Originally posted on USAToday.com by Jeffrey Martin
Talk to a few of the four head coaches at the University of Oregon for whom Liz Brenner currently plays or has played, and the same message comes through.
She's a natural.
This is what she is now — a sophomore All-American in volleyball, her strongest sport and the one in which she aspires to be an Olympian, who moonlights on the women's basketball team before switching over to track and field to heave the javelin and the shot put. And last year, she substituted softball for track.
This past weekend in Austin at the NCAA West Preliminary, she recorded a personal best in the javelin. Her throw of 160 feet, 10 inches, which came on her last attempt, was the seventh-best in school history and also ranked seventh at the meet, where the top 12 advanced to next weekend's finals.
It's her first season of competition.
So, to recap, by June 8 Brenner will have participated in the NCAA Volleyball Championship, the softball College World Series and now, the NCAA Track and Field Championships, which will be hosted by the Ducks, all within a 12-month span.
"She exhibits a very rare quality and talent that she can do all of this at such a high level," UO women's basketball Paul Westhead said. "I don't know how many humans can do this. I saw the movies — I guess Jim Thorpe could do this. She just seems to do things so effortlessly."
Brenner's efforts have not gone unnoticed — she was the lone collegian among three finalists for the 2013 Sullivan Award, which honors the nation's top amateur athlete. Brenner was also a finalist for Sports Illustrated's female College Athlete of the Year. She is Oregon's first female three-sport athlete since Peg Rees played volleyball, basketball and softball in the early 1970s.
But ignore all of that, if possible.
Has it always been this way?
The best explanation Doug and Jennifer Brenner can provide is that they were athletes, too, college swimmers who tried to get their three children to catch the bug but ultimately failed. Not that Mary Claire, a senior at Oregon State, Liz and Doug, a senior at Portland's Jesuit High, weren't any good. They were, but it just never took.
"We were being made to do it," Doug said. "It just wasn't us … Elizabeth and I still have records for swimming, but it wasn't for us."
Everything else, though, was.
Her brother recalled a racquetball tournament at which his sister's opponent started crying when the girl watched Brenner crush the ball. Her mother remembered the times during T-ball when Brenner would have to warn kids in the field about what was about to happen.
Brenner, who now stands 6-1, was always bigger than her peers, for whom she wasn't always very sympathetic.
"If someone would mess up, I would explode," Brenner said. "If we lost, I would cry. When I was little, I had to have a lot of meetings with my mom and the coach, yeah, to make sure things were calming down a bit."
Without this, Brenner insists she wouldn't be who she is now.
Her volleyball coach at Oregon, Jim Moore, might dispute that. Brenner is not only his best player, but he says she's his best athlete. There are Ducks players who jump higher and that are quicker, but none possess the innate "understanding of sport," as described by Westhead, like Brenner.
As an example, Moore cites serve reception, in which players use their forearms. It's an area six inches above the wrist, and Brenner might do it as well as anyone in the country. Moore assumes she's so proficient because of her hand-eye coordination. But if so, is hers better because she was born with that or because she does so many sports?
"I think it's both," Moore said. "Our strength and conditioning coach, Jim Radcliffe, says, 'Kids can't do this or that because they don't climb trees anymore.' Well, Liz has climbed trees. Maybe not literally, but she does so many things that it's like she's been climbing trees."
It's a grind, from one sport to the next without much of a break. Some have wondered whether she'd be better off focusing on, say, volleyball only, but Moore, who would stand to be the beneficiary in such logic, doesn't see the point.
She's not spreading herself too thin. It's all she knows.
"As far as her volleyball suffering, it doesn't because when you can say, 'Go get the ball,' she can do that," Moore said. "It registers with her. Where everybody else is saying, 'What are you saying?', with her, it just happens.
"I don't think it's all natural, but a huge part is she's been allowed to do everything so that makes her better."
Added Westhead: "She takes the best of what she's done in one sport and kind of applies it right away to the current one. That's unusual … She lives it. Change the sport and it doesn't seem to hold her back. It just allows her to move forward and do something she didn't the week before. "
Plus, she's really enjoying it.
"I'm not tired of this at all," said Brenner, who explained how five people on a recent day had taken the time to acknowledge her performance in the javelin the prior weekend. "It's cool."
So, sure, she's a natural. But she's normal, too.
She likes funny movies — "Dodgeball" is a favorite. And, despite her reflexive response to the oft-asked question of why she plays so many sports -- she usually says she'd be bored if she didn't — Brenner enjoys her leisure time, whether it's floating down a river, playing Settlers of Catan with friends or, yes, simply sleeping.
At the moment, she's not dating anyone. But she knows what she's looking for, so good luck to whoever might be secure enough to possibly measure up.
"Obviously, a guy doesn't want to be shown up by his girlfriend for being athletic," Brenner said. "It's unfortunate, but sports does play a role … I wouldn't know what to do if they weren't athletic.
"What else is there to talk about?"
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