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The untold story of a national champ's struggles and eventual triumph

By Jake Knabel on Jun. 6, 2019 in Track & Field

We call this an “untold story” because for quite some time, Samantha “Sam” Liermann chose to keep her struggles mostly between herself, her coach and those closest to her. Even as Liermann stood on the All-American podium inside the Jackrabbit Athletic Complex in Brookings, S.D., on March 2, she wondered if she would ever be the same.

She had just placed seventh in the shot put at the 2019 NAIA Indoor Track & Field National Championships. By most standards, that’s a success. But Liermann had established a different, loftier standard for herself. Plus she felt like she had unfinished business from the 2018 outdoor national meet. That business remained on the table.

Concordia throws coach Ed McLaughlin had a front row seat for everything that had transpired in Liermann’s life since June 2018. Says McLaughlin, “It was frustrating for me and for her to have people on the outside be like, ‘Geez, Sam’s really falling off.’ I heard those things at times. ‘What’s going on with Sam?’ She didn’t want to tell people so I didn’t really say much. I just told them she was hurt.”

Standard of excellence

To put it simply, Sam Liermann expects to beat everybody else in the shot put. The transfer from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln wasted little time making a big impact after becoming a Bulldog. Her first season of competition at Concordia came in 2016 when she earned indoor and outdoor shot put All-America honors. Her decision to transfer seemed to be immediately validated when she enjoyed a rare opportunity to contribute to a team national title as she did at the 2016 NAIA outdoor national championships.

From an individual perspective, things kept getting better for Liermann. She reached the top of the mountain in 2017 when she swept outdoor GPAC and NAIA national titles in the shot put. Said Liermann at the time, “I kind of had an idea that I could do it. I just didn’t know. I definitely didn’t think this year would be the year with coming off surgery earlier in the year. I didn’t expect it this year, but I thought it was possible – and I wanted it.”

With a quiet confidence, the native of Wisner, Neb., became another in a long line of throwing stars tutored by McLaughlin. Liermann continued on her path to greatness by locking down GPAC indoor and outdoor shot put titles in 2018. She captured another NAIA title at the 2018 indoor national meet before finishing as the runner up at the 2018 NAIA outdoor meet, where Liermann was dethroned in Gulf Shores, Ala., in controversial fashion.

That did not sit well with Liermann, then a redshirt junior with one more year of eligibility remaining. She basically vowed not to allow herself to finish second again. There was just one problem. Liermann knew she faced an upcoming offseason hurdle. She thought it would be one she could easily brush aside as a mere speedbump.

That’s not the way things happened. Liermann would be tested in ways she never had before. In this case, it wasn’t just about sports. Her own personal health was at stake.

Liermann fought back valiantly just to be able to be ready to compete this past Jan. 12 at the Ward Haylett Invite hosted by Doane. She placed fourth in the shot put at that meet while a shadow of her former self. Liermann was still good at her craft, she just wasn’t great at that point.

Said McLaughlin, “She was a two-time national champion who wasn’t even winning the Concordia Invite. There were things like that. We were always used to Sam being No. 1 or No. 2. During that time we would wonder if Sam was going to make the final. Even when she was a freshman that was never a problem.”

The scare

By the time the calendar flipped to 2019, Sam Liermann had moved past one big scare. Just after completing the 2018 track season, she underwent surgery that she believed would be a fairly minor one. Liermann held dealt with past operations and had emerged just as strong – like in the fall of 2016 when she had surgery to repair the labrum in her throwing shoulder. Less than a year later she claimed her first national title.

But in June of 2018, Liermann faced a different type of scare. Explained Liermann nearly a year later, “I had a cist on my liver. My doctor wanted to go in and just drain the cist in June. It was the size of a softball so it was pushing against my kidneys and just giving me a lot of pain. I had been dealing with that pretty much all of my junior year. A doctor said we should probably look at this. So he went in then in June and did laparoscopic surgery. He was just going to drain it.”

With good fortune, that would have been the end of it. With a clean bill of health at that stage, Liermann may have remained right on schedule to begin her regular conditioning and throwing regimen once the fall rolled around. A follow-up biopsy revealed some troubling news.

