A Hawkeye to remember: Laulauga Tausaga nearing end of record-breaking career with Iowa track and field
The five-time Big Ten Champion is seeking to close out her Iowa tenure by doing what the pandemic made impossible last year: Repeat as NCAA discus champion.
May 11, 2021
As soon as Iowa thrower Laulauga Tausaga found her balance after spinning through her discus routine on a humid Austin, Texas, day in June, 2019, she let out a scream. As the disc flew through the air at the University of Texas track, Tausaga yelled as if the passion and furiosity in her voice would push the projectile a little farther.
Tausaga couldn’t make out the number flashing on the scoreboard off in the distance, which indicated what her mark was. But as the disc hit the grass 63.26 meters away from the throwing ring, Hawkeye throwing coach Eric Werskey let out a yell of his own.
The excitement she heard from her coach confirmed what Tausaga had been thinking the moment the disc left her hand: She was about to be crowned a national champion.
As a junior, Tausaga won gold in the discus at the 2019 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. Donning her gold “IOWA” shirt, Tausaga’s second throw of the competition stood atop the leaderboard throughout the remainder of the final round. By making it to the top of the podium, Tausaga became the Iowa women’s track and field program’s first outdoor national champion since 1985.
Now in her fifth year with the Hawkeyes, Tausaga, who will celebrate her 23rd birthday on May 22, owns eight All-American honors and five Big Ten individual titles on top of her NCAA gold medal.
To break a personal record, Tausaga also needs to set a school record. She already owns the program’s top all-time marks in the weight throw, discus, and indoor and outdoor shot put. A banner, which captures the moment Tausaga became an NCAA champion, already hangs in the same indoor facility she still practices in.
For the finale to her Hawkeye career, Tausaga is back in 2021 to do what the pandemic made impossible in 2020: Defend her discus title. Tausaga may already be the most accomplished athlete in her program’s history. Her resume rivals that of any other Hawkeye athlete — past or present.
One day, she might represent the University of Iowa on an Olympic podium.
So why is Tausaga afraid that, when her time wearing the black and gold passes, she’s going to be forgotten?
“Will I become this unsung hero?” Tausaga said, speaking with the same passion in her voice, although now in a softer tone, as when she was admiring her title-winning throw. “Will I become this person who is going to be completely forgotten about? I’ve made a mark on Iowa, but it is invisible. And that’s what is frustrating. Because when I leave here, I’m going to take so much with me about how much I love Iowa. And I’m going to remember that.
“But will Iowa remember me?”
A first attempt at a senior season
Tausaga completed her pre-meet lifting routine on March 12 of last year, and her throwing uniform rested on her hotel bed in Albuquerque, New Mexico, ready to be worn the next day at the 2020 NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships.
Before locking into the challenges the event would present, Tausaga and Werskey scanned the area for a sandwich shop. Traveling to a local eatery while on location at an away meet has become a tradition for Werskey, Tausaga’s coach since 2017, and his throwing group.
“I like to get out and experience the flavors of the town we are in if time permits it,” Werskey said. “So typically sandwich shops and coffee shops tend to be the go-to move. There’s been a few where [Tausaga] is like, ‘Coach I don’t know where you’re taking me, but I trust your palate.’”
Ahead of the final indoor NCAA meet of her Hawkeye career, Tausaga was in contention to win titles in the shot put and the weight throw.
A week earlier, the right-handed thrower was named the Midwest Regional Female Field Athlete of the Year by the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association for the second year in a row, becoming the first athlete in program history to earn that honor in back-to-back years.
Around the same time, three Hawkeyes — wrestler Spencer Lee, men’s basketball player Luka Garza, and women’s basketball player Kathleen Doyle — earned Big Ten Athlete of the Year honors in their sports. But while fans publicly praised those athletes for their accomplishments, Tausaga’s teammates were forced to come to her defense, commenting on Twitter posts where Tausaga wasn’t mentioned alongside her peers.
— Laulauga Tausaga (@LaulaugaTausaga) March 10, 2020
But Tausaga wasn’t going to let the lack of recognition get the best of her. It was nothing new to her, or many track and field athletes overshadowed by more “mainstream” U.S. sports. The focus instead was on the competition ahead.
Until both Tausaga and Werskey received a notification.
Werskey turned his phone to Tausaga at the sandwich shop table and said “I’m really sorry.” Tausaga saw a message from Iowa director of track and field Joey Woody on the screen. An immediate team meeting was called, and the Hawkeyes were heading back to Iowa City that night.
“I was about to just demolish this sandwich,” Tausaga said, “and I remember instead of eating, I was crying.”
