By JOHN GORALSKI
Officials called out in vain over the loudspeakers to clear the track at the 2012 indoor track state open. Athletes paced the starting line, waiting for the delay to end. Officials scurried to the corner of the New Haven Athletic Center to try to push back the crowds.
Their pleas fell on deaf ears. Nobody was going to move. The audience spilled across the track as fans tried to catch a glimpse of Cherraine Davis stepping into the circle. The shot put exploded from her grip like a mortar round, and the crowd gasped.
At the state championship meet, the runners would just have to wait their turn. Davis was the main event.
“She was a phenom,” said Southington High School principal Brian Stranieri. “That’s the best way to define Cherraine Davis. She was just amazing.”
When it comes to track and field, shot put and discus are like the ugly stepsisters, relegated to the darkest corners of the gym or in throwing pits far from the main stage. But in 2011 and 2012, Davis emerged as the sport’s brightest star, shining her light on the throwing events as she shattered records and expectations.
Why shot put? Why not?
Davis was always an athlete, garnering attention as a top rebounder in Southington’s youth basketball leagues and AAU teams. At DePaolo Middle School, Davis’s basketball team rallied for an undefeated season. Her CT Spirit team rallied for a state title.
As competitive as she was on the hard court, she matched that intensity in every aspect of her life. Whether it was in the classroom, where she consistently captured high honors, or in the band, where she consistently earned first chair as a master of four wind instruments. And, of course, on the athletic field.
“She needs to be the best at everything she does,” her mother said. “She was a very high achiever and a role model in the community.”
So it was no surprise that Miss Porter’s School in Farmington threw open their doors for the Southington student-athlete, and it was no surprise that every Porter’s coach tried to woo the Southington superstar. Davis played basketball, volleyball, and track and field at the school. Even the rowing coach tried to recruit her. But from the first time that Davis picked up the shot put, she was hooked.
“She was passionate about the shot put,” said her mother, Carine. “I think it was her love, plus her natural ability, plus she is a fast learner.”
It didn’t take long before the up-and-comer snatched the spotlight at Miss Porter’s. Davis had no formal training. She just had a superhuman combination of strength, flexibility, and speed that seemed to come together in the shot put circle. As a freshman, she was crowned rookie of the year. As a sophomore, she won the New England Prep School championship in shot put. As a junior, she was team captain.
The self-taught thrower would study YouTube videos to master technique, and she would drag her parents to the Southington High School track where they would sweep away the snow in the winter just to get in some practice. At the Southington YMCA, Davis would practice with a special indoor softball to hone her technique.
“She initiated everything. She was like that,” said her father, Carlton. “Naturally, she was a strong girl, and she concentrated on technique.”
Soon, her parents were shuttling Davis across the border for weekly or bi-weekly practices at the U.S. Athletic Trust Elite Track Club in New York. It was there that Davis was finally introduced to world class coaches and world class competition. It was in the New York club that people first started dropping the “O” word—the Olympics.
“It was exciting,” said her mother. “We knew that she put in the work. We knew her capabilities, and we knew that she was training with the best. She was very humble though. She would never brag. She’d set her goals really high, but she never liked to talk about herself. She always reminded us that she was a student-athlete. She was always into her academics first.”
Her club career was taking off when Davis returned to her hometown and enrolled at Southington High School where they had both indoor and outdoor track teams. The winter season had already concluded, but former SHS athletic director Eric Swallow enrolled Davis in a last-minute meet in Glastonbury to give her one shot to qualify for the CIAC postseason.
It was shock….and awe.
In a sport measure in fractions of inches, Davis won the competition by multiple yards. She looked like a giant competing against preschoolers.
“I looked around, and a lot of people were astonished. I think they were surprised,” her father said with a laugh. “I kept quiet. A lot of people would want to shout out, ‘I’m her father,’ but I just wanted to keep quiet and watch their reactions.”
The Glastonbury meet kicked off a tsunami that swept across the state competition. Nobody had seen anything like this before. For many in the state, it was the first time they saw Davis compete, but she won the Class LL meet by almost 8 feet over her nearest competitor and won the state open by almost 6 feet before being edged by a senior at the New England meet during her worst postseason performance in her high school career.
