WIMAUMA, Fla — University of Florida javelin thrower Mark Porter took an unconventional route to the Sunshine State.
Porter, a Massachusetts native, won the 2021 Big Ten outdoor title while throwing for Penn State. After graduation, he saw an opportunity to continue in his field of study at UF. Porter's working toward a Ph.D. in plant breeding. His specific focus is developing the best strawberries possible and maintaining high-level crops.
Florida, specifically Hillsborough County, is a hotbed for strawberries and a perfect spot for this particular agricultural study. So Porter does his research at the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education facility in Wimauma.
He lives next door to the lab, which makes things great for Porter's scholarly work, but difficult to make the 150-mile drive to Gainesville. Luckily for Mark, there are acres of open spaces for him to practice throwing the javelin during the week. He's done everything to earn the nickname "Gene Jock."
"It’s different, but I know what I signed up for," Porter said. "As soon as I knew I was going to be down here at the Research and Education Center, that was the game."
Eric Werskey is Porter's throwing coach. He's dealt with virtual coaching before, and he said there haven't been any issues with Porter's practice routine.
"It’s presented a unique challenge, but we’re making the best of what we’re doing," Werskey said via Zoom. "He totally understands training methods. He’s had success in the event, too. He understands it, and I trust that part of it, too."
"As long as you keep your priorities straight and say 'Hey, I need to get to the gym this week. I need to go throw this week' and make sure you make it happen," Porter added. "In the long term, it’ll work out."
Porter's mission is to produce the best crops of strawberries possible and maintain the high level of the plants moving forward.
"Just to understand the concepts. The math, the biology behind it is challenging," Porter said in the lab. "But that’s what makes it so rewarding. Once you can understand that, you get motivated by the results that you see."
Despite mostly smooth sailing, there have been a few minor hiccups in the practice schedule.
"I’ve asked 'Hey, can I get film?' [Mark] goes 'I can’t go out tomorrow. I gotta go harvest my strawberries.'" Werskey said with a laugh.
But the delay was worth it one of the times Porter made the trip to Gainesville so he could practice with his coaches and teammates. Porter brought came bearing gifts — freshly picked strawberries. Not packaged, not from the shelves of the grocery store.
"I knew everyone — it was going to blow their mind." Porter laughed.
Werskey and the rest of the team were stunned.
"Everyone that had them was like 'Mark. These are the best strawberries I’ve ever had.'"
"Taste a ripe strawberry for the first time, it’s pretty mind-blowing," Porter said. "I was glad they were able to try that."
Werskey isn't surprised that Porter's able to balance Ph.D. work with Division I athletics.
"It’s like, this dude is creating the next best strawberry, and he’s going to compete and help us at a very high level."
Porter admits his primary focus is on his research. And while competing at a high level in the javelin is important, he doesn't let the pressure get to him.
"At this point, it’s more for fun than anything. I’m not gonna stress out about it like I might’ve in past years. I’m doing this because I love it."
Porter's next competition is The Florida Relays in Gainesville. The action begins on March 31 and runs through April 2.