The Big Ten had announced that, in response to growing concerns over COVID-19, its teams would not be participating in NCAA championship events. Throughout the rest of the day, all spring sport seasons were canceled.
Werskey drove a heartbroken Tausaga back to the team hotel. Tausaga, feeling near the point of hyperventilating, says she tried not to distract Werskey in the driver’s seat as she processed what had just been lost.
Her last collegiate indoor season was over. A chance to become a back-to-back national champion in the discus was, at the time, crushed when the outdoor season was canceled. Eventually, the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials Tausaga had qualified to compete at in the discus were pushed back a year.
The podiums Tausaga had goals of standing atop now seemed so far away.
At that moment, Tausaga and her fellow seniors didn’t know if their Hawkeye careers had just ended.
“We were shutting down, heading home and everything was done,” Woody said. “I was like, ‘Is this really the end? This is how we’re going to end it with these seniors?’ There were a lot of tears and there was a lot of disappointment. I was scared to hug people, even if I wanted to hug them.”
The pandemic canceling the rest of the 2020 season could have been the end to a stint in Iowa City Tausaga didn’t even want to happen at first.
The beginnings of a record-breaking Hawkeye career
Born in Hawaii and raised in Spring Valley, California, “Lagi” as Tausaga’s friends and teammates call her, may not have been prepared to comprehend what living in Iowa City was going to be like when she committed to the Hawkeyes. But she was excited nonetheless.
“I was like, ‘Mom they have snow,’” Tausaga said. “And she was like, ‘That sounds great now…’ I thought I was going to be fine. I was ready. I thought I was ready.”
Upon arriving for the start of her freshman year in the fall of 2017, Tausaga didn’t know the difference between a sweater or a zip-up. And she sure didn’t have a winter coat.
Ignoring the advice of her Iowan teammates, Tausaga assumed she could get through the winter months with a light jacket.
“I remember showing up and they were like, ‘This is all you have for winter time?’” Tausaga said. “And I said I’d be just fine. It hit like 30 degrees and I was like, ‘This is the worst it is going to get, right? Because I’m freezing.’”
After adjusting to an Iowa winter, Tausaga quickly became attached to a place she once didn’t want to visit at all.
Tausaga began receiving heavy interest from Division I track and field programs during her junior year at Mount Miguel High School. One of her first calls was from the University of Miami, and by the end of the conversation, Tausaga had verbally committed to be a Hurricane despite having never visited the campus.
Even after that commitment, former Iowa throws coach Andrew Dubs, who coached Tausaga to a Big Ten discus title during her freshman year before accepting a job at Virginia Tech, reached out on behalf of the Hawkeyes.
“He called me and said, ‘Hey, I would like you to give Iowa a try,’” Tausaga said. “And I was like, ‘Where? What is this place?”
Tausaga scoffed at the idea of visiting Iowa City. But her mother Aveaomalo Tausaga, who Tausaga said is more like an older best friend than a parental figure at times, pushed her to try new things. Tausaga is often pushed by her mother. But never in a wrong direction.
That’s how Tausaga’s athletic career began in the first place.
“It wasn’t by choice,” Tausaga said, smirking before letting out a quick laugh. “… I was a huge bookworm. And my mother was like ‘You’re super tall, you just stay in the house all day.’ And I was like, ‘But I have my books. Leave me alone.’”
That rebuttal on Tausaga’s part didn’t amount to much.
Tausaga’s mother drove her to the high school, and unbeknownst to Tausaga, she was about to walk into a volleyball practice. Eventually, Tausaga also picked up basketball, but a suggestion from her coaches pushed her to the sport she’d eventually become a champion in.
As a sophomore, the basketball staff suggested Tausaga also compete in track to build up speed, an idea which was initially rejected.
“I was not going there,” Tausaga said. “I don’t want to have breathing problems on that track. I avoided it for a couple weeks and then I decided to try out. [The coaches] said, ‘We can make you a thrower.’ And I had no idea what that was or what was going on with that. In a sense they just reassured me that I didn’t have to race competitively. So I said, ‘Sign me up.’”
Throwing became Tausaga’s niche. It was what she thought about when she was on the volleyball or basketball courts; what made sense when other things didn’t. Tausaga’s new love of track was evident in her results.
Tausaga became a two-time all-state honoree in a competitive California track and field environment. The results on the track brought interested colleges hoping to persuade Tausaga to join their programs.
Pushed into the trip by her mother, Tausaga visited the UI campus the same week she was supposed to make a trip to Miami. Nia Britt, a California native who joined the Hawkeyes as a thrower in 2016, hosted Tausaga on her official visit.