Of course, on a bad day, Davis still cleared 40 feet, 11.25 inches.
“She was a dominant force,” said former Blue Knight track coach Scott Ottochian. “Her work ethic was second to none. She was always was working to improve her technique, paying attention to the littlest details. She displayed great confidence and looked forward to the challenge of each and every competition. This is where she performed at her best.”
Davis shattered local records by so much that it didn’t even make the news. Her record for indoor track (44’2”) broke the previous SHS record by 13 feet, 7 inches. Her outdoor record (45’11”) broke a record that stood for almost three decades by more than 11 feet.
Davis won back-to-back titles at both the Class LL meet and state open by wide margins, and she swept the New England indoor and outdoor titles as a senior. Nobody came close.
“She was one of the best female athletes to ever come out of Southington High School during my 36 years here. And, she was one of the best students,” said Stranieri. “She was so humble about it. She did not want to be singled out. What she did helped the team accomplish. It was never about Cherraine Davis. She was always worried about how her scores would help the overall team score.”
In fact, Davis won two conference titles and a pair of state open titles in discus, a sport that seemed almost an afterthought to her. With hardly any training and very little practice, Davis set a school record in discus (114’5”) that was finally broken this year by a seasoned, well-trained athlete.
“That shows you the type of athlete she was,” said Stranieri. “I’ll guarantee you that she could have probably picked up the javelin and set some records. She was just a great athlete, but it didn’t happen by accident. She was a dedicated trainer. She spent a lot of time in the weight room. She did a lot of flexibility stuff. She worked hard to make herself better, but that’s what great athletes do.”
Being a dominant high school athlete was far from her ultimate goal, so while Davis was tearing up the high school competition, she was also testing her mettle against future Olympians. In 2010, she turned heads as a newcomer in the Junior Olympic circuit when she medaled at the national competition in California. After her junior year, she traveled to Stockholm, Sweden to represent the U.S.A. at a world championship meet.
Her coach, former Olympian decathlete Frank T. Harrison tells a funny story about how they got lost on the way to the world class event. Everyone, including Harrison, was stressed out, but Davis—a rookie—took it in stride. When they finally arrived, Davis earned the bronze medal.
“She laughed all the way through the experience, completely unfazed by our predicament,” Harrison wrote in a letter to Cherraine’s parents. “She had faith that all would turn out right, and she remained positive and carefree despite the fact we were lost in a foreign city; struggling to communicate and running behind on what was, at least at the time, the biggest competition of her life.”
As a senior, Cherraine raised the bar even higher with one of her most memorable highlights at the outdoor state open. In her final throw, Davis’ shot put divot was farther than all but two of the scuffs in the gravel. The good news? The longer divots came from her first and second throw of the day.
Davis set her personal best at the meet, clearing 45 feet, 11 inches to win her second state open title by more than 9.5 feet. She went on to win the New England title without breaking a sweat.
“She didn’t have any competition. Her competition was nationwide or worldwide,” said Stranieri. “There was none in the league. There might have been somebody in range at the states, but it wasn’t until she got to New Englands that there was anybody that could even come close. She was in a league of her own.”
So it came as a crushing blow when news of Davis’ death trickled in just a year after graduation. She was an honors nursing student at Central Connecticut State University with intentions of going to law school to become an advocate. Her path to Olympic glory was laid out in front of her when the tragedy struck.
“I got that news midday, and I’ll always remember it,” said Stranieri. “I was left speechless, and I still can’t believe it…We lost an incredible person beyond her athletic abilities. I’m heartbroken. I loved that girl. It just isn’t fair.”
It’s certainly no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee thought that the time was right to induct Davis as a member of the Class of 2017. On Wednesday, Nov. 8, she will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville.
“Cherraine was an extraordinary young athlete and a wonderful, wonderful person,” said her U.S. Athletic Trust Elite Track Club coach. “Her life should be celebrated. I’m delighted that she’s being inducted into the Southington Sports Hall of Fame.”
To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335 or Val DePaolo at (860) 620-9460, ext. 104.
“We truly wish she was here because she would have loved this. She earned it because she put in the work,” said her mother. “She would have loved this because she really loves the town of Southington. She always said that she was definitely going to put Southington on the map.”
And she did.
To comment on this story or to contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.