By Bill Sheehan
When Cal State Fullerton high jumper Iesha Hamm showed up at the Big West Conference Track and Field Championships this month at UC Santa Barbara, she thought her chances of winning were slim.
Hamm was competing in a high jump layout that was configured differently than her regular practice facility. She prefers jumping in warm weather, and it was a cold day on the Goleta campus. And most importantly, she was slowed by a chronic foot problem that had dogged her much of the season.
Still, the sophomore from Bakersfield rose to the challenge. Trailing in the event, she jumped a career-best 5 feet 11.25 inches (1.81 meters) to win the Big West title and break her own school record. She ranks eighth in the West and is tied for 16th in the nation heading into this week's NCAA Outdoor Division 1 West Preliminary Round at Sacramento State.
"Her efforts to block out what's going on around her and jump at a high level came to fruition," said John Elders, Fullerton's track and field head coach. "In the past, she was too focused on the outcome instead of executing her techniques. She put her distractions aside and jumped what she is capable of. She wasn't in the lead and had to hit that mark on her first attempt, which she did."
Hamm grazed the bar on her winning jump. "Every time I barely hit the bar, it always falls," she said. "After landing in the pit, I looked up and saw the bar was still up and said, 'Yes!' Coach [Cortney] Stafford had a big smile on her face and we hugged. And I got hugs from my teammates."
The 5-foot-11 Hamm was equally excited about being on the first Fullerton women's team to win a Big West track championship. "It was really cool. As soon as we got the lead, we stayed in front. Every point counted. I'm going to tell my kids that I was on this team."
Cortney Stafford (left) and Iesha Hamm at the 2019 Titan Team Challenge.
Big West win was 'icing on the cake'
Stafford, Fullerton's jumps and combined events coach, said Hamm showed her competitiveness and fight in becoming the first Titan to win a Big West women's high-jump title. "Iesha was very focused. Hitting 1.81 meters was the goal. The fact that she won was the icing on the cake."
The fourth-year coach temporarily altered the Fullerton practice layout to duplicate the sightlines and angles of Santa Barbara's high-jump area. Hamm said that training strategy helped her, but she still had to cope with the cooler temperatures. "It's really hard for me to jump when it's cold," she said.
The 19-year-old suffers from a chronic foot problem that flared up last summer before she traveled to Brazil for an international meet. The medical condition limited her training and forced her to sit out several indoor and outdoor meets this season. However, Hamm said she is ready for the three-day West prelims, which begin Thursday. Qualifying individuals advance to the NCAA Division 1 Championships in Austin, Texas, on June 5-8.
Fullerton will have four entries from the women's team and 10 from the men's team at the West prelims. "Our preparation has been amazing, and the kids are super-excited to go compete," said Elders.
"I'm very, very excited, but I'm trying to stay calm," said Hamm, who established school high jump records as a freshman and has raised those marks to 1.79m (indoor) and 1.81m (outdoor) this year. "I was in the prelims last year, so I know exactly what I have to do. In the last week, I've had some of the best quality workouts I've ever had. We've been cleaning up my over-the-bar work. I've learned to put my head back more and have a better rotation."
Developing a relationship of trust between the coach and the student-athlete has been a key to Hamm's progress, Stafford said. "Iesha has shown improvement in attacking the bar. If her approach and mechanics continue to improve, she very well may be headed to Texas. The sky's the limit."
Hamm's mother, Linda Kelly, is confident she will give it her best shot in Sacramento. "She has had challenges with her foot for quite a while. Her goal is to clear six feet and beyond, and she's determined to get there this year."
Hamm was born in Inglewood to Nigerian parents. Kelly, then Linda Hamm, was teaching at Spokane Falls Community College when she brought 7-month-old Iesha and another young girl, Tomisha, into her home She later adopted the two before marrying Thomas Kelly in 2003 and relocating to Bakersfield.
Iesha Hamm from Bakersfield is majoring in communications with an emphasis on advertising. She envisions a career in modeling and fashion design.
