A reflection on Berlin

My sister-in-law lives in the old East Berlin, and every day when she walks out of her door she sees this statue in a park across the street from her apartment:

That fellow was a German communist who was executed by the Nazis. His bust is one of many statues that the Soviets erected across East Berlin after World War II to remind the Germans who was in charge.

One of the most popular parks in that half of the city was converted by the Soviets into a mass grave and memorial for thousands of their soldiers who were killed in the assault on Berlin:

As you can tell by how tiny the people sitting at its base look, that is one hell of a big statue.

But that’s typical of totalitarian architecture. That’s the aesthetics of intimidation.

And you can see those aesthetics at work on a stroll around the Olympiastadion, which hosted the recent European Championships.

This is a picture  of my daughter inside the stadium during the recent European Championships:

Can you see that tower rising up beyond the opening in the far end?

That’s a structure that looms over the grandstands of a giant parade ground built, along with the Olympiastadion, in the 1930’s by the Nazis.

Here’s a closer look at it:

This picture does not do justice. There are twenty-five acres of grass in front of those grandstands.  That’s about the size of twenty American football fields. And the entrance is bordered with statues like this:

When you walk around those grounds, you can’t help but feel the sense of grandeur that the architects of this vast facility intended to convey. Then, you remember who those architects were.

That’s a heavy load for the Germans to bear. How do you forget the horrors of those years, and at the same time, how do you remember so as never to go down that path again?

That’s the difference between attending a track meet in Berlin and attending one in Zurich or Eugene or Des Moines. I’ve been mulling this over quite a bit, and I think I’ve finally got it figured out. It’s not the quality of the beer and chocolate. Those are just as good in Zurich. It’s not the enthusiasm of the fans. The folks in Eugene get just as nutty. It’s not the quality of the competition. Lots of the marks posted at the US Championships in Des Moines this summer would have earned medals in Berlin.

It’s the weight of history.

The ghost of Hitler. The shadow of Jesse Owens.

And it’s the grace with which the Germans bear that weight.

My sister-in-law told me that the Germans have left many of the Soviet-era statues intact because they don’t want to forget the cost of being seduced by fascism. I assume that they have let the Nazi parade ground outside the Olympiastadion stand for the same reason.

But it’s more than just letting a bunch of old structures stand as memorials to human folly. It’s what they’ve done with those structures.

One of my daughter’s favorite novels is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. When she heard that we would be visiting Germany this summer, she asked if we could travel to Dresden, where Vonnegut was held as a prisoner during WWII. He and his comrades were used as laborers throughout the city by day, and were kept at night in the basement of a slaughterhouse, hence the novel’s title.

One night, the city of Dresden was bombed and at least 30,000 civilians were killed. Vonnegut and his mates, saved by their subterranean sleeping quarters, emerged to a scene of unspeakable destruction.

We did travel to Dresden, and engaged a tour guide to show us sights related to Vonnegut and his novel.

It turns out that the actual slaughterhouse five is still intact.

This cow marks the entrance:

But they don’t  process animals there anymore. The very spot where Vonnegut and the other POWs sheltered from the bombing is now a coat check room.

Above, the huge open halls of the slaughterhouse now host concerts and exhibitions. People gather there to drink and to dance and to remember never to forget.

 

Sandra Perkovic is not here for funny

 

A few nights ago, I visited a beer garden in Berlin with some friends, one of whom absentmindedly walked past the bouncer whose job it was to examine people’s bags. The bouncer was German, but he could tell we were not so he switched to English to chastise us.

”Listen,” he scolded. “I ‘m not here for funny!”

There’s poetry in that declaration, and  it captures perfectly the attitude that Sandra Perkovic, two-time Olympic champion, two-time World champion, and winner of forty-two Diamond League meetings, brings to each and every competition.

I was present for the first of those Diamond League wins, at the Adidas Grand Prix in New York in 2010, and it was apparent right away  that the nineteen-year-old Perkovic was something special. On that humid morning when the dead air seemed to suck the life out of the rest of the field, Sandra competed with a passion that demanded attention.

A couple of years later, I saw her throw at the Adidas meeting again, this time in a driving rain with temperatures in the forties. On that day, I stood near Sandra’s coach, Edis Elkasević, both of us freezing the buns off, and watched as he and Sandra conferred between throws. At one point during the competition, an official decided (in spite of the fact that the running events did not even begin for another hour) to block Sandra as she crossed the track to speak with Edis. She did not even break stride.  “You, shut up, you!” she commanded. And he did.

Her adrenaline pumping, Sandra launched her next attempt sixty-eight meters.

So, she is not one to mess around, this Sandra Perkovic.  No less an expert than René Sack, coach of the highly decorated Nadine Müller, told me that Sandra’s ferocity might be the quality that separates her from the other top-notch women’s disc throwers. “She is a nice person,” he said, “but during the competition, she wants to kill you.”

And, at the risk of some throws fans wanting to kill me, can I just get this out of the way right now and state that Sandra is very close to establishing herself as the greatest discus thrower of all time?

I know, I know. No one will ever match Al Oerter’s four Olympic golds, or his remarkable comeback when, as a forty-three-year-old geezer, he finished fourth in the 1980 Olympic Trials. I mean this as no dis to Al. He is deservedly a legend.

So is Virgilius Alekna, with his two Olympic golds and two World titles.

So is Robert Harting, who a few days prior to the women’s disc final, made his last appearance as a member of the German national team. Robert will retire at the end of this season with one Olympic and three World Championship golds.

The one thrower whose list of achievements may still outshine Sandra’s is Lars Reidel, winner of one Olympics and an incredible five World Championships.

Keep in mind that though the Olympics are special and attract a tremendous amount of interest, the World Championships are, for track and field athletes, the same thing minus the synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics. Winning a World Championship gold means surviving a qualification day then defeating the very best in your event inside a huge, often raucous stadium. It is just as difficult as winning an Olympics.

If we can agree that World and Olympic golds are equal in value, then we can say that Al won four major titles, as did Alekna and Harting. That leaves Lars on the top of the heap with six.

As mentioned above, Sandra has two Olympic and two World titles to her credit, so she’s short of Lars in that department. But, consider her forty-two Diamond League wins. Since 2010, she has competed against and defeated her main rivals five times a year at Diamond League venues all over the world. That’s a level of consistency that no other thrower in  history can match.

If Sandra can maintain that level for the next two years, pick up another World title in Qatar, another Olympic title in Tokyo, push her total number of DL wins into the fifties…to me that would make her the best there ever was.

I imagine that Sandra came to Berlin last week quite conscious of the opportunity these Championships offered to further burnish her legacy. A win in Berlin would be her fifth consecutive Euro title, a feat that no athlete in any event had accomplished.

And with a season’s best throw of 71.38m, seven meters farther than anyone else in the field, her odds of winning that fifth title seemed more than deece.

Thursday morning’s qualification round exposed no chinks in Sandra’s armor. She settled matters quickly with a first attempt of 64.54m to lead all qualifiers.

It seemed likely that the battle for silver and bronze would come down to the three German entries,  Shanice Craft…

…who reached 61.13m in qualification…

…Claudine Vita…

….who hit 59.18m, and Nadine Müller…

…who produced the second best throw of the prelims, 60.64m.

Another intriguing qualifier was Italy’s Daisy Osakue, the US Division II collegiate champion for Angelo State University in Texas.

Coming nearly three months after the end of a long collegiate season, Daisy’s qualifying throw of 58.73m was impressive. Making her achievement all the more remarkable was the fact that two weeks earlier, while training in Turin, Italy, she had suffered a scratched cornea when struck in the eye by an egg thrown from a speeding car. The incident put Daisy squarely in the middle of a recent controversy over the anti-immigrant stance of the newly elected Italian government led by Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte. It has been suggested, much to Conte’s chagrin, that the assault on Daisy was inspired by his government’s inflammatory and often racist rhetoric.

Either way, it was a traumatic and extremely ill-timed experience for Daisy and made it seem unlikely that she’d make an appearance in Berlin, let alone advance to Saturday night’s final.

But advance she did.

A storm that rolled through just after the men’s javelin final on Thursday left pleasant weather in its wake and helped to create absolutely lovely conditions on Saturday.  Here are Coach Sack and Nadine Müller enjoying the cool evening air at the warmup ring outside the stadium…

…as Edis Elkasević and Sandra Perkovic plotted their assault on that fifth straight Euro title.

