UNIVERSITY PARK - Much like the flight of her javelin, Indian Valley and Penn State product Laura Loht's track and field career has continued to soar.
During her scholastic career, Loht twice won the Class AAA javelin competition at the PIAA track and field championships - as a senior and a sophomore. She also earned top honors at the Penn Relays during her senior season.
After trading in Warrior red and black for Nittany Lion blue and white, Loht continued to find success at the collegiate level in Happy Valley. She wrapped up her collegiate career at this year's NCAA Track and Field Championships, setting a school record on her way to a fifth-place finish.
Sentinel file photo
Laura Loht throws the javelin at the PIAA?championships in Shippensburg as a senior at Indian Valley. Her two state gold medals proved to be just the start.
Loht delivered her career-best throw on her fifth attempt of the day, registering a mark of 178 feet, 6 inches at the University of Oregon's Hayward Field. The mark surpassed the former Penn State record of 178-4 set in 2009 by Kim Hanslovan. Florida's Fawn Miller won this year's NCAA javelin crown at 190-8.
"Ending my career at the NCAA Championships definitely means the world to me," Loht says. "One of the first things I said to our head coach (Beth Alford-Sullivan) was thanks for helping me make it four in a row.
"It is the meet that everyone at the collegiate level works for and to be able to say I have been there multiple times is amazing," Loht adds. "For this last time around I am just trying to enjoy it and make some memories."
Each of Loht's NCAA appearances have come at either Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, or at Eugene, Ore., coined "TrackTown USA" because it's considered the mecca of the running world. Hayward Field has hosted four U.S. Olympic trials, 10 NCAA championships and eight USA championships - the most of any venue in recent history.
After a decorated career at Indian Valley, Loht has turned in one stellar performance after another at Penn State. At this spring's Big Ten championships, Loht scored her fourth-straight podium appearance with a third-place finish. She previously took runner-up honors as a junior, won the competition as a sophomore and captured the bronze as a freshman.
In 2013, Loht finished no lower than second in every regular season competition and came away with her first collegiate Penn Relays title and second overall. She also threw a personal-best 177-8 en route to a fifth-place finish at the USA Track and Field Senior Championships, which included throwers from the professional and Olympic ranks. Her personal best throw was the eighth best among Americans in 2013.
In 2012, Loht qualified for the US Olympic Trails, where she placed 16th overall with a throw of 160-7. Earlier that year, she also topped the Big Ten field in a dramatic fashion, winning the javelin title on her final attempt.
Alford-Sullivan has not only had the privilege of coaching Loht over the past four years, but the Penn State coach has also watched her blossom. The Nittany Lions are the reigning two-time Big Ten outdoor champions.
"Laura has become a true blue Penn Stater," Alford-Sullivan says. "She has led our teams throughout her four years here and she is just a natural leader with a heart of a Lion. Her athletic accomplishments have been truly exceptional, but her impact if felt each day where she brings the attitude of a champion to all that she does."
That wasn't the case when Loht first went out for the sport as a high school freshman.
A stubborn Loht was determined to compete in the high jump and hurdles, while her high school coaches felt she was better suited for the javelin. They dragged Loht down to the javelin runway.
"I remember them saying that 'You are not leaving ... you are staying right here and this is the event you're doing,'" Loht recalled.
"I wasn't kicking and screaming, but it took a little bit to convince me to try it," she adds. "I told my coaches I didn't want to throw that stupid stick."
Loht admits it took a couple of months of throwing the javelin before she fell in love with the event. Scott Gantz, who headed the Indian Valley program before taking the reins at Mifflin County High School, and assistant coach Rob McKnight worked with Loht on the fundamentals and got her career on track.
"They told me I could be average a lot of things or really good at one," she adds. "So I chose to be really good at one. It was one of those things where I didn't realize where my talents were at the time."
Loht has certainly excelled at her sport over the past eight years.
Gantz watched Loht blossom athletically at an even earlier age. She was a student at East Derry Elementary when he taught there. Loht dominated the competition at any game, even kickball.
"She was probably one of the most gifted athletes we had - boys or girls," he says. "She's just blessed with natural ability."
That talent was the reason why Gantz switched Loht to the javelin.
"She had aspirations of doing other events, but we knew after a week or two that it was going to work out in the other events," he says. "Knowing the type of athlete she was, we thought she could be successful (in the javelin). It was kind of one of those things where we saw a place where she could help the team."
He considers her one of the top athletes he has ever coached. Gantz has a picture of Loht on his desk that reads, "Thanks for making me throw the stick."
Loht's success has come with sacrifices as she has devoted hours to workouts in the weight room to strengthen her body and become disciplined with her academics due to the rigors of travel in college athletics.
"It's definitely a lifestyle, but being in the position I am today I have no regrets," says Loht, who recently graduated from Penn State with a degree in kinesiology. "I've been so many places and accomplished so many things because of this sport."
Like most athletes, Loht credits her support system - family, friends, teammates and coaches - for her success.
"They've been amazing," Loht says of parents Randy and Joann Loht of McClure. "Whenever I'm having a bad day, I just call home. They've believed in my dreams even when I haven't."
"I just had a dream, set a goal and went after it; the rest kind of just fell into place," says Loht, who plans to continue training at Penn State for the next two years preparing for yet another trip West.
With the U.S. Olympic Trials scheduled for Eugene in 2016, there's no telling where Loht and her javelin will land next.