Berry embodies volunteer spirit at NCAAs

Paula Berry, Olympic javelin thrower for the 1992 games
Paula Berry chased her dream from tiny Dayville, Ore all the way to the 1992 Olympics - Photo/Phil Johnson

It was raining, so the picnic on the White House lawn being held in honor of the 1992 U.S. Olympic team was moved indoors, and a reception line soon formed with President Bush and his wife, Barbara, greeting members of Team USA.

Paula Berry was in that line.

The native of tiny Dayville, Ore. – population 125 and a high school graduating class of 10 – had won an NCAA javelin title for the Ducks in 1991, and went on to become one of two female javelin throwers to represent the U.S. at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

“That was an amazing experience,” Berry said. “My hope is that all athletes, at least once in their lives, get that opportunity.

“I worked in the mail room as a volunteer during the Olympics, and it was fun to disseminate letters of encouragement to the athletes. We also visited a children’s hospital of terminally ill kids, and those kinds of things really enhanced the whole experience.”

Berry didn’t perform well in Barcelona, placing 23rd overall with a throw of 160-feet, 9 inches, well 
off her personal best of 202-8. 

As it turned out, there was a reason for her struggles. Prior to her departure, Berry was diagnosed with uterine cancer, but she refused to let that stop her from pursuing her Olympic dreams.
“Mentally, I let it affect me more than physically,” said Berry, who would undergo radiation treatment, and endure two subsequent major surgeries over the next few years.
Today, the 45-year-old Berry is happy to report that she has been cancer-free for almost 11 years. 
“I’m doing great,” she said with a big smile.

That wasn’t always the case.

After her return from Barcelona, and feeling the full emotional and physical weight of her cancer diagnosis, she decided to get away. 

She spent time in Japan, Texas, Tennessee and California over the next two decades. Despite her health issues, she continued to train to be a world-class athlete, just missing a second Olympic berth by placing fourth at the 1996 U.S. Olympic Trials in Atlanta.

Her last hurrah as an athlete came at the Stanford Invitational in 2003.
“After that, I just decided that I wasn’t going to compete anymore if I couldn’t do it at the caliber I wanted,” she said. 

Berry found her way back to TrackTown USA about four years ago. 

She now works as Development Associate for the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County. Her role, via marketing and public relations, is to coordinate events for homeless children and adults.
Not surprisingly, the 2003 inductee into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame, also finds plenty of time to volunteer.

Berry is an athlete escort at the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships this week, one of 900 volunteers at the event. In addition, she will be a volunteer team captain for doping control at the IAAF World Junior Championships Oregon 2014 in five weeks.

Berry was also one of the guest speakers at Olympic Day on Thursday, in which 800 local middle schoolers took part in a presentation hosted by Dan O’Brien at Matthew Knight Arena. The participants then walked over to Hayward Field to watch the NCAA meet from the East Grandstand.
“For me, the message has always been, be part of the moment, because you never know when that moment will pass,” Berry said. “It’s an opportunity for me to give back to a sport that gave me a lot.”

Indeed. By her 18th birthday, Berry was already a world traveler. 

Her first taste of international competition came at the 1988 IAAF World Junior Championships in Sudbury, Canada. She also competed in Cuba that season, at one point, shaking hands with Fidel Castro.

In 1991, after winning the NCAA javelin title in front of the hometown fans at Hayward Field, she flew to Tokyo as a member of Team USA for the IAAF World Championships. She also competed at the World University Games in England that season.

And then, after competing in the 1992 Summer Olympics, she found herself in the reception line at the White House, waiting to be introduced to the President and First Lady.
“We all had cards with our names and events on them,” Berry said. “We handed the cards to a lady, and she would look at it, and announce to the President who we were.

“For some reason, when they announced my name they didn’t say University of Oregon, they said ‘Paula Berry, from Dayville, Oregon,’ and as soon as Mrs. Bush heard that, she turned and looked at me, and began to tell me about an elk hunting trip that she and the President had taken, how they went through Dayville, and how it was the worst trip she had ever been on.

“The President started laughing with her, and I was taking up all of their time … later, he came over to our table, sat down, and had a hot dog with us.”

Not bad for a kid from Dayville.