Eventually, the athletes were loaded aboard carts and transported inside…

…where they were greeted by 60,000 spectators ready to support a solid lineup of German athletes including medal contenders in the men’s high jump, women’s long jump, and of course the disc.

And for a while, Germans held the lead in all three of those events.

I know nothing about the high jump or long jump, so I can’t say whether or not things played out as expected there, but you can count me as very surprised when Nadine Müller entered the fifth round with a three-meter edge over Sandra in the disc.

Here’s how it came about.

Nadine entered the meet with a season’s best of 62.73m (a bit subpar for her as she has surpassed the 65.00m mark every year since 2009) and in round two, she bumped that season’s best to 63.00m.

It’s hard to imagine Sandra being rattled by Nadine’s throw, but for the first four rounds, she clearly was not her normal butt-kicking self.

This was odd, as Sandra seemed in excellent shape at the warm-up track. Here she is smashing a pre-meet power position throw:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=1Tyh3SX6nec

She caged her first attempt of the competition, though, then went 59.09m in the second round on a throw that looked like it might have gotten a piece of the cage as well. She followed that up with a round-three 59.97m.

I’m not gonna lie, it was weird. The crowd was understandably pro-Deutschland, and they were going nuts the whole time over the high and long jumps and over their discus trio, but those folks appreciate great throwing and they clearly wanted to see Sandra go 70.00m. They  gave her plenty of love each time she entered the ring, and she was the only non-German thrower afforded the honor of having a quick burst of rock music blasted through the PA system before each of her throws to signal folks to stop watching the jumps for a second and pay attention to the discus.

Sandra usually thrives on that stuff, but on this night, she looked lost.

Meanwhile, Claudine Vita put herself in second place going into the reordering with a third-round toss of 61.23m, while Daisy (58.09m) and Shanice (59.73m) each earned the full six throws with their second-round efforts.

As the fourth round began, the place was going absolutely bonkers. The German high jumper, Mateusz Przybylko, was locked in a duel for the gold medal and his every attempt inspired huge cheers from the fans. At the same time,  German long jumper Malaika Mihambo, was contending for gold as well, so there were lots of reasons for folks to make noise.

I kept wondering how the throwers dealt with all the distractions they faced in a competition like this. For sure, noise and excitement must be preferable to throwing in front of the docile and comparitively sparse crowd that showed up for the morning qualification rounds, But on this night it was not unusual for a discus thrower to be midway through their windup only to have 60,000 people erupt over a high jump clearance. And the masterful way that the Germans managed the proceedings on this night, using the large video screens and the PA system to cue the fans when a big moment was unfolding, caused frequent delays at the discus cage. Whenever a race was about to start, or even when the runners were being introduced, all throwing stopped.

So I can see why some athletes, especially those who had not experienced this type of atmoshphere before, might struggle to maintain  focus.

But Perkovic? There is nothing she hasn’t seen and contended with throughout her long career.  Bad weather. Bad officiating. Huge crowds. No crowds. At the Rio Olympics, she opened with two fouls in the qualification round and in the finals and still came away with the gold medal. And clearly, someone with forty-two Diamond League wins knows how to squeeze out an excellent throw even when feeling “off” on a given day.

So I knew for sure that Sandra would regain her composure during the reordering  and set everything straight on her fourth throw.

Which she proceeded to whang into the cage.

I’m sure Nadine would have loved to take advantage of Sandra’s mysterious loss of rhythm and put a little more distance between them, but in round four she managed only 61.99m. Daisy, seemingly oblivious to any and all distractions, nailed a near-PB of 59.32m in round five to move into fifth place, while Claudine and Shanice each fouled their fourth and fifth attempts.

The swallows returning to Capistrano. My mother-in-law ringing the doorbell while I am taking a nap. Some things in life are inevitable.

And so it was with Perkovic. She finally found her rhythm on her fifth throw, a toss of 67.62m, which secured the gold medal and restored natural order to the throwing universe.

Both Sandra and Nadine fouled in round six, but Shanice Craft drilled a 62.46m which jumped her past Vita into third place.

Here are the happy medalists:

Daisy ended up fifth, and the experience left her utterly stoked.

”This year has been so wonderful!” she exclaimed after the competition. “I did my PR (59.72m) at the Angelo State Relays in April, then I won the DII nationals, then I came to Italy, went to the Diamond League meeting in Rome, won the U23 Mediterranean Championships, came her and got fifth. So, like…wow!”

“My first goal was to make it to the finals, so I got to the finals and I was like ‘Wow, what did I just do?’ Then I tried my best to get in the first eight so I could get three more throws, and I don’t know, I just ended up fifth! I ‘m super overwhelmed, so I think I ‘m talking too fast. It is something crazy! I would never have expected it, fifth place in Euro from nowhere?”

And what was it like throwing in front of 60,000 fans?

“I loved it! The cheering! It’s a big stadium, so I was scared that I wouldn’t react to it the right way, but I think I got the right thing!”

I was curious how she managed to stay sharp over the course of a very long season, and Daisy gave equal credit to Nathan Janusey, her throws coach at San Angelo State, and Maria Marello, her coach in Italy.

“They talked a lot and coordinated everything.  And our head coach Thomas Delbert helped me a lot. He knows that I am a transfer student from Italy. He says ‘Don’t worry. Just do this, this, this for San Angelo, then you can do this, this, this for Italy.’ So it worked out great.”

I was also curious how a thrower from Italy ended up attending a university located in San Angelo, Texas.

“They chose me! I got a message from Coach Janusey on Facebook ‘Would you like to come to San Angelo?’ I was like, ‘Uh, I don’t know.’ Then I talked  to my parents and my coach, and they said ‘It will be a great experience, so you have to try it.’”

“It was hard adjusting at first, but we have athletes from all over the world. After a month, I got friends. This is thanks to my biggest problem—my parents say that I can talk to walls, that I can talk to any living thing or not living thing!”

Like Daisy, Shanice Craft was positively giddy over her performance.

She moved to Berlin a year ago to join the training group of Robert and Julia Harting under the direction of Coach Marko Badura, and she was very happy with her new situation.

“I love it! Before, I was in Mannheim and I didn’t have a training group. Now I have two very good teammates. We have a lot of fun, and we push each other. It gives me so much motivation to see them work!”

I asked her if it was difficult to maintain focus that night with all the delays interrupting the flow of the competition.

“I should be able to block that out, but today I had big problems. There were so many breaks from the competition that it was very hard for me to stay focused, and I just felt like I couldn’t do anything in the ring.”

“Lots of my friends and my family were here, and after the fifth attempt I thought, ‘No, I can’t do that to them.’  The last attempt, I wanted something big. I came here to get a medal, and I thought ‘No, it’s not possible that I will get fourth place.’  For my last attempt I thought of Robert Harting’s last throw at the World Championships in 2009. I was here at the stadium that night! Before my final throw, I was watching that competition in my head. I had it in front of my eyes.  I wanted to do the same thing that Robert did that night!”

I reminded Shanice that after winning the gold in 2009, Robert had picked up Berlino—the large, cuddly bear mascot—and romped around with him on his back.

“I have to go to the gym more so I can do that next time!”

I spoke with Nadine Müller next, and it turns out that her less than stellar season up to that point had been due to a back injury she sustained in April which cost her several weeks of training.

I asked her if it was possible that having a delayed start to her season had helped her throw well in Berlin by keeping her fresh

in April, before we were to fly to a training camp, the final training I injured my back so I could not fly, I missed a lot of throws, I could not throw for three weeks,

“I have lost so many throws this season,” she lamented. “I hope the rest of this season I can be fine and the next competition throw past 63.00m.”

As with the other throwers, Nadine loved the level of excitement in the stadium, but did not appreciate all the delays.

“I think it’s okay when they start a race to have us break, but there were so many other breaks where they made us wait two or three minutes,  But it is the same always in major competitions.”

Nadine would know, having competed in two Olympics and five World Championships. She won silver in Daegu in 2011 and bronze in Beijing in 2015. I asked if over the years she had been able to develop a method for handling the interruptions.

“Yes,” she laughed. “I‘m the old lady who has so many finals! I think by now it is easier for me. I ‘m a cool down girl, so I can stay focused better than the young ones,”

Just then, the  queen of focus happened by, carrying a large stuffed animal and reveling in another moment of triumph.