Tausaga spent the tour trying hard to act like she didn’t enjoy the idea of becoming a Hawkeye.
But within a week, Tausaga withdrew her commitment to Miami and decided her future would be set in Iowa City.
“Our biggest pitch is to do something different,” Woody said of recruiting athletes who aren’t from the Midwest. “You’ve been living in this environment your whole life. Also, just being part of a family atmosphere and in a competitive environment. We have a great team environment and we’re a really good team competing to win Big Ten championships. So I think that’s a big draw for a lot of athletes.”
Since saying a temporary goodbye to the West Coast and making the Hawkeye State her college home, Tausaga has enjoyed Iowa City’s slower pace and small-town atmosphere. She gets to watch the trees change and enjoy an environment in four different seasons, a favorable adjustment in Tausaga’s mind compared to living in California.
Tausaga has never regretted making her recruiting trip to Iowa City. Her only regret in that regard is that she didn’t invest in a coat soon enough.
Tausaga finds herself off the track
Eighteen days after the remainder of the 2020 season was abruptly canceled, Tausaga and other track athletes around the country received a piece of positive news.
The NCAA granted all spring sport athletes an additional season of eligibility (Iowa thrower Allison Wahrman started a petition for the cause, which received over 330,000 digital signatures), meaning Tausaga had one final outdoor season left with the Hawkeyes.
But while her Iowa career had been extended, it was still on pause.
Tausaga and her teammates did not have access to team facilities after the season shut down because of the pandemic, leading Tausaga to travel to local high school tracks to train. But eventually, Tausaga went back to her home state.
When she’s competing, Tausaga, described by her coaches as a perfectionist, knows she can’t throw a personal best every time she steps into the ring. But that doesn’t mean she accepts that.
A scowl or look of disappointment could appear on Tausaga’s face after a seemingly good attempt in a practice setting. Tausaga expects more out of herself, Woody said, than anybody else — and that’s saying something.
“Sometimes she will have a little fit, jumping and letting out a shout, but [Werskey] will be like, ‘OK, that looked like a good one to me,’” said Britt, one of Tausaga’s best friends on the team, who is also back for her final season with the Hawkeyes in 2021.
That competitiveness is an attribute to why Tausaga is among the elite athletes in collegiate sports, her coaches said. But with the Trials postponed and her return date to the track unclear, Tausaga had to adjust her mindset.
“I had to take a step back and find who I was without track to make sure I could come back ready for track,” Tausaga said. “It was eating at me a little too much. I kinda had to step away mentally, get myself back together while doing some of the physical things but trying to get out of that mindset of ‘We gotta go, we gotta go.’ It’s OK to just sit still for a minute.”
The communications major was back at her family’s San Diego home for about a month, which Tausaga believes is a first since she’s been in college.
While there, Tausaga rediscovered her love of cooking.
“I’m very picky in the kitchen,” Tausaga said. “I love to cook. If someone cuts onions the wrong way, I’m like ‘You need to leave the kitchen now.’ I will make everything, I don’t care if I have to cook for like a million people, I would rather do it. I don’t want anyone else to touch the food.”
Despite rejecting any extra pairs of hands when she’s in the kitchen, Tausaga would gladly offer assistance to someone else.
Tausaga describes herself as an introvert, but a helper. She doesn’t think she gives helpful advice, but could listen to someone’s problems all day. When one of her teammates needs help moving a couch they never should have bought out of their apartment, Tausaga will help move it — perhaps while rolling her eyes.
After she graduates this spring, Tausaga will pursue a professional athletic career, while also exploring graduate programs. If those career paths don’t work, Tausaga’s teammates and coaches seem to think stand-up comedy would be a realistic career path.
“She’s one of the most likeable and probably one of the funniest people I’ve been around,” Woody said. “She’s always cracking jokes.”
“That’s just her,” Britt added. “It’s not like a ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ She’s just naturally funny. She has everyone laughing. Literally she could just be talking and we’re laughing. It’s that natural for her.”
Tausaga sank her head into the palms of her hands after hearing those comments.
But she didn’t necessarily disagree.
“I don’t know what flies out of my mouth sometimes,” Tausaga said. “But somehow, someway it makes people giggle and I’m just standing there like, ‘What are you doing?’ When people are super enjoyable to be around, you want to see them smile. I guess I’m doing that for them.”
Assuming a last-second turn to a career in comedy doesn’t materialize, Tausaga pictures herself as a school counselor or social worker in the future.
And there’s a reason for that.
