Quite often, we hear of “Cinderella stories” in sports.
This evening, a Natchitoches girl continues one of the most remarkable ones you’ll ever come across.
St. Mary’s 2020 graduate Maria Bienvenu will compete in the javelin for UL Lafayette at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon. What makes that especially amazing?
Before this spring, Bienvenu had thrown the javelin in a track meet exactly once. Ever.
Tonight she is one of 24 qualifiers from around the country competing, all of the others veterans of their events and the sport. In fact, it’s more than likely that among the roughly 5,000 men and women who earned their trip to the NCAA championships, she is the only one who is a true rookie. Roughly 20,000 fans will be on hand at the mecca of American track and field.
Her competition this evening begins at 6:45 CST and can be watched on ESPN3. Live results will be accessible through the ustfccca.org website.
The stakes: ultimately, to win the NCAA title, something that is unlikely this spring – but perhaps within reach in the future if her development continues at its amazing pace. Possibly attainable tonight are All-America laurels, earned by a top 16 finish (she is ranked 23rd entering the competition). Simply recording a mark on one of three opening round attempts, with a throw that is inbounds and not a foul, will guarantee her a place in the final standings and at least honorable mention All-America.
In any scenario, almost certainly, in an Olympic year, Bienvenu will receive an invitation to represent the United States in the Junior Olympics, for competitors 19 and under.
A fine student-athlete at St. Mary’s, the daughter of Russel and Amy Bienvenu became a basketball stalwart, the cornerstone of the Lady Tigers’ 2020 state championship team. She was the Class A All-State Most Outstanding Player.
At that point, she had barely considered trying track and field. But her dad, and his close friend Chris Maggio, had seen the potential, quite by accident three years earlier. Their lifelong friend Corwyn Aldredge, who broke Terry Bradshw’s national high school record in the javelin as a St. Mary’s athlete in 1982, had the technical expertise she would need to develop.
Dr. Maggio, who was a highly accomplished track coach while starting his 33 years at Northwestern, and her dad were watching their daughters play basketball one night as freshmen at St. Mary’s. During warmups, Maria hustled to the other end of the court to pick up a loose ball and return it to teammates. She didn’t dribble it back. She threw it, in an “ah ha” moment. Maggio looked at her dad, stunned with Maria’s arm strength, and asked if he’d ever thought about her trying to throw the javelin. The seed was planted.
Three years later, after that basketball state championship, she gave it a try. Aldredge immediately saw the potential and taught her more than the basics. Maria uncorked some prodigious throws, but her training was quickly halted by the pandemic unfolding in March. She competed just once, throwing just short of 130 feet, an excellent mark for an experienced high school girl.
Bienvenu got a full scholarship offer from NSU coach Mike Heimerman on potential alone. But she wanted to attend UL Lafayette, so Maggio reluctantly called the Cajuns’ coach, old colleague Tommy Badon, and recommended he give her a spot on the team there.
At the NCAA East Regional May 27, she threw a personal best 167 feet, 10 inches to finish eighth. The top 12 advanced to the national meet, which will be only her eighth competition ever – seven this spring for the Ragin’ Cajuns, while she rapidly improved by 20 feet from the marks in training last fall with her ULL coaches, but also with the mentoring by Aldredge from two hours up I-49.
Who knows what the future holds? Fact is, simply by reaching this milestone, Natchitoches’ javelin neophyte Maria Bienvenu is certainly starring in a Cinderella story, one that could have even more accomplishment ahead.
Photo: Maria Bienvenu (photo by Stephen Stillman, Texas Athletics, courtesy UL Lafayette Ragin’Cajun Athletics)