She attributed her struggles on this night to an uncharacteristic bout of overconfidence, “Because I was in really good shape, and in the first or second round I was thinking ‘If my discus just go out of the net, I will be European champion.” Maybe I was thinking is going to be easy job for me.”

“Then in the third round  I messed up again, and I said to myself, ‘Oh my god, what is going on? You cannot be yourself?’ Then I also had a nice try in the fourth round, which also went into the net. Then, before the fifth round I started saying ‘Oh my god, your training! Your goals! You have four European gold, and this is your chance for a fifth one like nobody did. You want to miss it?'”

“I told myself before my fifth throw, ‘You want to wait for the sixth attempt in front of a German crowd?’ And then I saw it fly, and I know it is 65.00m plus, minimum. Then I saw 67.62m,

‘All the girls know they need to wait for me and in one round I will get it. I’m used to throws like last year in London, where it was like 69.00m then 70.00m then 70.00m again then 69.00m again. It was an easy peasy competition for me, but this time was strange.”

I asked if she noticed that the crowd was on her side.

“Yes,” she said. “I was fighting against the Germans but they support me! But I didn’t have good, positive vibes around me. It wasn’t the other girls or the crowd.  I was confused, and I never felt that before.”

“The last few days, I had some problems. A bee stung me in training! And one day I was was working and I flipped my ankle. Maybe these things distracted me.”

Having seen how much she relies on Edis during competitions, I wondered if Sondra worried that the stress he must feel on nights like this was might be shortening his life span.

“No, he is a very strong person! After the third round, he really woke me up. He was like, ‘You want the crowd to enjoy this moment or not? Will you waste all your training or will you win a fifth gold like nobody has before?'”

“He knows that if you start talking shit to me, I’ll be like, ‘Are you serious? Now you’re gonna see!”

I ran into Edis a few minutes later. He was slowly making his way through the stands with a friend at his side. He looked drained.

“Come on,” I teased him. “You knew she’d come through.”

His friend spoke up.

“That’s right! We did. It was her fifth European title, so she waited for the fifth throw to win. It all makes sense!”

With that they strode off in search of Sandra.

This was my final night in Berlin, so  I made one last leisurely lap around the stadium then headed for the subway.

Thanks, Berlin, for the most amazing track and field experience  of my life.

Thanks to all the coaches, shop owners, concession stand workers, ushers and and everyone else I ran across on my trip, including my favorite bouncer. Without fail, they did their best to make up for my ignorance of their language by communicating with me in English.  I will never forget their kindness.

And thanks to all the athletes who took the time to chat. I was at the bottom of the media food chain at the Euros, so by the time they got to me in the sweltering mixed zone some had been answering questions non-stop for an hour. I’m sure all they wanted to do was to get the heck of there to celebrate or commiserate with their friends and family, and they were under no obligation to talk to me.  But they were so friendly and so polite, it makes a guy think that maybe he fell in love with just the right sport.

 

 

 

 

A sweaty and glorious night in Berlin

Have you ever watched the video of the men’s shot competition at the 1988 Olympics? The one where Randy Barnes throws 22.39m on round six to take the lead,  then Ulf Timmerman answers with 22.47m to grab the gold. That throw of Ulf’s is famous (at least among throws nerds) because he raises his fist in triumph even before he sees where the throw lands.

There is one other memorable aspect of that video. The stands are almost completely deserted. The average Saturday morning freshman football game in the US  attracts more spectators than showed up at the stadium in Seoul that day to witness maybe the greatest shot competition ever.

Last night, at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, the situation was a bit different.

One reason was that the gentleman pictured above, the incomparable Robert Harting, was making his final appearance as a member of the German national team. He has a couple more competitions on his schedule before he hangs up his throwing shoes, but this was his last night representing the Fatherland, and it meant a lot to him and it meant a lot to the fans packed into that end of the stadium.

Here’s a video I took when Robert was introduced last night. The quality is not so good, but the sound is what matters. Take a listen.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ftI7Q-g9Kg

Compare that to the sound of crickets that probably greeted Ulf’s winning throw in Seoul, and you’ll understand why every single thrower I ‘ve spoken with at these European Championships loves competing in Germany.

And if Robert’s fairwell appearance wasn’t enough to get folks fired up, just a few meters away in that same end of the stadium, the 2015 women’s shot World Champion Christina Schwanitz was competing as well.

As much as the Germans love Robert, I doubt many considered him a candidate to win the men’s discus title last night. After four years spent battling knee injuries, a bronze medal finish was probably the best that Dee Harting could hope for.

Not so with Schwanitz. After taking off the 2017 season while giving birth to twins (Dear God, please let her move to the US so that I can coach those children some day), Christina has returned to twenty-meter form, and in the absence of Hungarian rival Anita Marton, appeared to be a lock to win the gold.

And if that still wasn’t enough to get everyone excited, there were Germans in contention in the men’s long jump and decathlon, which took place concurrently with the throws.

Hence the noise. Hence the madness.

Surprisingly, Schwanitz was unable to feed off the  energy of the crowd to produce a big throw. She tossed right around 19.00m in warmups, opened with 19.19m and never improved.

But, for most of the competition, none of her competitors appeared capable of surpassing her. Poland’s Paulina Guba opened with 18.77m but did not add to that over the first five rounds.

Aliyona Dubitskaya of  Belarus pounded away at the high 18.00m range the entire competition, eventually settling for a best of 18.81m in round five.

The oppressive heat that has settled over much of Europe this summer seemed to take the life out of most of the putters. They had, after all, been through qualification in that same heat the day before. And on this night, they had taken their early warmups under a blazing sun at the throwing area outside the stadium.

Maybe they were all exhausted, and Christina would walk away unhappy with a subpar performance but happy to have won in front of an adoring crowd.

Then, things got a little nutty.

The Polish mojo that has been wreaking havoc in the men’s throws (so far, Poles have taken first and second in the men’s shot and hammer) appeared and lifted Klaudia Kardasz to an U23 national record of 18.48m.

Guba must have gotten a whiff of it as well. She stepped in as the final competitor with a chance to unseat Schwanitz and promptly…well…unseated her with a throw of 19.33m.

Here is a vid of Christina’s final throw. Again, the quality is pretty awful but it will give you an idea of the noise level in that stadium.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Qa8P6RIlFEs

Schwanitz could manage only 18.98m on her final attempt, and as Guba celebrated another triumph for the Polish throws crew…

…a disappointed crowd turned its full attention to the men’s disc.

Humid air. No wind. Enclosed stadium.

These are not the conditions which generally produce big discus throws. And for the first couple of rounds, it looked like anyone who could somehow reach 66.00m would have a good chance at winning.

Apostolos Parellus of Cyprus must love him some dead air, as he opened with a PB of 63.62m. No one else was close to their best.

Daniel Stahl, second at the 2017 Worlds opened with a foul. Andrius Gudzius, the defending World Champion started with, for him, a pedestrian 65.75m.

Gerd Kanter, who had hit the automatic qualifying mark of 64.00m on his first throw the day before, could manage only 59.30m in round one.

Robert, meanwhile, hit 61.09m, a distance that was not likely to buy him the full six throws.

In round two, Gudzius fell to 62.89m but maintained his lead when Stahl fouled a big one—at least 67.00m.

Robert pleased the crowd if not himself with a 63.45m toss, which at least prevented him making an early exit from the competition.

Stahl, facing an early exit himself, went 64.20m in round three. Gudzius answered with 67.19m, an impressive display of horsepower in these conditions.

For a moment in round four, it looked like Robert might be able through sheer toughness and force of will to seize a medal. His 64.33m put him into second place.

The moment did not last.

Stahl, exhibiting his own reserves of grit, blasted one 68.23m to take the lead and knock Robert into third. Gudzius replied to Stahl with another big toss, this one 67.66m.

Then, in round five, Lucas Weisshaidinger of Austria, who had struggled mightily in the qualifying, came through with a toss of 65.14m to oust Robert once and for all from medal contention.

A final round 64.55m from Sweden’s Simon Pettersson and a 64.34m by Kanter pushed Robert further back in the standings.

Here is Robert’s final throw as a member of the German national team.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Hj2VksB-yJs

Meanwhile, Stahl and Gudzius still had to settle the matter of who would go home with the gold.

Daniel fouled his final attempt, so Gudzuis entered the ring needing to surpass 68.23m.

