At the Carnegie Mellon University Invitational on March 25, Kendra Noneman(opens in new window), a Ph.D. student in the Program in Neural Computation(opens in new window), approached the throwing circle with her dance partner, "Stanley," an 8.82-pound metal ball attached to a steel wire. She named it after Stanley Kirk Burrell, better known as the rapper, MC Hammer.
Effortlessly, she launched Stanley a whopping 60.15 meters, setting a Carnegie Mellon record, propelling her to the top spot in Division III(opens in new window) and securing her place in the upcoming NCAA Division III Outdoor Championships on May 26-28 in Geneva, Ohio. Not too shabby, given that she and Stanley hadn't practiced in almost two years after transferring to CMU from Boise State University.
"After my final competition at Boise State in February 2020, I had major shoulder surgery. I thought my collegiate career was finished, and I was okay with that," Noneman said. "I was very excited about coming to Carnegie Mellon in the fall of 2020 to further my education. I reached out to Coach [Gary] Aldrich only to introduce myself and to see if he needed any volunteers or help. I had no intention of competing again."
The initial conversation between Noneman and Aldrich, the head coach for the Tartan track and field(opens in new window) team, did not include any of her accomplishments from Boise State; however, Aldrich quickly uncovered her impressive throwing resume. He was taken back by her credentials, which included multiple first-place finishes. Of particular interest was a throw of 60.14 meters at Border Clash 2019.
"I was very excited to see someone of her ability at CMU," Aldrich said. "My initial thought was to see if we could just get her to be around and train with the team if she wanted to. Then, we found out she still had eligibility to compete, which was an incredible day. She's meant so much to the team. She's been an incredible role model to our younger throwers. And she continues to get better."
Fast forward to March 2022 at the Washington and Lee Carnival, Noneman's first competition in two years. She set a then-school record with a throw of 55.42 meters. Not a week later she topped that mark with the school record, 60.15-meter throw, at the CMU Invitational. In late April at the University Athletic Association Conference Championships at Washington University in St. Louis, she set the conference championship and facility record with a throw of 58.51 meters. How can this be possible after such a long layoff?
"Physiologically it doesn't make a lot of sense but what makes the hammer unique is getting better at it is less about working harder," Noneman said. "I'm not as strong as I used to be, but you don't ever really lose that muscle memory. Your brain doesn't forget how to do it. Although I wasn't throwing, I was still imagining myself throwing and going through the progressions."
Besides muscle memory, Noneman's areas of interest include big data, machine learning and STEM education but her forte is studying how the brain coordinates eye movements. Human eyes make more than 100,000 daily movements with six small muscles, making eye movements the simplest mechanical model for understanding muscle control.
"It's the coolest motor system," she said. The irony is that, unlike most athletes, Noneman doesn't rely on her eyes while throwing.
"It's all about feeling, the connection," she said. "It's also very rhythmic. I can hear my feet tap. I can feel the tension. I can hear the ball as I turn. You know you had a good throw when you hear it woosh upon release."
Next up is nationals, which will be Noneman's collegiate finale. Really, it's one final dance with Stanley.
"Don't try too hard. Don't breathe too hard. Let the hammer do the work."