Kostas Zaltos joined the Gophers track and field team from Greece midseason last year as one of the top junior throwers in the world, but his Big Ten season was over before it started.
A few months after he arrived, the NCAA canceled the outdoor season because of COVID-19 concerns, forcing Zaltos to return to his native country for 10 months to wait for the start of his college career.
A year after his redshirt season, Zaltos will be one of three freshmen and six Gophers throwers to compete in the NCAA championships Wednesday through Saturday in Eugene, Ore.
Missing the outdoor season last year didn't slow down Zaltos, who won the Big Ten hammer throw title this spring. He's a candidate for All-America honors this week.
"I'm just glad I'm healthy, in good shape and could compete finally at a high level here, especially in the outdoor season," Zaltos said.
Zaltos and fellow freshmen throwers Shelby Frank and Kyle Atkinson are among several NCAA-bound Gophers after overcoming challenges during the pandemic. The Gophers experienced constant practice disruptions because of testing protocols and quarantines.
"Honestly, I don't have any idea what being a freshman in college is really like," Frank said. "Next year will be a big eye-opener for me."
An even bigger adjustment will be for Frank's colleagues on the men's side next season. The men's indoor track program is part of the Gophers' sports budget cuts, which include men's tennis and men's gymnastics, in 2021-22.
Atkinson, a Burnsville native, feels fortunate the university decided at the last minute to save outdoor track.
"I think it was a very big part," Atkinson said. "The coaches and facilities here are one of the best, which is why we have been getting good marks and keep improving. Especially as a Minnesota athlete, I grew up wanting to go to college here and play at the highest level."
Zaltos, Frank and Atkinson credit Gophers assistant Peter Miller for helping the throwers stay motivated and progress during the pandemic. After making their Big Ten debut together during the 2021 indoor season, the freshmen trio all had top-10 finishes at the Big Ten championships in February in Ohio.
Still, Zaltos said weight throw compared to hammer throw was like "two different worlds for me."
Indoor track in the U.S. includes the weight throw event. It is similar to hammer in outdoor track but uses a heavier ball (35 pounds compared to 16) and longer steel wire connected to the handle.
Zaltos looks at the positive side of the elimination on men's indoor track, allowing him to focus mainly on the hammer throw, his specialty.
"I competed in the last indoor season forever here," Zaltos said. "It was an experience I never had before. So I'm taking the good things and not the bad things for my competition. I'm really glad we can only throw hammer from now on for my next three years."
At the NCAA West Prelims in Texas last week, Zaltos finished second in the hammer throw with a career-best mark of 232 feet, 11 inches. Atkinson finished 11th in shot put (62-4) to secure one of the top 12 spots for the NCAA championships. Other Gophers veteran throwers to qualify were junior Phillipe Barnett (191-10) and redshirt junior Kaleb Siekmeier (185-0) in men's discus and redshirt junior Tess Keyzers (202-5) in women's hammer.
Zaltos was expected to earn a spot in Eugene for the NCAAs. Frank even surprised herself, though, being the last of the throwers to qualify.
"I think it's really cool," said Frank, who finished 12th at regionals after ranking 26th. "I think it just shows what kind of group we had fighting through this year, no matter how difficult it was."