Gudzius is a large man, and he is remarkably fast for his size. Sometimes, he seems a bit out of control, and this may be why he struggled in qualifying. He did not hit the auto mark until his third toss on Tuesday.

But when he hits one right, he generates an astonishing level of power. It took that kind of power to launch a 68.46m final throw for the win.

Afterwards, the competitors were exhausted, drenched in sweat, and very grateful to have experienced a competition in this environment.

Alin Alexandru Firfirica, a twenty-three-year-old Romanian who finished seventh was totally spent.

This European Championships was his first major international meeting at the senior level (he was European U23 champion in 2015) and the experience was a bit overwhelming.

”The stadium is great,” he said.  “And I am in good shape, but today I was tired. It is hot! I start with fifty-eight meters! Every time they stop us when a race starts. It was disturbing. I try to ignore because I don’t have anything else to do. My next meet will be throws only meet here in Germany. It will be fantastic! I hope there to throw sixty-six meters again. Here was hard because we don’t have wind; with wind is possible to throw sixty-seven meters.”

Alin recently wrapped up his studies, and is excited about his future as a thrower.

What did he study?

”Sports, of course!”

Simon Pettersson, who entered the meet with a PB of 65.84m and finished fourth with is sixth round 64.55m effort, said that he loved the energy in the stadium.

“It was very fun. The atmosphere was unbelievable, kind of like Worlds last year. I even like when they run the 200 and everybody is like ‘whoa!’It gives me energy. Sometimes I get too hyped!”

That was apparent tonight, as Simon fouled four of six throws, once literally falling down out of the front of the ring. But, his ability to regain his composure and drill a near PB in the final round bodes well for his future in meets of this caliber.

Daniel Stahl, the Swedish giant, was exhausted, proud, and defiant after the competition.

I asked him how he was able to keep his cool sitting on two fouls going into round three.

“It was mental strength.  I’m really happy. It was great conditions, and I’m very happy. I was focused all six throws. My goal was to win, but I’m really proud of 68.23m. This was great atmoshpere. Germany is really good to track and field. It was a great audience, great people. I really Like Germany. Now, I prepare to win in Doha.”

Unknown to me, these European Championships will also be the final international competition for Gerd Kanter, one of the true gentlemen of the sport.

Though the attention of the crowd was understandably focused on Robert, Gerd was happy to have made his farewell in this stadium.

”As expected, the environment was very good, I remember from 2009, and today everybody focused on the discus. When I was planning my retirement I wanted to have it here. Next year at Doha, I don’t think will be very exciting. This was where I wanted to have my last Championships.”

I told Gerd that the first time I ‘d seen him throw was in Zurich in 2005, and asked him if he remembered being overtaken by Virgilius Aleena in the final round there.

“Yes, but he fouled it! The winner got a nice watch, and he got it. He still owes me that watch.”

“We had just came from Helsinki, the World Championships. I was leading until last round there, too, and he threw a championship record to beat me!”

As long as we were on the subject of the ones that got away, I asked him about the 2012 Olympic Games where he came within one discus length of taking a second consecutive gold medal.

“It was reallyemotional,” he recalled. “But it wasn’t like losing a gold medal, it was like winning a bronze medal. Compared  to Beijing, I was not the favorite. And it was first time I set my season best at a major championships, so I am very proud of that bronze medal.”

The last sweaty giant I spoke with was Lukas Weisshaidinger, who was about as happy as a man on the verge of heat exhaustion can be.

 

“It was my first time at European Championships, so to come home with a medal, I’m extremely happy,” he told me. “My whole family is here, so this is an awesome moment.”

Lukas had struggled in the qualifying rounds, going Foul, 59.48m, and then finally 62.26m which got him in the final. I asked him how he had been able to get his act together after almost failing to qualify.

“This was a new day. And also, I know that Alekna once placed eleventh in qualification and ended up with gold medal, so I knew I could make a medal today.”

Lukas also credited the atmosphere in the stadium for elevating his performance.

“It was awesome! They clap for everyone, not just the Germans. And there  were a lot of Austrian fans. That gave me power!”

I couldn’t resist asking Lucas how he had developed his rather unique setup at the start of his throw. If you’ve never seen it, he has his left foot back like Tom Walsh in the shot, and he winds the disc very high before beginning his entry.

“I’m not the biggest guy,” he explained. “Or the tallest guy, so I have to make something different, so we try this.”

Is his setup an attempt to increase the path of acceleration? Does it have something to do with creating a certain orbit of the disc?

“That I cannot tell you. It is top secret.”

Not wanting to offend a man that beefy, especially at the happiest moment of his life, I changed the subject and inquired about the future. Was he thinking ahead to Doha?

“It is really hard with the World Championships in October, then followed by the Olympic Games. It is really hard to make a perfect plan for those two competitions.”

I have asked a few coaches recently how they plan to handle their training schedule next year with the Worlds coming so late. But talking to Lucas, I realized that it wasn’t just next year, but the following year as well (when everyone will want to peak for the Olympics) that will be thrown off by the odd schedule.

Torsten Lönnfors, coach of Chris Harting, told me that Chris will be in an exceptionally difficult situation as he is required to put in four weeks of police training at the end of each season. So, if he competes in the 2019 Worlds in October then takes a break then has to do his four weeks with the police, that makes for a very late start for his Olympic preparation.

But those are matters for people much smarter than me to figure out.

This was a night to celebrate giant, sweaty men who devote their lives to throwing things far.

Speaking of which, after all was quiet I stood with a group of journalists waiting for a final word with Robert Harting. But the hour was late, and I had a long train ride ahead of me, so after a while I gave up and began the long walk up the stadium steps towards the exit.

And there he was. Signing autographs, Surrounded by fans. Happy and sad and probably wishing that this long, humid Berlin night would never end.

It’s not so simple, this qualification business

 

Tuesday morning at the European Athletics Championships featured an embarrassment of riches for throws fans. Two rings full of women shot putters vying for the automatic qualification mark of 17.20m that would advance them to Wednesday’s final. And, running concurrently with the women’s shot, two rounds of men’s discus featuring some of the best throwers in the world, among them 2016 Olympic Champion Chris Harting and 2017 World Champion Andrius Gudzius. The qualification line for the men’s disc was 64.00m, which many of these athletes had thrown in previous competitions. But, as it soon became apparent, 64.00m can seem awfully far if something knocks you off your rhythm. The early hour. The unusually hot conditions (Germany, like much of the rest of Europe, is in the middle of an historic heat wave). An unusually fast or slow throwing surface.

Some made qualification look easy.

Christina Schwanitz, much to the delight of the crowd (as she is German and the favorite to snag the gold here) went 18.83m on her first attempt. Thank you, and good day.

Daniel Stahl, the silver medalist at last year’s World Championships in London,  also launched his first throw well past the qualification line (it turned out to be 67.07m) raised his arms in triumph and headed off to rest for Wednesday’s final.

On his way out, I asked Daniel if he generally takes something off a first round throw in order to avoid fouling.

“No,” he replied. “Always 100 percent.”

This approach seems to suit the big man’s personality. Stahl is the kind of guy who, if you were a kid, would be your favorite uncle. Large. Easy going. Always smiling.  Not the kind of person whose confidence would be ruined by a first round foul.

For some, though, it was not so simple.

Poland’s 2015 World Champion Piotr Malachowski would appear to be cut from the same mold as Stahl.  He comes across as very even-keeled, and has been through many, many qualification rounds at major competitions.

Somehow, though, after warming up at 65.00m, Piotr simply could not find his timing when the throws counted. He walked out on his first attempt (it looked to be about 57.00m), caged his second, and misfired badly on his third, ending up without a mark and without an invitation to the finals.

Afterwards, he seemed perplexed.

“My shape today was very good,” he said. “My practice throws were good, then…I don’t know. I don’t know what happened.”

Piotr seemed ready to shake off this experience though. When I asked if he planned to continue throwing through the Tokyo Games, he replied, “Of course. It is my dream. A gold medal!”

While Piotr was suffering his inexplicable meltdown on one end of the stadium, two young shot putters came away from their first ever qualifcation rounds at a senior international competition smiling and utterly delighted to have made the final.

One, British Champion Amelia Strickler, threw a PB of 17.31 on her second attempt.

”I ‘m so excited!” she said afterward. “It was amazing being out there because this is such a big venue, and that’s what you want. You want the big stage. Even though the stadium wasn’t quite full, you could still feel the atmosphere. I can’t wait for the final!”