Continued Liermann, “The cells were abnormal so my doctor was really concerned. Abnormal cells can lead to cancer. He didn’t want to just leave me with the possibility of getting liver cancer in the future. We decided that it would be better long-term to have a liver resection. That’s what they did in August. All the way across my stomach I have a big scar. It’s kind of like a C-section, but higher. I think they took about a fourth of my liver. All of my ab muscles were cut through. Even sitting up in bed was painful.”

There was that “C” word being floated about in front of Liermann. Thankfully none of her cells were cancerous, but these developments were plenty enough to put things into perspective. It’s the type of moment that makes sports seem very insignificant and when you want to bring God just a little bit closer to you.

Liermann certainly would have appreciated some prayers at that point in her life. The August surgery forced Liermann to spend roughly 10 days in the hospital. She left the hospital just a few days before the school year began. Clearly it would be a while before she could start throwing again. Says Liermann, “It all happened pretty quickly.”

Over the next several months, Liermann would have to re-learn how to make her body contort in effort to launch the types of throws that made her a champion. She would have to figure out when she could push herself and when she had to pull back. McLaughlin would be there to tell her, “Don’t be dumb.”

Sam’s triumphant return to the top

Not all stories finish with a happy ending. This one ends with tears of joy. In May 2019, Sam Liermann was back. After breaking the GPAC outdoor meet record in the shot put, Liermann celebrated her third career national title on May 24. What a moment it was.

Says Liermann, “I remember crying a lot afterwards because I was so happy. It was worth it. Going through an injury and surgery there are definitely days where you wonder if it’s worth it – all that pain and stuff. To walk away on top, it’s definitely worth it.”

Liermann actually uncorked two separate throws that were both better than all other tosses by any of the opposing competitors at the national championships. After most every throw, Liermann moves in McLaughlin’s direction and the two discuss what went right and what went wrong. In one of these instances, McLaughlin had little in the way of coaching advice to give. He was mostly just proud. The short conversation went something like this …

McLaughlin: I don’t know about you, but I’m about to throw up.

Liermann: Seriously Coach? … You’re kind of shaking.

McLaughlin: Yeah, I’m shaking. That’s a big toss.

The national title winning mark came in at 50’ 5 ¼,” not far off Liermann’s own school record. When the finals had ended and Liermann had remained on top, the emotions of the moment were evident. Sam’s parents, Doug and Joan, would not have missed it. Sam first hugged McLaughlin and her nearby teammates and friends. Soon after she was mobbed by members of her family. In hot muggy conditions in Alabama, the ensuing showers of ice water courtesy of her teammates felt quite good and further symbolized the magnitude of what occurred.

It was especially emotional for those who knew what it took for Sam to reclaim her shot put title. This one was perhaps even more special than the first two. Between indoor and outdoor, Sam began to find her form once again, slowly but surely.

“Last year we went into (outdoor nationals) thinking she was going to win it,” McLaughlin said. “This year we went in knowing she was leading it but knowing she had dealt with so many things. When she hit her big throw and nobody passed her up on the last round and she hit another big throw - I don’t know how she felt about it. I know she was so elated. I was so extremely happy for her with all the work she’s put in and all the time she’s put into it.”

It took much longer than had hoped to produce championship results, but Liermann showed the heart of a champion throughout the process. The final career tally for Liermann now shows 10 All-America awards, four GPAC titles and three national titles. Not only that, she’s earned impeccable marks in the classroom.

All that is made even more impressive when considering Liermann persevered through four surgeries during her collegiate career. She was determined not to lose her senior year. Says Liermann, “At conference was really when it shifted to, ‘I’m going to win this whole thing. I’m not going to let anyone stop me.’ I got to a point where I felt like if I wanted it bad enough I was going to win a national title.”

That attitude has earned Liermann the recognition she has garnered, like from strangers at the local Walmart or from customers when she previously worked at the Fast Mart in Seward. Undeterred by the obstacles, Liermann went out a winner. Through her perseverance, Liermann has reserved a place amongst all-time Bulldog throwing greats.