Shot-put ring encircles family’s college dreams

On a night not long ago, Tanya Tapp pulled her daughter’s shot-put medals from a shoebox — pink, of course — and laid them out on a school cafeteria table like she were a Tiffany jeweler.

She had labeled each lanyard with a Sharpie — New Orleans 2011, Virginia 2010 …

“Second in the country,” the proud mom said, beaming brighter than the brightest of Lashunda’s medals.

Lashunda Tapp is probably a first for Kansas City: A nationally ranked shot-putter who likes to play with dolls.

Lashunda is 9, a fourth-grader at Dobbs Elementary School in south Kansas City. She can heave a 4-pound ball more than 23 feet, and that put her second in the country for her age heading to the nationals.

Her mom was a bit dismayed Wednesday to learn that the National Elite Youth Ranking System now has Lashunda ranked 37th nationally — but only because the website lumped 9- and 10-year-olds together.

“She hasn’t got to throw against them,” Tanya Tapp protested.

This mom says bring it on. Among 9-year-olds, only three in the country, according to the rankings, can chuck that thing as far as her little girl. Last summer, Lashunda placed third nationally; fourth the summer before. The goal for the 2012 Junior Olympics in Houston is gold.

Tapp sees more than gold and silver in her daughter’s shoebox. She sees college. The youngest of nine growing up on Kansas City’s east side, she didn’t get to go. She is determined that Lashunda will. And if throwing that heavy ball will help make that happen, well, that makes Tanya Tapp about the biggest shot-put fan in town.

“She talks about college all the time,” Lashunda said during a break on the recent night at Central High School. She stands tall, speaks softly, smiles big. “It’s like her dream. She wants me to get to do something she couldn’t.”

Tapp, who with her husband, Lester, goes to every practice, said: “I hope it’s her dream, too, because that’s the only way this works.”

She knows it’s early. Young bodies change. Desires, too. Lashunda still gets recess at school. She loves Twix bars and watches “iCarly.” But Tanya Tapp knows the family will need college help. A disability forced early retirement from her postal job. Lester Tapp drives for an auto paint company. The couple has four other children.

Traveling to track meets all over the country eats up a lot of the family’s extra cash.

So what is the chance of landing some shot-put help for college?

Her AAU coach, James Washington, rubbed his chin contemplating that one. He says she has good size, good technique and positive attitude.

This guy knows track and field. Since 1976, he’s been coaching athletes, including his two daughters, both of whom were state shot-put champs. In fact, he’s put an athlete on the podium at several state finals.

“She could be in that category,” Washington said of Lashunda.

In the off-season, the two work once a week at Central High School. During the season, they go twice a week. She never misses. On top of that, she sprints, long jumps and plays T-ball and soccer. She’s also a good student at Dobbs in the Hickman Mills School District.

Lashunda is still too young for weights, Washington said. They compensate with pushups, dips and lunges. Mainly, they work on technique. Lashunda recently moved up to the 6-pound shot.

“Most important thing in shot put is arm speed,” Washington said as he watched Lashunda practice in the gym at Central.

She carefully toed the back line of the ring, left foot off the floor, then hopped on her right to the front to let loose a throw. The shot flew way to the side, missed the mat and landed near another athlete.

Lashunda froze and put her hand over her mouth.

“Head up,” Washington told her.

She threw again. This time perfect, the shot nearly reaching the wall, about 24 feet away.

Lashunda looked at Washington, who nodded.

“I want to try the spin,” she told him.

He shook his head.

“You just learned the glide,” he said. “That’s what we’re working on. Stick with that.”

After his young athlete went back to the ring, Washington said: “Sometimes, this girl wants to rush things. The spin is a more advanced technique. She sees these older boys do it, so that’s what she wants to do.”

Then he watched her throw again. Perfect. Again, nearly hitting the wall.

“But she could do it,” he said with a smile.