Like Amelia, twenty-year-old Alina Kenzel surpassed the qualifying line on her second attempt.

Her throw of 17.46m was the seventh best among qualifiers.

She told me afterwards that she was “very excited because it was my first big international event. I was very nervous at the first attempt, but the second it was like ‘okay just do your thing just like training’ and it was the standard for the finals!”

“After my first throw, everybody was saying ‘Alina go on!’ I was like okay,okay, keep going, keep going. Then, it was like boom! I ‘m done, so now I can go to the hotel and have some rest and tomorrow the final.”

Another competitor who seemed just as excited by his success in qualification was the great veteran Gerd Kanter. He threw 64.18m on his first attempt and was positively giddy after.

”I’m old,” he joked. “So, in this heat I have to do it on the first throw. Out there, we were like chickens in ovens.”

After all the success he’s had, including winning the gold at the Beijing Olympics, Gerd still prepares conscientiously for qualification days.

“I would say the qualification procedure is most difficult at these competitions. If you are in the final, it is already like regular competition, but in qualification, you only get two warm-up throws, it is the early morning, it’s not comfortable. So, in training, we practice making a safety throw.”

“We call it a safety throw because you don’t need to go full out. You don’t need 67.00m or 68.00m. The line is 64.00m, so that’s what you need. So, in a safety throw you take less risks. You are not going to go as far back in your backswing, you just make it very simple to avoid errors. One part of training for a championships is we always make two or three throws where the coach says ‘Okay, you need to do a safety throw.’ So not a maximum effort, but you must throw maybe 63.00m.”

The most surprising moment of this qualification day came when defending Olympic champion Chris Harting failed to advance.

Chris showed that he was in good shape two weeks ago by winning the German Championships with a toss of 66.98m, and most observers would have considered him a candidate to challenge Stahl and Gudzius for the title here, in the city where he lives and trains.

But, one chink in Chris’s armor is that his natural release point often sends the discus down the right side of the sector, and depending on the type of the cage, he sometimes has trouble getting off an unimpeded throw.

His coach, Torsten Lönnfors, told me later that the type of cage used for this year’s  European Championships makes it difficult for Chris to throw in his natural slot because it is shorter than cages normally used in international competitions, with the front support standard jutting out in just the spot where Chris’s throws often travel. Notice the difference between the cage in the photo above at a different competition, and the one below in a photo from yesterday’s qualification round.

I highlighted the front standard to make it easier to see. Torsten told me that they had tried (and apparently succeeded) in practice to get Chris comfortable throwing with this type of cage, and in warmups he was able to throw a nice, clean 65.00m toss. But, Olympic champions are humans, too, and maybe once that first competition throw ricocheted off the cage…maybe all of a sudden throwing in your home town with all eyes on you and the music turned loud each time you entered the ring…maybe it just got to be too much.

After three throws off the cage resulted in three fouls and a humiliating exit from the competition, Chris had to face a very disappointed German media.

Afterwards, he graciously spoke with me for a few moments. Heartbroken, he struggled for words to describe how this had come to pass.

”It took less than 63 meters to qualify,” he said, shaking his head in amazement. “I can throw that from a stand.”

Just one of those days?

“Yes,” he replied. “That’s a good way to put it. Just one of those days.”

 

 

 

 

Deutschland über alles

Call it “heaven” or “nirvana” or “Iowa.”

Call it what you want, but if you are a fan of the shot put, what took place in the shadow of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in the heart of Berlin today was pretty close to perfect.

Especially when you consider that this spot, known as Breitscheidplatz, was the site of a terrorist attack in the winter of 2016. Typical of such incidents, the attack was meant to destroy Breitscheidplatz as a thriving public place (the attacker struck during a popular Christmas market).

Part of the German response to that effort was to wedge a world class shot put competition into the narrow confines of the Platz.

 

They built a wooden platform approximately four feet high, covered it with turf, erected some temporary bleachers, and invited people to come and watch for free.

And come they did.  The atmosphere (and I mean this as a compliment) reminded me of a high school football game on a warm September evening in a small town in the United States. People cheered and chanted and dressed in semi-ridiculous outfits. An entire section wore matching red hats and lime green t-shirts.

There was an endearingly lame pep band. There was recorded music (everything from Michael Jacksons’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” which elicited a 19.54m toss from Luxembourg’s Bob Bertemes, to Billy Squier’s “Slowly Stroke Me” which greeted Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Kemal Mesic as he walked into the ring for his third throw sitting on two fouls. He went 18.70m and missed the final).

There were large video screens. The one that I was facing showed a slo-mo replay of every…single…throw.

There was drama. In round three, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Mesud Pezer dropped one right at the automatic qualifying line of 20.40m only to have his effort nullified as a foul. He protested, and as the officials discussed the matter, the crowd was treated to several slo-motion replays of the throw, which caused them to boo lustily when it appeared that Pezer had commited no obvious infraction. It seems that he was called for the phantom right heel on the toeboard on his reverse, similar to what happened to Joe Kovacs in last year’s World Championships. This time, however, reason prevailed and the call was overturned. Pezer’s throw turned out to be 20.16m, enough to secure him a spot in the final.

There was big time homerism. Homegrown favorite David Storl received an ovation for warming up (two fixed-feet glides, one around 19.00m and another around 20.60m), for being introduced, and for hitting an automatic qualifier of 20.63m on his first attempt (he reversed on that one).

As round two ended for Storl’s group, the competition was briefly halted while the MC for the night interviewed David.

I ‘m not sure that was totally fair to those in the field who were still hoping to hit a qualifying mark, but the crowd loved it.

And that’s the thing. The crowd was active and happy and alive throughout the entire competition. How often can you say that about any track and field preliminary?

One thrower who thrived on the atmosphere was Nick Scarvelis, representing Greece.

”Qualifying situations are almost always in an empty stadium at nine in the morning on the opposite side of the track from some empty stands,” he told me after making it through to Wednesday’s final with a season best of 20.20m. “So I ‘d like to see more of this type of thing.”

I was curious as to where the throwers took most of their warmup attempts, as they seemed to be allowed only two on site. Had they warmed up at the Olympic Stadium practice facility before traveling to the Platz?

“No,” Nick explained. “We warmed up at another practice track. They actually put a ring in the middle of a park inside of a university. There was like a three-hundred-year-old column next to the shot put ring. But it was still a twenty-minute drive away, so it wasn’t exactly ideal.  A lot of guys were complaining, but I didn’t mind. The music. The atmosphere. Throwing in the shadow of the church. I loved It.”

Two others who prospered were Craoatia’s Stipe Zürich, the bronze medalist in last year’s World Championships, and Poland’s Michael Haratyk, the silver medalist from the 2016 European Championships in Amersterdam. Each surpassed the automatic qualifying mark on his first attempt, and they are the two most likely to give Storl some trouble as he strives to notch his fourth European Championships title.

The final will take place inside the Olympic Stadium on Tuesday night, and though there might well be 50,000 fans going nuts for Storl, I don’t know if the atmosphere there or anywhere else can match what the Germans created tonight.

At one point during the competition, the bells of the Kaiser Wilhelm Church rang out.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Xl4Zpe74t6c

I won’t say they were heralding a German shot put renaissance, a return of David Storl to his top form. There was something more to that sound. A little defiance maybe, and a lot of joy over thousands of people coming together on a warm Berlin night to…well…to have fun.

 

 

 

 

 

David Storl is ready to rumble

The pre-meet press conference for this year’s European Athletics Championship in Berlin was hosted at an old but quite spiffy-looking brick building called the Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur or, “Royal Porcelin Manufactory.” It is, apparently, the oldest business in Berlin, having been founded under the auspices of the great warrior-king Frederick the Great in 1763.

The press conference included some important folks such as Svein Arne Hansen, the president of European Athletics, and defending World Champion athletes Sandra Perkovic and  Kirsten Warholm.

But by far the biggest bull in this porcelin shop was the two-time World Champion in the shot put, David Storl.

David has been so good for so long (he won his first World title in 2011) that it is easy to think of him as a grizzled veteran even though he just turned twenty-nine years old. Adding to that impression are the struggles he has had with injuries over the past four years, struggles that have at times have made him look almost frail (I’m thinking of his difficulty staying balanced as he set up his glide at the back of the ring at the Rio Olympics) when compared to the almost savage power and explosiveness he displayed as the enfant terrible of the shot put world. Remember, this was a young man who, from 2011 to 2013, sandwiched an Olympic silver between two World Championship golds—while still in his early twenties.

