In first grade, Teri Spiers remembers palling around at recess with her brother, Bill Okelberry.
She always wanted to play football with the boys and, on one day, her brother was a team captain.
“His buddies thought he was nuts for picking this little first grade girl,” Spiers recalls. You see, Bill and his friends were in the sixth grade.
“He said, ‘Yep, she’s on our team and is going to be the quarterback.’ I threw a long pass to one of his buddies for a touchdown and from then on, I was the designated quarterback for both teams,” she said. “That was probably my first time having that taste of success and knowing I could throw.”
Appearing on the same list with Jay Don Blake, Haloti Ngata and Nick Rimando, the name Teri Okelberry Spiers might be lost on most of the Utah sports audience. With Tony Finau now in the mix, he and Blake are the most accomplished homegrown Utah golfers; Ngata was a first-round NFL draft pick and five-time Pro Bowler; Rimando is the best goalkeeper in MLS history.
But that’s part of the story for Spiers, the Weber High and Weber State athlete who is to be inducted with that group into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame’s 2020 class.
To this day, Spiers, a heptathlete on the track with a specialty in the javelin, holds Weber State’s women’s javelin record with a throw of 177 feet, 1 inch in 1988. She competed in the U.S. Olympic Trials in the javelin three times — the latest in 2000, far removed from her college days.
For some time, she had a hard time convincing judges in the field event to prepare properly for her throws.
“She was so slightly built that when she’d get up to throw, the officials would move forward towards her and then end up turning around and running backwards like a centerfielder who had a ball hit over their head,” said Dan Walker, the 34-year WSU track coaching veteran who became a personal coach for Spiers during her runs at the Olympics. “I would try to help the officials because it’s dangerous in the javelin, and I’d tell them they need to move back.
“They’d say, ‘She’s a little girl,’ and I’m saying, ‘Yeah, well, she’s also got a rifle for an arm.’”
That’s only when meet officials wouldn’t be misdirected by her size before the event.
A 1988 invitational provided a pair of top memories for Spiers. The first was being able to throw the javelin against the current world record holder. The second was when she was called to report for the event.
“They announced first call for 800 runners at the same time as the javelin throwers,” Spiers remembers. “So I report to the javelin area and before I said anything the judges say to me, ‘The 800 runners are over there near that finish line.’ I said, ‘I’m where I’m supposed to be. I could certainly go run the 800, but I’m here to compete in the javelin.’”
As she became used to, her first approach was met by judges who moved in to prepare to measure her attempt. She threw it over their heads and they couldn’t get a good spot, so they gave her the throw again.
“I had people wanting to video me saying that I must be doing something right, technique wise, for a little body to be throwing it that far,” she said.
Spiers, now an administrator at Bonneville High School approaching 20 years of work in Weber School District, is a glowing standard in the argument against specialization and for participating in multiple sports.
For a time, softball might have been Spiers’ best sport. Through summer comp leagues, she drew some attention from college softball programs and was once committed to play at Southern Utah.
But Utah didn’t sponsor high school softball in the 1980s so, in the spring, Spiers reported for track and field.
That love of competition opened the door for her to eventually compete on the national stage and come inches away from the Olympics.
On Sue Woodbury’s dominant girls track and field squads at Weber High School, which won seven of eight 4A state championships between 1981-88, Spiers would run the 400 meters, the 800 portion of the medley relay, and the 400 on the mile relay.
She also fatefully connected with Jan Keim, who taught her how to throw the javelin.
“The fun thing is, in high school and in college, my javelin coaches had never thrown the javelin. So they taught themselves by learning and watching, and there was something different about them teaching me because of how they’d studied it. Their knowledge was huge,” Spiers said.
Jim Blaisdell, longtime track coach at Weber State, eventually pulled Spiers away from the softball idea and into a full track scholarship at WSU. Softball programs like WSU and SUU were not NCAA sanctioned for competition at that time.
“For a female athlete back in 1985, that was a pretty high achievement to get a full-ride scholarship,” Spiers said.
And impossible if she had specialized in softball.
“You don’t have a whole lot of athletes who do that anymore. They specialize in one thing. We’re really trying to push that here at Bonneville; we need athletes to participate in everything possible. Half of them don’t even know what they’re truly good at. They’ve never gone out for anything else, or gone out for track and field. I’m so thankful I had that opportunity,” Spiers explained.
“I think it was better on my body, avoiding all the repetitions. Had I just thrown the javelin and doing that motion, I think it would have just torn my body down. It helped that I did a variety of things; it strengthened my body that way. Switching seasons and switching sports made it fun. There was always something exciting to be a part of.”
One of those exciting things to be part of was Keim’s vaunted, title-grabbing Weber High volleyball teams of the 1980s, on which Spiers also excelled. She had the attention of Weber State’s volleyball staff but, after that staff was fired, her potential recruitment dissipated.
On campus as a full-ride athlete and before setting foot on a track for a college competition, Spiers walked on to the Weber State volleyball team in the fall of 1985 through a tryout.
And for four full seasons, she competed both in volleyball and track, and made history in both.