While Tausaga was succeeding on the track in high school, she said she was struggling to care in the classroom. She hated that feeling. And needed help to escape it.
Maria Garcia is the department chair of the counseling department at Mount Miguel High School, a place she’s been for the past 16 years.
Becoming a counselor was a calling to Garcia. She had been influenced by the educators who had changed the trajectory of her life, ensuring that she went to and graduated college. Garcia noticed Tausaga immediately during her first year of high school.
“She has a very vivacious personality and I saw that from the get-go in meeting her when she was a freshman,” Garcia said. “She’s someone who stood out to me as someone who had this infectious personality. In a room, she stands out. You see out in her competitive sport and she’s a beast. She’s focused, driven. But there’s this whole other side of her. She’s got a big heart. She’s a teddy bear and super comedic. She always had me laughing. You want to be around her.”
Tausaga remembers walking into Garcia’s office one day to find out a college was interested in her. Programs were seeing what Tausaga was doing in the ring. But Garcia stressed that academics were going to be just as crucial as Tausaga’s athletic performance.
“It took an adult, and I’m just one of them, who built a good relationship with her to really see her and let her know that I believe in you more than you see for yourself,” Garcia said.
By the end of Tausaga’s junior year, things started to click. Garcia helped Tausaga prepare for her ACT and arranged for her to retake classes she hadn’t performed well in during previous years. Garcia held Tausaga accountable.
Tausaga is thankful for Garcia’s impact on her life. She still visits her former counselor on her trips back to California. To hear that Tausaga is interested in becoming a school counselor and to know she’s a reason why, is why Garcia is in her line of work.
Part of why Tausaga works the way she does is because she’s still trying to make good on the opportunities people like Garcia made available to her. Earning her degree this May will accomplish one goal.
Another will have to wait until June.
A final season to remember
After spending nearly six months away from team facilities, Tausaga and her teammates were together again in Iowa City beginning last August. But without any indoor eligibility remaining, Tausaga was, at times, left behind in the fall. She didn’t travel to away meets, but did place first in the shot put at the Hawkeye B1G Invite while competing unattached.
Tausaga has only competed in four meets so far this outdoor season, but her 60.81-meter mark in the discus ranks first nationally, and her 17.94-meter shot put throw at the North Florida B1G Invitational is tied for fifth.
Twenty-four months will have passed since Tausaga won gold in the discus by the time the 2021 NCAA Outdoor Championships are held.
Tausaga returned for this outdoor season to shatter the records she’s already set. She returned to do what she couldn’t last year — win gold at the conference meet being held May 14-16, and then repeat as champion at NCAAs, which begin June 9.
After the pursuit of another national title in the discus ends, Tausaga will shift her focus to competing in Eugene, Oregon, at the Trials, which run June 18-27. She already exceeds the standard (58 meters) to qualify for that event and hopes to make it for the shot put as well.
When her Hawkeye career is over, Tausaga will still live and train in Iowa City while pursuing a professional throwing career. Tausaga already knows she will probably need to pick up a job separate from track to support herself while pursuing a career in a sport where sponsorships can be difficult to find.
Tausaga wants to be remembered. For an athlete as accomplished as she is, that doesn’t seem like a difficult request. But at the same time, Tausaga — competitive as always — remains focused on outdoing what she’s already done on the track, even if the recognition isn’t there.
Tausaga is an underappreciated athlete in an overlooked sport. She doesn’t face the flurry of fans Garza or Lee do when they compete in front of the Hawkeye faithful.
Most Hawkeye fans don’t travel to the Recreation Building or Cretzmeyer Track to watch Tausaga throw on weekends. Track meets are not something the university builds entire weekends around like football games in Kinnick Stadium or wrestling duals at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Tausaga knows that’s not going to change. But she also grows tired of being tagged on Twitter in order to be thrown into a discussion she belongs in already. To Tausaga, there’s a time to be humble, yet also a time to know your worth.
“Are [fans] going to remember me the same way they are going to remember these other athletes like Megan Gustafson or Spencer Lee?” Tausaga said. “They probably won’t. And that’s probably going to be the thing that hurts me. But I have to understand that my coaches know, my teammates know, and I know who I am.”
So, beyond one of the premier Hawkeye athletes in recent memory, who is “Lagi” Tausaga?
“She’s a rock star not only athletically but as a person too,” Werskey said. “Huge heart, goes out of her way for people. Anyone she discusses things with or interacts with, they walk away with, ‘You know what, that’s a very special person.’”
And, knowing Tausaga, they’ll probably walk away with a grin, too.
She was bound to have said something funny.