But a knee injury first sustained during the 2014 outdoor season caused him to abandon his trademark violent reverse and become an almost exclusively fixed-feet thrower.

In spite of changing his technique and having to manage nagging pain in his knee, David produced some fine throws during his four seasons as a non-reverser, including a PR 22.20m in 2015.

But he clearly was not himself much of the time, and did not get near the podium at an Olympics or World Championship from the time of his injury until the recent Indoor Worlds in Birmingham where he took silver using what looked to me like his old, pre-injury technique.

In talking with David and his new coach Wilko Schaa today, I was curious to discover whether or not we might one day see a return of the old/young firebrand who, along with 2008 and 2012 Olympic champion Tomasz Majewski, managed to keep the glide relevant in an era dominated by rotational putters.

Below is a slightly edited version of my conversation with each of them.

McQ: David, you’ve gone back to your old technique with a full reverse at the finish. Does this mean you are finally over the knee problems that caused you to become a fixed-feet glider?

David:  Yes. That is the reason I was able to switch back. I changed coaches last year [from Sven Lang to Wilko Schaa] and we work a lot on the stability of the knees. It was a long way, but now we can train without any pain

McQ: It took four years to finally feel healthy, eh?

David:  Yes. It was a long way, but it was a decision of mine, and that’s the most important thing. If I didn’t change the coach I think I will have the old technique still.

McQ: Are you more confident using your old technique?

David: Yes.

McQ: Because it helps you stay in the ring at the finish of your throw?

David: No, that’s not the reason. It feels complete. If you do not jump, you have to stop the movement. Not a nice feeling.

McQ: Was it a strange experience to change coaches after working with Sven Lang for so long?

David: Yes, because we worked nearly ten years and was a long way and I had a lot of success with him. But now I go my own way.

McQ: How long have you known Wilko?

David: I know him since 2010.

McQ: Wilco, how did you end up coaching David?

Wilko: I worked nine years for the Institute of Applied Training Science in Leipzig, and I was a supporter of the German National team for throwing biomechanics and training science, and so I know David and all the people from the throwing team. That was the beginning. He asked me in October of 2017

McQ: Did you feel pressure over the prospect of taking over his training?

Wilko: A bit, yes. He is a big athlete. He has won twelve international medals. It is an honor for me to work with him. And now we work ten months together and I think we are in a good way. We won in Birmingham a silver medal, and it was a bit surprise. But now we are in a good way and I think we will take the gold medal [this week in Berlin].

McQ: David  says that he was able to go back to his old technique because his knee is finally feeling healthy.

Wilko: Yes, that was the first thing we had to do. A healthy knee then change to his old technique.

McQ: So that was the plan right away? See if you could fix his knee and then go back to his old technique?

Wilko: Yes, it was.

McQ: How did you do it? How  did you make his knee feel better after four years?

Wilko:  We changed the training system. We had good regeneration management. We trained static to build all the muscles around his hip and knee for stabilization so the knee can become healthy.

McQ: And it worked well?

Wilko: Fast! Very fast. I thought the first year would just be for health and getting in shape, but now we are in a good way.

McQ: How long did you train together before he was able to do his old technique?

Wilko: A month. From the beginning we tried to do this.

McQ: It must have been an exciting moment when he felt well enough to try reversing again.

Wilko: Yes, it was an experiment. It was trial and error, but we have a good relationship so I hear his feedback. He gives me a lot of feedback and I try to adjust the training. It is very individual. Very, very individual. He is the only athlete I coach. He is a great athlete and I think it is good for him.

McQ: Is he as strong as he was when he was World Champion?

Wilko: That is a good question. I think yes.

McQ: So he’s strong enough to throw twenty-two meters?

Wilko: Yes. I think he will have to throw twenty-two meters to beat Michael Haratyk or Tomáš Staněk. Konrad Bukowiecki can also be dangerous. He can be a big surprise. He is very strong.

McQ: And it will get even harder in Tokyo with Tom Walsh and Ryan Crouser.

Wilko: Yes, I think it will take 22.50m to 23.00m to beat those guys. The men’s shot put performance progression in the last years, I don’t think will stop between now and the Olympic Games. It will go on. But they are all good guys.  They are very funny, and we like them.

McQ: Does it feel strange to coach the only glider who seems capable of medaling in an international competition?

Wilko: He’s the last Mohican! We talked about the rotational shot put. We talked about the possibility to change the techique, but we agreed it is not good for him. Rotational shot putters are a different type of athlete. We tried it in training. When we warmed up he threw it. It was fun and provided variation. But, he’s a glider.

McQ: What is it about David as an athlete that makes him a glider?

Wilko: He is very tall. He has amazing power. And he is very stiff in his legs. When he comes from the glide, it is amazing how he can stop the whole center of mass of the body and transformate it into the release. I have never seen this. Maybe in the 1980’s with Ulf Timmerman, but in the 1990’s and 2000’s, nobody else was able to do this.

McQ: I love the glide, so I hope you medal in Tokyo.

Wilko: I love the glide too, but I think it will go out.

McQ: In America, it is pretty much gone.

Wilko: With athletes, there are different types, and that’s why I think the glide is still good. You can with the glide reach the same performance as the rotational, but you have to be the right type of person with the right abilities.

McQ: So you don’t believe that the rotational technique provides an advantage?

Wilko: No. You have to look which person is right for which technique. It is difficult.

McQ: It seems like most rotational shot putters are built differently than the best gliders.

Wilko: Yes. Rotational  shot putters look like this [ He outlines a refrigerator shape with his hands]. Gliders, like this [He raises his hand high to demonstrate tallness].

Note: I want to thank Wilko and David and pretty much every other German I have spoken with for being gracious enough to speak in English to me. I feel spoiled that I can come to their country without being able to speak a word of their native language and have them go out of their way to use my language—which is not easy when you are not used to discussing throwing technique in a foreign tongue. I would also like to thank the German school system for emphasizing English.

The men’s shot put prelims will take place Monday evening at a temporary venue set up in downtown Berlin. Unfortunately, the men’s hammer prelims will be held at the same time inside the Olympic Stadium, so spectators will have to choose which one to attend. I’ll be at the shot, where I hope to witness the beginning of a glide renaissance.

 

 

 

Coach Nathan Fanger webinar now on Youtube

Coach Nathan Fanger of Kent State University spent an hour with us this past Thursday breaking down the rotational shot put technique of Danniel Thomas-Dodd, the 2017 NCAA champion and 2018 Indoor World silver-medalist.

It was a fantastic presentation.

I have spent twenty-seven years obsessively tinkering with how best to coach the rotational shot, and I learned a bunch from Coach Fanger’s analysis of Danniel’s form.

His approach with Danniel is very different from anything I’ve tried over the years, and I can’t wait to work on some of his concepts with my athletes.

Those attending the webinar live were able to get their questions answered directly by Coach Fanger. You won’t be able to do that, but if you are at all interested in the rotational shot, I think you’ll love the video of his talk. Here it is:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POhbm1pgVec&t=6s

 

A chat with British shot put champ Amelia Strickler

There is no NFL-style draft for graduating collegiate throwers, no carnival of excess where the most promising among them are paraded in front of television cameras and offered multi-million dollar deals to join the professional ranks.

For a college thrower, going pro often means going without–without regular coaching, without regular treatment for injuries, sometimes without regular meals.

The challenge is to find a way to stay in the sport long enough to reach your athletic prime. In a recent interview, 2004 Olympic shot put champion Adam Nelson reminisced about living in a closet under a stairwell Harry Potter style during his first year as a pro. Curtis Jensen, currently in his fourth year as a professional, broke twenty-one meters for the first time ever this season while working two and sometimes three jobs to support himself. Gwen Berry and Jessica Ramsey, two of the best young throwers in the US, have paid the bills at times by working for a company that bakes and delivers fresh cookies to college students at all hours of the night.

So, if it is a glamorous lifestyle you seek, put down that metal ball and start working on your mid-range jumper.

I know that other countries have different systems for developing their athletes. In Germany, for example, the best throwers are offered a chance to enlist in the army or the police force where they receive a salary while training full time for much of the year.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with the 2018 British shot put champion Amelia Strickler, and I was curious to find out what life is like for a professional thrower in that country.

