ON THE PLAQUE: The 2003 NCAA champion in the javelin after also winning titles at Penn Relays, Heptagonals, IC4As and NCAA regionals. Followed that up with a second-place finish at NCAAs in 2004 to earn All-America honors. Holds the Penn and Ivy League records in the javelin. Three-time Heps champion (2002-04). Penn won team championships at the 2001 and 2002 Outdoor Heps. Two-time CoSIDA Academic All-America, the first in program history. 2003-04 recipient of the Class of 1915 Award.
Written by Dave Zeitlin C'03, this feature originally appeared on PennAthletics.com on April 7, 2017
It’s a testament to the kind of person Brian Chaput C’04 is that when he won the 2003 NCAA championship in the javelin, so many other people were overcome by emotion.
His coach, John Taylor C’95, left the track, went under a tree and broke down in tears, later calling it “one of the best days of my life.” And another Penn track coach at the time, Tony Tenisci, marveled at how even his opponents were caught up in the sheer euphoria of the moment.
“When he won nationals, the whole place went nuts because everyone knew what he had gone through,” Tenisci recalled. “You should have seen competitors—hugging him and bouncing him around. It was such a great gift to give back to the boy who deserved it.”
So what exactly did Chaput go through to elicit such an emotional response? “He went through hell,” Tenisci bluntly said of the former Penn thrower who, among other injuries, dealt with three separate elbow reconstructions, a finger dislocation, shoulder issues and back problems.
But somehow Chaput recovered to win a national championship, leave Penn as the school and Ivy League record-holder in the javelin, and remain one of the best javelin throwers in the country long after graduating—all of which will lead to his deserved induction into the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame.
“I’ve never seen a javelin thrower overcome more adversity in a career,” Taylor said. “To go through three complete elbow reconstructions is unheard of. And he got better every time, which was the amazing thing.”
A former javelin thrower at Penn himself, Taylor was training at Franklin Field and working as a volunteer assistant coach for the track team when Chaput arrived as a freshman in the fall of 1999. Chaput had only started throwing the javelin a couple of years earlier at East Haven High School in Connecticut when he accompanied his friend who did the decathlon to the equipment shed, picked up a javelin and started to throw it. A baseball player who “couldn’t hit a curveball” and a cross country runner, Chaput realized at that moment he should probably change course.
“At the end of that session, I was probably throwing far enough to make the state championships,” he said. “My coach said, ‘All right, that’s it, you’re not gonna run distance anymore.’”
After emerging as a highly touted recruit and picking Penn over Stanford, Chaput impressed his college coaches right away, particularly Taylor, who was drawn to the talented newcomer who was “faster than me, bigger than me, and could throw farther than me.” But Chaput’s freshman season came to a halt early when he blew out his elbow, leading to what was the first of three Tommy John surgeries and redshirting his sophomore year.
It was, to be certain, an inauspicious way to start a promising college track career. But Taylor stayed by Chaput’s side, throwing tennis balls with him at Franklin Field as soon as he got out of an elbow cast — first 10 yards, then 20, then 30. Soon, they moved onto baseballs. Then, they worked on footwork and technique — “doing everything to get myself to become a national-caliber thrower without actually throwing a javelin,” Chaput said. And sure enough, after a brutally long year-plus of rehab, Chaput was suddenly throwing the javelin further than he ever had before, all while maintaining a positive spirit, even as he suffered another setback by getting mono early in the 2001-02 campaign.
“Everyone loved him,” Taylor said. “He was always so positive. … For someone with so much talent and so many gifts, he’s just so humble. He was a good kid to be around. He was almost like my little brother.”
After helping the Quakers win their second straight outdoor Heptagonal team championship in 2002 while winning his first of three straight individual Heps titles, Chaput put it all together the following season—which he called “my first real healthy year.”
He was the 2003 javelin champion at the Penn Relays, Heps, IC4As and NCAA Regional before storming to the national title with a record-setting throw of 258 feet, two inches in the final round—a then personal-best distance which he said “surprised myself and some others.” And the championship meet in Sacramento was made even better when teammate and friend Sam Burley C’03 took home the 800-meter title by one-hundredth of a second. Chaput and Burley were the first members of the Penn track team to win NCAA titles since Bruce Collins C’74 won the 400 in 1974 and the last to do it until Sam Mattis W’16 captured the discus crown in 2015.
“I would say it was just as much of a thrill to watch him win than to win myself,” Chaput said of Burley, adding that he always more of a “team-oriented” guy. “It was a cool experience to share with him.”
Chaput enjoyed another successful, injury-free year as a redshirt senior in 2003-04, winning everything and setting a new mark of 261 feet, 10 inches — which remains an Ivy League record — until getting stunned by Boise State’s Gabe Wallin at the NCAA Championships to finish in second place nationally at his final collegiate meet. Shortly after graduating, he charged to another second-place finish, this time at the U.S. Track & Field Olympic Trials.
And while three javelin competitors are slotted in to represent the United States in the Olympics, Chaput did not qualify because he didn’t hit the “Olympic A standard” in that meet or any previous ones. The same thing happened to him four years later as he finished third at Trials but again didn’t reach the standard.
How tough was it to be so close to fulfilling his dream of representing his country at the Olympics but missing out because of certain rules?
“When you finish in the top three, everyone who’s watching the meet in the stands thinks you made the Olympic team,” Chaput said. “They basically give you an American flag and flowers, give you the USA jacket and you do a victory lap. But then at the end, you give it back. It’s sort of a weird, bittersweet experience.”
The fact that he placed in the top three in 2008 was still remarkable, considering he blew out his elbow twice more between the two Olympic trials, undergoing his second Tommy John surgery in 2005 and his third a year later. He tried one last time to make the Olympics in 2012 but, by then, he admits his “priorities changed” and, looking back on it, he realizes he didn’t give himself enough time to train. He didn’t finish in the top 20 that year, and after “flirting with coming back,” he essentially retired from competitive track after the 2012 Trials.
“I thought I could maybe pull it together for one last hurrah,” said Chaput, whose first of two daughters was born in 2012. “But life happened and I wouldn’t change that for anything.”
Many of his peers and coaches were devastated that Chaput’s Olympic dreams never came to fruition after all he had been through. Tenisci admitted, “That breaks your heart — but he had his heart broken a few times.” And Taylor stated, “If he never gets hurt, I don’t think there’s a question that he’s an Olympian today.”
But for Chaput, who now works in marketing outside of Allentown, the journey to become an elite javelin thrower meant so much more to him than any trip to the Olympics ever could.
“It just wasn’t in the cards for me,” he said. “I realize that now, a number of years later. But now having a chance to look back on it, it doesn’t necessarily tarnish the experience that. I think at the time, that was the focus. By not hitting it, I felt like I wasn’t reaching my goals. Now having looked back on it, I realize I achieved a lot.
“And, I think more importantly, I made some really long-lasting friendships that go far beyond how far you can throw a javelin.”