An aversion to contact sports
In middle school, Hamm began competing for a track club in the high jump and sprints. She also played basketball but gave it up after her sophomore year at Bakersfield's Stockdale High School. "I just couldn't handle contact sports," said Hamm.
She excelled on the track at Stockdale, being named the team MVP as a sophomore and a senior. Hamm was the squad's most versatile athlete, competing in the high jump, long jump,
100-meter high hurdles, the 300-meter intermediate hurdles and the 4x100 and 4x400 relay teams.
When she arrived on scholarship at Fullerton, Hamm was told she'd be a high jumper but also would compete in multiple events during the conference season. She has also competed in the heptathlon and pentathlon.
Onyx Gaston, a long jumper and triple jumper from Carson who just received her business degree, said Hamm is a fun teammate. "Track meets are so long, and there are hours between events. We like to listen to music, talk and support each other," she said.
"She is one of my closest friends on the team. We make dance videos and watch movies together. It's kind of sad that I won't be around on the team any longer," said Gaston, who will visit Thailand this summer before looking for a job in business or government.
Interest in modeling and fashion design
Hamm is majoring in communications with a concentration in advertising. She envisions a career in modeling and fashion design and believes communications skills will be an asset in those fields.
After being scouted while in a store as a sixth-grader, Hamm attended modeling school and learned the ins and outs of the craft before making her first runway appearance a year later. She continued to model through her freshman year of high school, taking part in several shows including Hollywood Showcase, where aspiring models and actors audition before professional scouts.
As a high school sophomore, she decided to focus academics and athletics and delay her modeling until after college. "I loved modeling and I hope to get back into it," said Hamm. "I really want to walk in the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show."
"First and foremost, we want Iesha to pursue her academics and walk away with a degree," her mother said. "She is really introverted and shy, and the modeling helped her confidence."
Hamm dreams of creating lines of affordable clothing and shoes for taller women. "It's very hard to find stylish pants for my height. I don't bother trying to get long jeans anymore," she said. "I have large feet, and the stores only have ugly shoes for sizes 10 and up. The cuter shoes are in smaller sizes."
A resume of community service
Hamm enjoys performing community service. Working with the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, she has spent time with Alzheimer's patients, raised funds for diabetes awareness and made Thanksgiving baskets for low-income families. Last summer, she helped distribute food to the needy at the Agapeland Christian Center in Bakersfield.
"Iesha is very active with our church. She's learned to have confidence in her God-given abilities and have a purpose in her life," said Kelly, who is a teacher at the adjoining Agapeland Christian Academy. Kelly's husband, Thomas, is retired after working as a supervisor at Aera Energy.
Hamm has her sights set another goal. She would like to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, which will be held in June 2020 at the University of Oregon's Hayward Field. She plans to undergo surgery on her right foot after her season ends. She will resume her conditioning and training in January but will redshirt during the indoor season.
"Iesha is an elite talent who is capable of great things," said Elders, who is in his 31st year as Titan head coach. "She has the potential of making the NCAA finals, earning All-American and eventually becoming a national caliber performer."
Hamm said her success has led to loftier expectations. "After getting a taste of competing against elite college high jumpers, I'd like to raise my skills to an even higher level."
SUPPORT THE TITANS!
Fans can purchase tickets for various Cal State Fullerton athletic events by visiting FullertonTitans.com/Tickets. The Athletic Ticket Office can also be contacted by phone at 657-278-2783 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Ticket Office is located at the Titan House off of Gymnasium Drive at the eastern end of the Intramural Fields and is open from 10 am – 4 pm PT, Monday – Friday.
FOLLOW THE TITANS
Fans can keep up with the latest in Titans athletics by following us on Facebook (@FullertonTitans), Twitter (@FullertonTitans), and Instagram (@FullertonTitans) and Snapchat (FullertonTitans). In addition, the track and field and cross country teams have established their own official Twitter page (@FullertonTFXC) and Facebook Page (@FullertonTFXC).