It’s funny talking to Amelia because she sounds as American as apple pie. Not once during our conversation did she refer to cookies as “biscuits” or the bathroom as the “loo.”

That’s because Amelia grew up on Ohio, and is a 2017 graduate of  Miami of Ohio University.

She feels, however, a deep connection with her adopted country. According to Amelia, her mother, a British citizen, “raised me very British. We celebrated all the British holidays in my house growing up, and we visited my family there all the time. When I started having success in college, I knew I wanted to represent Britain some day.”

Amelia graduated from high school with a shot put PR of 42’2”. During her freshman year, she upped that to 48’7”. As a junior, she broke the school record with a toss of 55’5 ¾” and finished twelfth at the NCAA Outdoor Championships. A promising senior season was derailed by stress fractures in three different leg bones during the winter of 2015/2016. Amelia ended up taking a medical redshirt, but that summer she competed in the British Championships for the first time.

She remained healthy during the 2016/2017 season, her final year at Miami, and managed a PR of 56” (17.12m) but a lousy performance at regionals kept her out of the NCAA finals.

With her mother and sister planning a move to England, Amelia jumped the pond for good that summer. She quickly became the second ranked putter in the country and qualified to compete in the European Team Championships.

Talking to Amelia, it became obvious that post-collegiate putters in the UK have one significant advantage over their counterparts in the US: the club system.

As is commonly the case in European countries, sports in the UK are not affiliated with schools. Rather, various communities sponsor clubs.

Amelia explained that the clubs are organized in different tiers, “kind of like NCAA division I, II, or III. I went with a club, Thames Valley, that was really competitive. We won the  premier division last year.”

Though the clubs do not support the athletes financially, they provide something that can be hard to come by in the US: meets. Lots of meets.

For post-collegiates in the US, opportunities to compete are not hard to come by during the college season when there are lots of invitationals that allow open entries. But once mid-May rolls around, the NCAA regionals begin the invites end and those not yet accomplished enough to snag spots in Diamond League meets are out of luck for a good chunk of the summer. And forgive me for stating the obvious, but it is awfully hard to get better at your event if you can’t compete regularly.

According to Amelia, the league that her club is part of, the UK Women’s Athletic League, holds one meet per month in June, July, and August, “but there are also Southern League matches around London that I can do as well.”

The club meets are held in venues that remind Amelia of the home facility at Miami of Ohio. She says they are well attended. “The sport is much more popular over here. Football takes the cake, obviously, but  there is a much bigger following for track and field.”

This, too, is likely a byproduct of the club system.

“It’s just so easy for people to get involved with the sport here.There are quite a few tracks around, and it is easy for people to join a club. This system encourages kids to get involved in athletics at a much younger age. A lot of them will do it with all their friends.”

So finding competitions is no problem for post-collegiates in the UK, but like their counterparts in the US, they still face daunting challenges in trying to extend their career. Though Amelia is the current British shot put champion, a 17.26m PR and a promising future have not been enough to secure financial support from the British Athletics Federation. She currently lives with her mother, works mornings in a local shop, and commutes two hours by rail every day to a practice facility that she pays to use.

She is also on her own in trying to secure top-flight coaching. When she first arrived in the UK, Amelia tried to rely on Steve Manz, her coach at Miami. She regularly sent him practice videos and solicited his advice, but that was clearly not an ideal arrangement. At the 2017 European Team Championships she met former British discus champion Zane Duquemin, who was trying to finance his own throwing career by coaching on the side. She heard good things about Duquemin, who also coaches current British discus champs Jade Lally and Brett Morse, and so began making the two-hour trek to the town of Loughborough to train with him.  

The results have been promising.

In spite of a torn calf muscle that interrupted her training this winter, Amelia has had a solid outdoor season. She hit that PR of 17.26m on June 9th, won the British shot title later that month, and represented Britain at the recent World Athletics Cup in London where she greatly enjoyed her first experience competing in a large stadium.

“It was amazing, to be honest.  I’ve never thrown in a big stadium quite like that before, and to have that big a home crowd as well was awesome. At the NCAA championships in Eugene, there was a big crowd, but they don’t really bother with you if you’re not from University of Oregon. At the Cup, people were waving flags, and I heard someone yell ‘Go, Amelia!’ when I walked into the ring. And it wasn’t my coach’s voice, either!”

Next up for Amelia are the English Championships followed by the European Championships this August in Berlin.

Getting sponsored by the British Federation would make life easier going forward. She’d have free access to Federation facilities and physiotherapists. To obtain that sponsorship, though, she is likely to have to break the 18-meter barrier.

“That’s been my goal for a long time,” she said. “Things haven’t gone my way the past two or three years with injuries. It’s nice being a professional now and able to choose the meets I compete in. Looking back on the NCAA season where you have a meet every single weekend, I can see how the injuries might have occurred. Now I try to be selective, be prepared, and make the meets count. I think 18 meters is doable this year.”

A perfect end to the season would be an 18-meter throw in Berlin followed by an invitation to the Birmingham Diamond League meeting followed by a sponsorship offer from her Federation.

That’s a lot to have riding on these next couple of meets, and I wondered if that would make it difficult to stay focused on the task at hand as she stepped into the ring.

“For me, I’m still new to being a professional, and I just try to put that stuff out of my mind, For example, at the British Championships this year I knew if I won I’d get selected for the Athletics Cup, and that was something that I really wanted to do. My attitude was ‘I’m going to throw far today.’  At meets, I just try to worry about myself and not let those outside pressures bother me. I love the atmosphere of a big stadium and a big crowd,”

She will get all the atmosphere she can handle in Berlin, as one of the more charming aspects of German culture is their passion for the throws. They will show up in force to cheer on 2015 shot put World Champion Christina Schwanitz who, after two injury-plagued years, is back in 20-meter form.  

Oh, and running concurrently with the women’s shot, both prelims and finals, will be the men’s discus where one Robert Harting will be making his final appearance…ever. Think that stadium will be rocking?

Maybe Amelia will be able to tap into that energy, blast out an 18-meter throw and take a big step forward as a pro. Either way, she’ll be back at the grind this off-season, hopping aboard that Loughborough train day in and day out hoping it will eventually take her to the big time.

Free Rotational Shot Put Webinar with Coach Nathan Fanger

McThrows.com is extremely jacked to present a free webinar on rotational shot put technique with Nathan Fanger, the long time throws coach at Kent State University.

This webinar will take place on Thursday, July 26 at 7:00pm Central Standard time.  You can register here.

During his time at Kent State, Coach Fanger’s throwers have won fifty Mid American Conference titles.  Thirty-three of Nathan’s throwers have qualified for the NCAA Championships, with fourteen finishing as All-Americans including Reggie Jagers (who last month won the USATF title in the discus) and Danniel Thomas-Dodd, 2017 NCAA shot put champion, 2018 Indoor World Championships silver medalist, and 2018 Commonwealth Games champion.

In this webinar, Coach Fanger will break down Thomas-Dodd’s rotational shot put technique, which is quite a bit different than the standard American approach to rotational throwing.

A year ago, I interviewed Nathan on this topic, and his explanation of Danniel’s technique was really interesting. You can find that interview here.

This webinar will be a unique opportunity to get an inside look at the technique of a world class thrower. Participants may submit questions to Nathan throughout the presentation. Whether you coach beginning or advanced throwers, I think you’ll find this to be fascinating discussion.

 

Jessica Ramsey intends to contend

Remember that moment in Rocky when out of nowhere he decks Apollo Creed in the first round?  Nobody in the place thinks he’ll so much as lay a glove on Creed,, and then…Bam!…he lands a haymaker. In the end,  Rocky did not win the that fight, but that punch and his ability to hang tough for fifteen rounds against overwhelming odds gave him credibility as an athlete and changed the course of his career and his life.

Okay, I know Rocky is a movie. Don’t mistake me for those Game of Thrones fans who can’t wait for time travel to be invented so they can go back and get a look at a dragon.

But I witnessed a very Rocky-like moment in real life recently. It occurred, ironically enough, during the first round of the women’s shot at the USATF Championships in Des Moines.

As I sat down on that perfect Sunday afternoon to watch flight two warm-up, I anticipated a hard-fought battle between the current NCAA shot put champion Maggie Ewen and the defending USATF champion Raven Saunders.

