with a teammate alongside him for the major event, track and field is ultimately an individual sport.
While many athletes would intensify their training regiment in preparation for the NCAA Division III Outdoor Championships, Valentine is reinventing his mindset and approaching the competition refreshingly.
“I was very hard on myself this season,” Valentine said. “I had a lot of expectations for myself, and I think that the amount of pressure I was [under] played a big role in me not hitting those points.”
Given the independent nature of javelin throwing, Valentine viewed his performance as a perfectionist, and that constant aim for improvement took a toll on him mentally.
“I’m just taking my foot off the gas pedal in terms of pressure on myself,” Valentine said.
This meet is not uncharted territory for Valentine, for this will be his second year in a row qualifying for a national competition, and his coaches have a lot of trust in his approach.
Last year, Valentine was a New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) champion in javelin with a career-best throw of 60.28 meters, and in the NCAA Outdoor Championships, he placed 16th with a 47.76-meter throw.
And after watching Valentine compete through an injury last year, Carter is not looking for Valentine to obtain all of the glory.
“I want to enjoy the time that I have in this last meet with him,” Carter said. “I want him to go out and do his best.”
For Valentine and his coaches, this year’s NCAA Division III Outdoor Championships not only showcases the work put in this season, but it pays tribute to Valentine’s entire athletic journey and represents this athlete’s unwavering focus and commitment to putting his best foot forward on and off the field.