Leading up to the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships last week, Stanford throws coach Zeb Sion kept repeating one message to sophomore Jenna Gray:
“You need to come in and think you have no ceiling.”
Gray took those words to heart. Competing in the women’s javelin final last Thursday, Gray launched a throw of 57.29 meters, smashing her previous personal best by 2.76 meters to claim second place behind teammate McKenzie Little.
Gray, a St. James graduate, can add the silver medal to her quickly growing trophy chest. Because not only is she an outstanding javelin thrower, but she is also a setter on Stanford’s incredibly competitive volleyball team.
On Stanford’s route to a volleyball national title in 2016, Gray was named to the Final Four All-Tournament Team. A year later, she was named to the AVCA All-America first team as Stanford reached the Final Four again.
Her success in multiple sports is beginning to put her in the conversation of historically great female athletes from the region, such as former WNBA players Kendra Wacker and Jackie Stiles.
Gray takes the success and the challenges laid in front of her in stride. Having grown up with volleyball since age 8 and competed on St. James’ championship team in 2013, a positive collegiate volleyball experience always seemed a foregone conclusion. But javelin, well, that was just something she stumbled upon during her junior year of high school.
“I was just kind of bored and I wanted to do something. Just something for fun also, just a nice break from volleyball,” Gray said. “So one of my friends threw javelin, and she was like, 'Dude, you should totally do it, it's really flexible. With an individual sport, you can really pick and choose what you do, because you don't have your team relying on you."
Gray won state titles in both her junior and senior year with St. James, throwing the javelin with natural ease. Her ability to excel in multiple sports is something Gray finds extremely important in building confidence. She thinks it's something more female athletes should try to do.
Committing to Stanford for volleyball, she never expected to keep throwing the javelin, but within her first year at Stanford she was earmarked as someone who could double down.
“I tease (Gray) and it's kind of a running joke that on the runway she kind of looks like a baby deer just learning how to walk and learning how to move,” Sion said. “But she just has a cannon. Her arm is live and it's impressive.”
And while there may be some friendly jokes shared between Sion and the rest of his athletes, his attitude toward them is a large part of why Stanford claimed the top two spots in the javelin at the recent national meet.
“He's made it so easy to go in and be excited and have fun, which I really appreciate, and he genuinely cares so much about his athletes,” Gray said. “I get to spend a very limited amount of time with him, but I feel like I have such a closer relationship with him, and I think that's a huge part of why he's so successful.”
Sion said he enjoys working with each athlete individually to truly unlock their potential.
“For me, it's like creating genuine relationships,” Sion said. “It's developing interpersonal relationships that matter. Just a side story: We had a lot of success this last week obviously as a group, and tons of my former athletes from former schools have been reaching out with very nice texts and stuff."
Gray attributes her successes to the confidence instilled by her coach and others around her. She often returns to St. James to both work out and attend volleyball camps. She takes the opportunity to talk to younger athletes and inspire them to go out and believe in themselves.
“I just hope that I can help them find their confidence. And I always say this, but I think especially female athletes, we tend to really underestimate our abilities and what we can do,” Gray said. “So I really hope that hopefully them seeing my story and all of this will inspire them to go out and especially try multiple sports.