It was all set up to be a big year for Douglas javelin thrower Mackenzii Phillips.
Coming off state championships as a freshman and sophomore, and a Junior Olympic national title in the summer of 2019, Phillips was ready to break 150 feet, go after another national title and compete at a meet in Australia in July.
Then 2020 happened. Her bid to become a four-time state champion was thwarted. Goals for her junior season were put on hold. And the money she raised for the Australia trip was lost.
The ensuing colossal letdown sent her into a tailspin.
“I'm a very happy person, and I became depressed and anxious,” said Phillips, who also plays volleyball and basketball. “I started to even not eat that well because I wasn't thinking that I needed to without sports that day. I definitely went into an extreme slump where I noticed the bad things that were happening to me, but I couldn't do anything to get out of it.”
Phillips said the funk didn't begin to lift until her school opened to a modified schedule in the fall. Still, due to construction at the campus, she hasn't been able to access her usual training facilities.
“The only place that's open in our small town is our local park, and because everyone is always wanting to stay active, it's hard to get an open area where you can really work out,” she said.
The 5-foot-9 Phillips did her best to train during the spring and even participated in an online competition through Athletic.net in late May. She said she threw 145-0, beating her previous best of 139-8, but the mark was rejected because video of the throw failed to meet specifications. She came back the next day and hit 138-9.
“I gave my all that one day, but my 145 did not count whatsoever,” she said.
The experience soured her on virtual competition.
“It just didn't work out,” Phillips said. “You could tell there was a lot of cheating involved, even though they tried their hardest to steer clear from all of it. I didn't feel like I was actually doing what I loved, and it started to ruin the sport for me. So I began to just basically work out by myself and stopped doing the online track meets.”
For someone who thrives on competition, the layoff has been beyond frustrating.
“I like to joke, if she was throwing 145 and some girl went out and threw 150, she would be throwing 151,” Douglas coach Barrett Smith said. “She is a competitor. She's a pretty phenomenal athlete, and just competitive as all get-out.”
Through it all, though, there has been a silver lining for Phillips. She has maintained contact with Princeton University in New Jersey and is hopeful for a future of throwing the javelin at the Ivy League school. She said she talks with Princeton coach Michelle Eisenreich on a monthly basis.
“They contacted me my junior year, but they noticed me from my sophomore year,” said Phillips, a 4.0 student. “That's one of the luckiest things that's ever happened to me. I feel so bad for all the other kids that haven't been able to use their junior and senior year to catch a college's eye. This pandemic has really ruined a lot of opportunities.
“For me, to even catch a community college's eye would be amazing, but the fact that I caught Princeton – one of the colleges that wants me really bad – is even crazier to think about.”
Phillips' primary focus was the hurdles before she started competing in the javelin as an eighth-grader, when she won a middle-school state championship and placed seventh in a national meet.
She won the 4A title as a freshman, throwing 135-6 ¾ at the state meet, and added a 3A title as a sophomore, when she threw 139-8 at an invitational.
“She picked it up really fast,” Smith said. “She does all the work. It's a matter of a kid with a hunger and a drive. She wants to throw that thing.”
Phillips – who also placed fourth at state in the triple jump in 2019 – did not improve as much as hoped in the javelin as a sophomore but believed she was ready to sail past 150 as a junior.
“For sure,” she said. “Without actually staying fully in shape, because of my depressive stage, I went out and threw my absolute hardest and got that PR. That was with me becoming so engulfed in all this darkness and sadness. If that never happened, I'd be way up there.”
Phillips was excited to compete internationally after being invited to a meet on Australia's Gold Coast, but it was canceled due to COVID-19. The money that she took months to raise was not refunded by event organizers.
“I didn't get my plane ticket back or absolutely anything,” she said.
As for getting a chance to compete in her three sports as a senior, Phillips said she is expecting the worst, but hoping for the best. The abbreviated track season, scheduled to begin April 12, is sandwiched between volleyball and basketball.
“My absolute goal this year is to get 150, and if I could, I'm shooting for 160,” she said. “I know I have it in me. If I would even be able to throw 120 this year, I would be so thankful just to be able to pick up a sport that I absolutely adore, and could not live without.”