Janee’ Kassanavoid makes history for Native American women on the field (and on TikTok)
Janee’ Kassanavoid is believed to be the first Native American woman to win a world track and field championships medal, taking hammer throw bronze in Eugene, Oregon, in July. A member of the Comanche Nation, Kassanavoid grew up in a small Missouri town and eventually found herself at Kansas State, where she was an All-American before turning professional. She’s now an online sensation and Nike ambassador for the company’s N7 campaign to support Indigenous youth involvement in sport. NBC Sports spoke to Kassanavoid about how she got her start in track and field, her viral TikToks, her dreams of opening a restaurant and her place as a trail blazer for Native American women.
*This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How did you start in track and field, and more specifically, how did you end up in hammer?
I started getting a grasp of track and field in middle school – seventh and eighth grade. My older two siblings – more so my oldest Jasmine – threw shot put in high school. She was state runner-up all four years (in Missouri). She held our middle school and high school shot put records. So she’s kind of who I saw and wanted to emulate.
Basketball and volleyball were my first loves. Track and field was just something to do socially and to keep in shape. And all my friends did it, so it was fun.
In high school, I found a passion for culinary arts. I made the decision that I was going to give up all sports and not play collegiately. I had basketball and volleyball offers from community colleges and small D1 schools, which was great, but I just wanted to do the culinary route. But when that kind of path fell through (the culinary program she was applying to was discontinued), the only option left was a track and field scholarship.
So my sister and I reached out to a bunch of different schools that had culinary programs as well. And that’s when Johnson County [Community College, in Overland Park, Kansas] came around and offered a scholarship. They also had a well-known chef apprenticeship program. And so I went out there and kind of picked up the hammer. The first day of school my coach was like, “You’re gonna give it a shot.” I didn’t know what it looked like, didn’t know how to throw it, and that was probably the very first and last day that I got very dizzy and very nauseous and just doing turns down the track.
Can you remember how it felt the first time you threw the hammer?
I was scared that I wasn’t even gonna make it into the third turn to throw it because I started out as a two-wind, three-turner (two revolutions of the hammer before turning three times and releasing). And that was the biggest kind of intimidating part is getting to three and letting it go in the sector, and me not falling over. But the first day of practice, actually in the ring, I don’t remember too well except just turning and turning and turning and the ball not getting but a couple inches off the ground. And I had zero idea of technical cues or anything – pushing or pulling, connection, tension – all these big words I know now, I knew nothing of that. I was like, just keep spinning, just keep spinning, just keep spinning at that point.
Switching gears a little, to another part of your story – For those who might be unfamiliar, can you describe your heritage and culture in the Comanche Nation?
I’m born into the Native community. I’m a tribal member of Comanche Nation, Nʉmʉnʉʉ (Pronounced nuh-min-uh, meaning “The People” in native Comanche language). A lot of my family and my father’s side is based out of Oklahoma. When he met my mother, he brought us to a place for a better future and better resources and better schooling – a life he didn’t really have growing up. And through high school, I didn’t really have a sense of identity. I didn’t have a lot of upbringing around native family to learn and to take part in cultural traditions. It took me some time, until I got to college and being surrounded by so many different beautiful cultures, a lot of international students who were really proud of who they are and where they came from. I was kind of in tune with that, and really wanting to grow to love who I am and learn about where I’d come from. So I did that wholeheartedly and just realized the beauty, the strength and resilience in being Native in the U.S. and being a woman in sport.
What is the culture around sports for native communities?
I think it’s huge, because like for most people in life, [sports are] a way to get away from what you’re dealing with. And it’s a huge outlet for future success. A lot of people know that sports can get you a free education. And you can succeed in life in that way, when maybe you don’t think you could normally.
Aside from my siblings, I didn’t know of any Native American athletes other than Jim Thorpe in the track and field world, and he was way before my time. I didn’t have a role model. But I think that’s what I want to be – that person that someone can look up to and know it can be done and that you can be great. I think that’s my end goal overall, especially with women.
In my education, I wanted to pursue nutrition and dietetics because Native American communities have a high prevalence of diabetes, obesity and alcoholism. I’ve known a lot of people go through those circumstances in life and what their families go through – me as well, losing my father to liver cancer and [him] having diabetes, and having seen him go through it and experience it. That was a huge drive … to teach others and to educate others and to hopefully give back to native communities about overall nutrition, health and wellness.
It’s believed that you became the first Indigenous woman to win a world championships medal when you won bronze in Oregon this summer. Now that you’ve had a few months to reflect on it, can you describe the moment to us?
This past year has been my most confident year, my most comfortable year in the ring. The goal essentially was just get to this meet and take in all the nerves, take in all the crowd and the fans and the environment, and just go do what I do every day. You know, we’re always told in sports: don’t do it if you don’t have any fun. But for me, it was always serious. It was nerves and jitters and so much pressure. And I think all the nerves and the excitement [in Oregon] just helped me get through.
