Pelham alum Erin Long competes in javelin national championship for Samford
Published 5:43 pm Wednesday, June 21, 2023
By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor
AUSTIN, Texas – As former Pelham track star Erin Long stood in the middle of DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium at the University of Texas on Thursday, June 8 competing in her first NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, she may not have turned in her best effort, but she had an experience to remember forever.
“It was a super great experience,” Long said. “It was the first time that I’ve ever been, obviously, but all around, super positive. I didn’t throw as well as I’d like to, but I got to see a lot of places and meet a lot of cool people. So hopefully that’ll give me a little bit more experience for the next time I go.”
Long had a strong opening throw of 48.40 meters, but couldn’t top the effort in her following throws. She finished the event in 21st, which earned her an honorable mention All-American award for her performance against the nation’s best athletes from top schools.
Along the way, she had plenty of support from those surrounding her, especially from her longtime throws coach Tom Pukstys.
When reflecting on the moment with him, they found areas to improve so that she can place even higher next year, but what she learned the most from nationals was to just take in the experience.
“Probably just have fun and enjoy the moment while you’re doing it,” Long said. “That is a big piece of advice that Tom gave to me. You know, I might only get one or two shots to compete at the championships, and so soak in all that and enjoy it. Yes, it’s a stressful time. You want to perform well, but really, looking back, you just want to know that you gave it your all and that you had a great time while doing it.”
That view is emblematic of Long’s character. Coach Putskys said that Long has the ability to put all of her performances into perspective, not letting one good or bad throw define her and she always strives for the next step.
“She’s just so darn reasonable and she doesn’t get too emotionally out of sorts,” Pukstys said. “She just keeps plugging away and improves and she believes in herself. But we don’t talk about unreasonable goals. It’s just another step. And she just keeps working harder, and everything you’d ask in an athlete, she just does for you.”
Pelham has gotten to know Erin’s character over the years. She was born and raised in Pelham and found incredible success with the Panthers in high school. Long won a 2016 6A state championship for indoor track, and over her Pelham career, she earned seven state medals and 28 All-State awards.
She was named the 2018 Birmingham Female Athlete of the Year after winning the state javelin championship, pentathlon championship and setting the Shelby County Championships record for longest throw in the same year. Long earned the opportunity to compete collegiately at Samford, which has now won four straight SoCon outdoor championships just a short drive away from her lifelong home.
During her time at Pelham, she met coach Pukstys, who not only helped her grow as an athlete, but as a person.
Pukstys is a former two-time Olympian for Team USA in 1992 and 1996 and assistant coach at the 2012 Olympics. He moved to Birmingham in 2018 and started coaching local athletes, including Long.
After Long began her career at Samford in 2020, Pukstys followed and joined the Bulldogs as an assistant coach in 2021. From there, they were able to deepen their relationship and work even more towards Long’s goals.
In their first season together, Long set a personal record at the 2022 SoCon Championships with a 51.02-meter throw. She shattered her previous best and won the conference championship, but it proved to be a big number to live up to over the next season.
Long kept working and getting close to matching that figure and then, in the NCAA East Regional, she hit 51.10 meters on her first throw. The new personal record punched her ticket to compete for a national championship in Austin, Texas.
Long was ecstatic, and after waiting through all three rounds of throws to see if she would advance, she had one thing on her mind once she did: call coach Pukstys.
Coach Pukstys was at his son’s graduation but followed along with the live results. When she called him on FaceTime after she advanced to share the news with her mentor, she said the feeling was “honestly unreal.”
“We really do have a great connection,” Long said. “He has really helped me with all the experiences that he’s been able to share. He’s obviously a world class athlete and I think that has really given me a lot of outlook on my career.”
It’s a sentiment that coach Pukstys shares. He’s grateful for the journey he has been with Long and for getting to know her over all of these years.
“She is a really pleasant young lady and to get the chance to coach her in college has been much better than I even expected,” Pukstys said. “I mean, she is the ultimate person personally and athletically. She is the easiest and most coachable person and athlete, and then from her character and her attitude, her heart, she’s about as pleasant as you can get.”
Long’s hometown hasn’t forgotten her character and has continued to support her through college. She expressed gratitude for the countless people cheering her on from both Pelham and Birmingham, especially during the run to the national championship.
“At Pelham, it’s just been overwhelming––the amount of support, text messages and calls that I’ve gotten from people showing their support for me and encouragement,” Long said. “So, it really is so fun to go out there and compete when you have so many people that have your back.”
As she moves on to her senior year at Samford, Long will have plenty of support in her corner cheering her on to get to go even further, whether it’s in person from coach Pukstys or in spirit and in the stands from her loving community.