Hinsdale, Montana (population 284), is a world away from the sprawling metropolis of Chengdu, China (population 16 million). Last July, the two had something in common, and that was Dickinson State University junior-to-be Kaitlyn McColly.
A little more than two years after standing on the podium to accept the second-place team trophy at the Montana state track meet in Bozeman - where she had single-handedly scored all 42 of her hometown Hinsdale’s points - McColly found herself competing against some of the world’s best all-around collegiate track and field athletes in the heptathlon at the World University Games.
In a two-day competition in the sweltering heat of a Chinese summer, McColly set two personal records and finished 17th in the field with 4,949 points. Not bad for a kid who two years before had committed to attending Williston State College. That was before the phone call, the road trip and the visit that changed her athletic trajectory.
Her journey to eastern Asia started on that podium back in Montana, where Dickinson State track and field coach Shayne Wittkopp took notice of MColly’s all-around state meet: first in the triple jump and 300 hurdles, second in the pole vault and 100 hurdles and third in the long jump. Wittkopp interrupted McColly’s post-meet nap to invite her to compete in track and field at DSU.
“I chose Dickinson State because of coach Wittkopp,” McColly said. “I had signed to play basketball at Williston. After the state meet, I thought maybe I should do track and field. He woke me up from a nap and said, ‘Hey, we’d love to have you. Why don’t we set up a visit.’”
McColly and her mom took a road trip to Virginia to pick up a piano and stopped in Dickinson on the way back. “I immediately loved it,” McColly said. “The small campus, coach Wittkopp, having my own track. It was an easy decision that fell into my lap.”
McColly was All-American in the 2023 indoor pentathlon. She capped her sophomore season with an NAIA national championship in the outdoor heptathlon with 4,922 points. She started the multi-event competition strong, winning the first event, the 100-meter hurdles in a time of 14.56 seconds. She took sixth in the high jump, 13th in the shot put and seventh in the 200 meters. On day two, McColly put up even better numbers, taking third in both the long jump and 800 meters and eighth in the javelin to clinch the title.
McColly then became Dickinson State’s first USTFCCA National Scholar Athlete of the Year, carrying a 4.0 grade point average, and was named Midwest Region Women’s Field Athlete of the Year. After all the accolades,
McColly, turned her attention to China. After some initial confusion, McColly booked her trip.
“Qualifying marks have to be met, but there was no specific score for the multi-events,” McColly explained. “We thought there wasn’t a multi, so I quit registering to compete. The team coach noticed I was half filled out and called and said he’d take me anyway and that I’d be a great addition to the team. … I finished filling out the form and it turned out there was a multi event, so it all worked out.”
The trip to China was a multi-day event itself.
“We got there a week early to adjust to time zones and the weather,” McColly said. “On the flight over there, I was awake for 30 hours and more than 24 of those were in the daylight. That was crazy. It took a little bit of adjustment. Being there a week and getting in practices was very beneficial.”
McColly went on to take 17th place with a personal record score of 4,949. She PR’d in the 100 hurdles (14.36) and 800 meters (2:23.83) and also high jumped 1.59 meters. She long jumped 5.29 meters, threw the shot put 10.47 meters and the javelin 34.66 meters, then ran a 26.45 in the 200 meters.
“I was going into it not expecting to win or be in the top because there were great athletes there. I was going to have fun and have more consistent results and PR’s,” McColly said. “There was some disappointment, but I just had to remember that I was competing in China, and it was an amazing experience."