And the history was made after that. So it was a huge moment. But now looking back, I wanted to do better, and I knew I could have done better. Unfortunately, I feel like I’m only successful in other people’s eyes if I make an Olympic team or win an Olympic medal. And I know I have a lot more years with Paris 2024 on the horizon. I believe I have a lot of teams, a lot of medals and a lot more records to break.
You had the presence of mind immediately afterward to point out that you won that medal on native lands (The University of Oregon is located on the traditional Indigenous homeland of the Kalapuya people).
That was just the biggest takeaway from it all for me personally – being on native land, not just American soil.
You recently were honored by your Indigenous community. What was that like?
It was super inspiring for me to go back to kind of the tribal grounds in Lawton, Oklahoma, at Comanche Nation – the complex there. They reached out wanting to congratulate me and honor me as a special guest. But I just wanted to go in general to experience it, and to be a part of the powwows, and admire all the cultural traditions that I’ve never been able to be a part of.
That was a whirlwind of emotions, just seeing the amount of people that have been following me and my journey and supporting me. I got to walk around, and a drum song was played for me as well. So that was super huge. It was a lot to take in. And super, super emotional. But it was really beautiful.
I had a lot of girls saying they follow me on TikTok, and I’m so inspiring, and that they have written papers in school about me. I was just like, oh, my god, somebody give me a tissue. This is just crazy, so hard to believe.
But, of course, that’s what I want. That’s the purpose of my journey and the purpose of sharing a lot on social media. And I was signing autographs and writing personal messages to them to inspire them for their future, and they were crying.
I just tell them work hard, dream big, enjoy life. And you could be anything you aspire to be.
The U.S. women’s hammer throw program went from having no medals ever at the world championships to now two straight world champions and two medals this year. How do you explain that?
I think it’s crazy. Europe has been so strong because they learned from a very young age – 10, 12, 14 years old. They start training hammer, and they develop a lot quicker than the people in the States, who most of the time don’t start until college, maybe junior or senior year of high school. We were always playing catch-up. But then our coaches got more experienced in training, got more ideas, and then we in turn learn from that now.
It’s grown an insane amount – [the number] of people that are interested in hammer throwing and that also have the raw athletic ability, just the base to be good at hammer throwing. Height is an advantage, lengthy arms are an advantage, but then also having power, flexibility, balance, hand-eye coordination, all that. And I have a lot of younger girls saying that they’re starting to train hammer, like, “What do I do here? What do you recommend here?” And I think it’s beautiful. I think it’s a very athletic event that I think is not as appreciated as it should be.
Between that and your often-viral TikToks, do you see the overall popularity of the field events growing from a viewership standpoint?
I think a lot of people’s impression of track and field is just the Olympics. And of hammer, it’s “Matilda” and Miss Trunchbull. I just want to broaden people’s perspectives and knowledge of it as a whole. So I do believe it’s getting a lot of views and a lot of people are wanting to try it and wanting to start, especially women. I think that’s huge for me as well, just to give people a little motivation when they may not have somebody in their life to look up to or that can push them. I try to be that light for a lot of women and youth.
Now that you’re at the highest level in the sport, who have you met that you were the most star-struck by?
Probably Ryan Crouser (reigning Olympic and world champion in shot put). I see him all the time. I see fans going, “Oh, can I get a picture?” And I’m just telling myself, “No, don’t do it.” And after worlds, I was in the team tent, and he came up to me and he said my name and he said good job. And I was just like, he knows my name!
Did you ask for your picture then?
Still no. [laughing]
What do you do outside of your training? What takes your mind off track and field?
I enjoy working and, of course, I have other passions in my education that I want to still work towards. I’ve always had a job part time in college – while working at K-State, a lot of food service jobs, and then this past year, I was a youth coordinator for a local gym, doing a lot of youth sports programs and also coaching tennis. I coordinated a fitness challenge at the local schools in the community, and it was very rewarding. But with my summer being so busy and traveling everywhere [for competitions], I just decided this season to put all my focus and energy into throwing. So that’s where we’re at now.
But I do social media content as well, TikToks and things like that. I try to stay busy with that in my free time. But I also like to cook a lot and find new recipes and try new things. That’s a super, super stress reliever for me. I can just find peace staying at home and enjoying a good meal.
What are the goals still on your list in the sport? What about outside the sport?
The American record is always on the back of my mind, but I don’t want to limit myself to that. Paris 2024 Is the goal. A gold medal would be great. I know it’s possible, and I’m fully capable. At the end of my career, I want to be one of the best in the world to have ever thrown.
I have aspirations to go to culinary school abroad, which could take nine to 12 months. And then to be a registered dietitian. I want to work in the sports industry – work with a sports team or be a personal chef for a professional athlete, someone that makes way more money than me. When I have more time and want to settle down with a family, I want to open my own restaurant and do a community service route with that – gardening and helping low-income families and native communities.
So, lots and lots of goals. I need more time.
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