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Tuesday, June 06, 2023 — Houston, TX

Gunnarsdottir takes her shot at shot put glory


Photo courtesy Conference USA

By Riya Misra     3/21/23 10:09pm

Hailing from a small town outside of Reykjavik, Iceland, Erna Gunnarsdottir was a young girl when she was first exposed to shot put. Now, over a decade later, Gunnarsdottir competes on Rice’s track and field team, recently earning seventh place for shot put in the NCAA Championships.

“I started shot put when I was about nine years old. I started pretty early and did shotput throughout high school,” Gunnarsdottir, a graduate student and fifth-year athlete, said. “I decided to go to the U.S. because there’s better competition and facilities [here] other than small, small Iceland.”

The leap from “small, small Iceland” to Houston was indeed a large step for Gunnarsdottir. Beside leaving her hometown and relatively small local universities, Gunnarsdottir said she had to ease into life as an athlete while balancing changes in language and culture.

“There was definitely a culture shock, going from such a small place … to Houston,” Gunnarsdottir, who is now getting her master’s degree in global affairs, said. “It was pretty difficult at first getting used to just speaking the language more often than I’ve done before, and then obviously getting used to the academics was pretty difficult, but I have some really good memories from my first year.”

One of those significant memories was Gunnarsdottir’s first competition, which she reflects on in light of her recent accomplishments at the NCAAs. Early in her career, Gunnarsdottir didn’t feel prepared for the pressure of competition. Her success in the five years since then, she said, can largely be chalked up to a change in her mentality.

“I was [in a] completely different mental state for my first competition,” Gunnarsdottir said. “I was just way more nervous, not as emotionally ready. Comparing that to now is just such a drastic difference, because now I’m a lot more confident. I feel [more] capable of doing well in competition than I was my freshman year.”

Placing seventh at the NCAAs earned Gunnarsdottir first-team all-American honors, which she said was a career-long goal of hers. But she said her accomplishments are more a result of consistency than rising to the occasion at big meets.

“That’s been an achievement that I wanted to get for a long time … I’ve had such a good season. For me, it was just being consistent, doing what I’ve been doing the entire season,” Gunnarsdottir said.

Throughout her time competing at Rice, Gunnarsdottir said that her team has remained a constant pillar of support.

“We uplift each other,” Gunnarsdottir said. “All of us cheer each other on when we have competitions. [We] make sure we’re doing our best and just encourage people to do better … Every single thrower was [at a recent meet], even though they weren’t competing, just cheering each other on.”

Nearly 4,000 miles away from home, Gunnarsdottir has also still managed to remain close with her family, none of which live in the U.S. With family trips to the conference championships and younger brothers following in her footsteps, Gunnarsdottir’s athletic career has almost become a source of bonding for her family, she said.

“My family went to the outdoor conference [meet] last year … They keep up, try to follow along,” Gunnarsdottir said. “My parents did high school sports but weren’t really athletes, per se. But my two younger brothers both do handball … My younger brother is 15 and I want him to do shot put just like me.”

Although her time at Rice is wrapping up, Gunnarsdottir said she doesn’t anticipate an end to her shot put career any time soon. 

“I don’t think my throwing career is going to be done after college. My goal is to go to the Olympics next year, my goal is to go to the World Championships this year,” Gunnarsdottir said. “That’s always sort of been in the back of my mind throughout these five years. I love the sport. I wanted to do really well in college but I also wanted to continue being that next-level athlete, and that’s really helped motivate me for five years.”

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