In 1987, Spiers finished eighth in the javelin at the NCAA national championships to earn the first NCAA Division I All-America award for the women’s program.
She repeated that in 1988 and 1989, finishing as high as fifth nationally. She set the school record for javelin in 1988 that still stands and left with several other records. Her 1987 heptathlon score of 4,971 is second all-time for the school and her 1986 triple jump of 37 feet, 2 3/4 inches is now ninth all-time.
“One of the fun things about Teri competing at the Big Sky level in the heptathlon was the second day — it was the long jump, the javelin and the 800,” Walker recalled. “She was a decent long jumper and was terrific at the 800 and the javelin. So she’d make some pretty impressive place changes on the second day.”
Her exploits earned her a spot at the 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials in the summer before her senior college season.
“Each time, it seemed there was one thrower who just had a bust-out (personal record) and was ahead of the field by 15-20 feet and then the rest, second place to eighth or ninth, it was just a matter of inches,” Spiers said. “And that’s what it would come down to is I would miss by inches.”
She finished sixth and only the top three throwers made the Olympic team.
Two weeks later, Spiers was in camp with her WSU volleyball teammates, training for her final campaign on the court.
By season’s end, Spiers, who was a key contributor on the court, helped the Wildcats win the Big Sky championship. On Nebraska’s home court, WSU took the highly ranked Cornhuskers to five sets in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
In doing so, Spiers became the only female athlete in WSU history to compete in NCAA championship events for more than one sport.
Then she transitioned to track for her senior campaign in the spring of 1989. In the space of about nine months, she competed at the Olympic Trials, in the NCAA national volleyball tournament and then earned college All-American track status for the third time.
“We knew she would put in whatever work she needed to for both disciplines. She was a fierce competitor,” Walker said. “She had a tremendous work capacity. Because she was so competitive, she could handle a big load because she just wanted to win.”
Volleyball and track aren’t the most intuitive of pairings for a multi-sport athlete, but Walker thinks it could work more often if specialization didn’t dominate.
“The arm swing is almost identical to javelin, so there could have been a number of good javelin throwers playing volleyball,” Walker laments.
Spiers was inducted into the Weber State Athletics Hall of Fame in 2001.
THE COMEBACK TRAIL
When 1995 arrived, Spiers was nearly seven years removed from competitive javelin throwing. She gave birth to her only child, Bailie, during the 1992 Olympic cycle. But, as an assistant volleyball coach at Weber State, she felt strong and relatively in shape. The 1996 Olympics were set for Atlanta, so she went for a comeback.
She called Walker, who was on board to help her train. She also called the late Ben Day, former president of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Ogden, who agreed to bankroll her training as a sponsor.
About a year out, she began hitting the track and the weight room. She again qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials and joined a field of American athletes who helped test out the Atlanta venues one month before the big show.
“The heptathletes started the day before the javelin throwers threw and at warmups for the heptathletes, we all had to check in our implements and they kept them. Anybody could use anybody’s implements, so they had all the javelins there for the heptathletes,” Spiers said. “They had us warm up at a different facility and then bus over to the stadium to throw.
“The warmup facility was some old parking lot where they just put sod over the top of it, so almost all the javelins got broken when the heptathletes warmed up. So it delayed when I competed from like 6 or 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. instead. Everyone had to share the few good javelins that were left, so it made it take longer. But it was awesome to be able to compete in that stadium.”
Walker was happy to be along for the ride.
“The neat thing about going to the U.S. Olympic Trials is everybody who is competing ... you’ve seen them compete over the years,” Walker said. “It was at a time when Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Florence Griffith-Joyner were competing, so it enabled me to go watch them compete. Had I not been hanging around Teri, I wouldn’t have been able to do that.”
Four years later, she did it again, qualifying for and competing in the 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials in Sacramento, California.
TAKING IT IN
Now, Spiers says she likes to stay active in the mountains of Northern Utah and roots for the Utah Jazz and the Las-Vegas-by-way-of-Oakland Raiders.
She learned about one month before the May 21 announcement that she’d been selected for the Utah Sports Hall of Fame.
“Initially, it was a huge shock, especially when you hear the other names that are being chosen ... just wow, that’s a pretty elite group,” Spiers said. “But you really get thinking about what I have accomplished and I think the bigger one is, kind of over the years, the Olympic Trials spanning from 1988 to 2000. Keeping your body in shape to be able to compete at that level is an accomplishment, so it has started to sink in and I’m proud of it, for sure. It’s really quite an honor.”
Her career as an educator has included time at Roy High as a teacher, North Ogden Junior High and Weber High as a counselor, and Roy, Weber and Bonneville high schools as an administrator.
She went to school with parents of students at Weber High who knew of her competitive background, and that school honored her with a Hall of Fame induction last year. But she says she’s otherwise navigated nearly 20 years in Weber School District without students really knowing much about her elite athletic accomplishments — though this most recent honor is likely to change that.
“Maybe that’s an extra little edge to where kids will listen to me,” she joked. “But I don’t think many know about it, so it’s fun that they will learn about it.”