I’d also hoped that Rio Olympic champ Michelle Carter would push the youngsters and make it a three-way contest, but it became clear during warm-ups that she was not in shape to do that. (Afterwards, Michelle revealed that that she was still recovering from off-season knee surgery.)

No other thrower seemed likely to break 18 meters, and since Ewen and Saunders were reliable 19-meter throwers, this was clearly going to be a two-person race.

It turned out, however, that I’d missed something during warm-ups, a clear sign that a third contestant might just upset the form chart.

Twenty-six-year-old Jessica Ramsey, who had finished fifth in the hammer competition a day earlier and who came to Des Moines with a lifetime best in the shot of 18.42m, had warmed up with several non-reverse throws, each of which had traveled around 17 meters.

As signs go, this was admittedly a subtle one.

According to the Bible, signs foreshadowing an earth shaking event may include “distress of nations in perplexity…the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding.”

Nothing in there about fixed-feet fulls.

But to two people present in Drake Stadium that day, Ramsey and her coach John Smith, those warm-up throws portended a cosmic shift in the women’s shot.

 Ramsey recalled later that those warm-up tosses “told me I was going to get it.”

Smith recalls seeing them and thinking, “Okay, here it comes.”

And come, it did.

Ramsey strode into the ring on her first throw and absolutely killed one.

“After warm-ups,” she recalled later, “I  prayed and did my little meditation. Then, on that first throw when I hit the middle and  I stayed in, I felt like it was a good one.”

It was. The throw measured 19.23m.

It was a three-foot PR and the seventh best throw in the world this year. In the space of a couple of seconds, Ramsey had gone from an anonymous member of a large group of better-than-average American female shot putters to one of the best in the world at her event.

Actually, it took a little longer than a couple of seconds.

Ramsey graduated from Western Kentucky University in 2014 having put together a fine college career (seven-time conference champion, all-American in the shot) under a fine college coach (Ashley Muffet, now at Ohio State). Her PRs though (53.84m in the disc, 61.44m in the hammer, and 17.49m in the shot) were not necessarily those of a future world-class thrower.  Ewen, by comparison, just graduated from Arizona State having thrown 62.47m in the disc, 74.56m in the hammer, and 19.46m in the shot.

In spite of this, Ramsey was determined to pursue a career in the professional ranks, so she packed her belongings and relocated to Carbondale, Illinois, to train with Smith, at that time the throws coach at Southern Illinois University.

Two months after her arrival, Ramsey’s determination received its first test when Coach Smith and his wife Connie Price Smith accepted an offer to take over the track program at Ole Miss. Ramsey describes that moment as “very hard for me. I had just moved to Carbondale! I’d packed up everything and spent all my money to move there, and a couple of months later I had to pack up again.”

After settling in Oxford, Mississippi, Ramsey had to figure out how to support herself while also leaving time to train.

“When I first came to Mississippi, I worked at a senior care facility, a daycare facility, and a company called Insomnia Cookies. That kind of hindered my practicing.”

“Later, I got a raise at Insomnia, so I dropped the senior care job. After that, I  got hired at Dicks Sporting Goods, so I dropped the daycare job. That’s where I’m at now. Most of the time, I work seven days a week just to pay the bills.”

In spite of this, under Smith’s tutelage Ramsey kept improving in the hammer and the shot.

As a glide shot putter, Ramsey could not have found a better, more experienced coach than Smith. Many years ago, Smith developed a reputation as the best glide shot coach in the United States. He honed his skills at teaching the glide while guiding Connie to a long and remarkably successful career that began in the 1980’s when winning international medals meant beating the Commies, and lasted until the early 2000’s by which time the fall of the Eastern Bloc and the advent of stricter drug testing protocols had significantly altered the nature of the sport.

Throughout most of Connie’s career, all evidence indicated that the glide technique was the most reliable path for a female shot putter to win a medal at a major championship.  

It was not until Jill Camarena-Williams nabbed bronze at the 2011 Worlds that a rotational shot putter broke through. Prior to that, every World and Olympic medal awarded in the women’s shot had been won by a glider.

But the increasing success of the rotational technique among the men (including a sweep of  shot medals at the 2000 Olympics) caused Smith to believe that women could benefit from adopting the rotational technique as well.

In March of 2014, shortly before Ramsey joined his training group, Smith posted an article in which he made a compelling case that it was time for female putters to abandon the glide. 

So Ramsey was in for a bit of a surprise when she arrived in Oxford. Smith wanted to convert her to the spin.

She did not give in easily.

“The first year,” Smith told me a couple of days after the USATF meet, “she fought me on it. If the spin wasn’t working for her in practice, she’d go back to the glide.”

Ramsey has similar memories of that period. “I didn’t want to change because I was consistently throwing  58-59 feet with the glide, and when we tried the spin it was so hard! Some days I’d be like, ‘I got this!’ Then other days, I’d be slipping in the middle, fouling, dropping my elbow, and I’d think, ‘I’m going back to the glide!’ The thing about the spin is, if you miss one thing then the whole throw is messed up! That’s what’s frustrating about it. Even at meets, I’d sometimes start with the spin and then switch to the glide.”

Complicating matters was the fact that over her first two seasons with Smith, Ramsey pushed her glide PR into the 18-meter range. But Smith still felt that she was wasting her potential.

“She’s 5’6”, which is too small to be more than a sixty-foot glider. She’s explosive as hell, but her top end in the glide will never be what it is in the spin.”

Matters came to a head at the 2016 Olympic Trials.

“She didn’t throw worth a crap at the Trials,“ Smith recalled, “and a couple of days later at practice right there in Eugene, I said, ‘You need to change to the spin. I know for a fact from training people over the years that the spin is nine to nine-and-a-half percent better than the glide. If you add that on to your glide, you’re a sixty-six-footer!’”

Finally, a year ago, Ramsey committed fully to the rotational technique. Job one was to master the art of using the ground or, as Smith calls it, “working the Earth.”

Over many years of careful observation, Smith came to believe that gliders and non-reverse discus throwers shared a quality that was often missing from the technique of rotational putters: a strong connection with the ground. As he saw it, discus throwers and rotational putters who focused too much on getting air time–whether during the non-support phase or as they launched the implement from the power position–were sacrificing distance and reliability.

He discussed his theory in this article first posted in 2003. (Note: Check out Smith’s vision of the kind of rotational putter who might eventually threaten the men’s world record. It calls to mind a certain Sasquatch-sized Olympic record holder who was eleven years old at the time Smith wrote the article.)

Long story short, Smith made Ramsey take a whole lotta fixed-feet throws over the past year.

It all finally came together in Des Moines. After her huge throw, Ramsey felt the emotions welling but tried to hold them back. “I had to compose myself because I didn’t want it to look like I didn’t know I had a throw like that in me.”

She didn’t come close to 19 meters again (her series went 19.23m, 17.65m, 17.61m, F, 18.24m, F), and she didn’t win (Ewen passed her in round five with a toss of 19.29m) but that one throw was enough to get her an invitation to her first Diamond League meeting (in Rabat on July 13th) and perhaps usher in further life changes that will make staying in the upper echelon of putters a bit easier than getting there in the first place.

A strong showing in Rabat could get her invited to the Diamond League meeting in Monaco on July 19th. She is also scheduled to compete at the NACAC Championships in Toronto in early August.

If she finishes the year with a top-ten world ranking, Ramsey will likely qualify for the USATF tier system, which will allow her to  have health insurance for the first time since leaving college.

Additionally, Ramsey hopes to soon be sponsored by the New York Athletic Club. Should that happen, she would be able to cut down to working only one job and have more time to recover from her daily training sessions.

Owing to the brutal financial calculus of the sport of track and field, Ramsey’s performance in this next handful of meets may determine whether or not her days of averaging five hours of sleep, of trying to get by on $300-$400 dollars worth of food per month, or praying that she doesn’t sustain an injury for which she cannot afford treatment, are over.

Either way, Ramsey is committed to continuing her journey.

“Confidence is the biggest thing in this track industry, and I’ve got it. I believe I am going to throw great in Rabat and that will open more doors for me.”

Not a bad attitude for a young athlete who wants nothing more out of life than a little extra free time that she can devote to mastering the fine art of  “working the Earth.”

(You can find additional coverage of the USATF women’s shot competition including videotaped interviews with Jessica, Michelle, and Maggie here.)