It all started in October of 2018 when she stabbed herself in the hand while carving a Halloween pumpkin for the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. It was her right hand, of course, her javelin hand, and she suffered nerve damage that had her “extremely worried” that her career might be over.
Which would have been a shame, since she’d thrown great at the Diamond League final in Zurich a few weeks earlier (64.75m to take third), and loved working with her current coaches, Dana Pounds Lyon and Jamie Myers.
So she had no interest in retiring, and immediately vowed “not to let this weird, accidental self-sabotage get in the way of what I had started to build with Jamie and Dana.” Luckily, the pain from the injury subsided after a few weeks, though it occasionally resurfaced at odd times (while closing the trunk of her car, for example) to remind her of how close she’d come to having her long and remarkably productive career (Kara has won eight national titles) come to a premature and embarrassing end.
One upshot of the injury was that it caused Kara to change the way she held the javelin. She dropped the “European grip” that she’d used her entire career, and adopted the “American” grip. “I worried about hand strength,” she explained. “With the European grip, you basically use three fingers. In the American grip you have all four fingers in contact with the chord, so I figured that if I had lost any strength this could help me compensate.”
It turned out that she was good at compensating. In May, Kara traveled to Chula Vista for a three-week training camp to try out the new grip. It worked just fine and, in spite of a “small, weird” calf strain that she sustained in practice, her first European trip of the 2019 season began in promising fashion with wins in Norway and Germany. She then took fourth at the Diamond League meeting in Rome with a toss of 63.11m. But the trip concluded on a sour note when she could manage a best of only 56.25m in Jena.
Kara had about three weeks at home after that, part of which she was able to spend with her husband, Russ, himself a former world class thrower who was in Wyoming for the summer guiding fishing trips. But she missed him badly when she returned to Colorado to train, and Dana, who coaches at the Air Force Academy, was busy with her collegiate throwers, so Kara was often left to practice alone and she found herself brooding over that performance in Jena.
Her confidence took another shot when her second European trip began as badly as the first had ended–a toss of 56.99m for ninth place (and no Diamond League points) in Lausanne.
She then rallied to break sixty meters in three consecutive meets, including a 62.89m toss in Luzern, but fell ill after that, struggled to maintain any rhythm in training, and ended up finishing ninth in the London Diamond League meeting on July 20th. That wrecked her chances of qualifying for the Diamond League Final.
Which was awfully disappointing after her third-place DL finish in 2018.
Kara had faced adversity before, including having to work her way back from a torn ACL suffered during the 2012 Olympic Trials. She threw in the London Olympics on that bad knee, had it surgically repaired, then fought her way back to the elite level of the sport, tossing a near PB of 66.47m in 2015.
So, she’s no wimp.
But there was something about the summer of 2019 that got her down. Maybe the shock of the Halloween injury had taken an emotional toll. Maybe all the travel was getting harder and lonelier after a decade of summers spent on the road. Maybe, with her career nearing its end, she was putting too much pressure on herself not to waste opportunities. Her determination to “carpe” all her remaining “diems” as a javelin thrower may have made it more difficult to shake off the occasional sucky diem–something that professional athletes have to be able to do.
Whatever the cause, she left Europe feeling low and desperate to–in her words–“freaking relax.”
Luckily, her next stop was Des Moines, Iowa, site of the 2019 US Championships. Des Moines has had an endorphin-inducing effect on Kara ever since she set the American record of 66.67m there in 2010. Also, Dana would be there to train with her and Russ would be there for moral support. And, it turns out that they have sensory deprivation tanks in Des Moines to help tense Iowans relax.
Sensory deprivation tanks (also known as “isolation tanks” or “flotation tanks”) come in a variety of sizes and shapes, but are basically containers of salt water large enough for a person to climb into, stretch out, and float. Some have lids that shut out all light. They were featured in a 1980 film called Altered States in which William Hurt starred as a scientist who used a deprivation tank not to relax but to devolve into a more primitive state. At one point, his colleagues open the tank and he pops out as a small caveman.
Kara’s experience was markedly different. A friend recommended that she try floating as a way to relieve stress, so she made an appointment as soon as she arrived in Des Moines. Her first ninety-minute session helped relieve some of the chronic neck pain and tightness that are the inevitable result of throwing a javelin for a living and, more importantly, allowed her to clear her head for the first time in months.
She had lunch with Dana and Jamie the next day, and the three conspired to salvage Kara’s season.
One thing they agreed on was that Kara should return to her old grip. Though the American grip allowed her to “control the angle of the javelin better,” she never quite got comfortable with it, and she and Dana decided that using her old grip might give her a better chance to “rediscover how to move through the finish.”
With only a couple of days before the women’s jav competition in Des Moines, they agreed that Kara would use the American grip one last time. With it, Kara threw 59.73m and finished second to her good friend Ariana Ince.
After that, it was off to Lima, Peru for the Pan American Games. Upon arriving in Lima, Kara had time to practice her old grip only once before blasting a season’s best 64.92m for the win.
She then returned home for a month of quality training and floating before traveling to Minsk for the US v. Europe match, which she won with a sixth-round toss of 64.63m.
Next came the World Championships. Previously, Kara’s best finish at a Worlds was eighth place in 2015. But, newly confident, newly relaxed, newly comfortable with her old grip she snagged fifth in Doha with a toss of 63.23m. No American woman had ever finished higher in the jav at Worlds.
Looking back, Kara views her week in Des Moines as the turning point to her season.
“I had a fantastic time at USA’s,” she recalled recently. “I got to hang out with my family and many of my closest friends. Ari and I hosted our first (hopefully annual) thrower party. And to have been surrounded by people I adore for an entire weekend after being disappointed in Europe for weeks was exactly what I needed.”
“I truly entered the second half of the season just wanting to have a great time with my friends at the three team meets I had left, and see what would happen if I went back to my old grip and just relaxed. I was just very done being worried and too serious all the time. I just wanted to bust out of whatever rut I was in this year, in a healthy and communicative way.”
After some time off to recover from a long and challenging season, Kara began throwing again a couple of weeks ago. She survived Halloween unscathed, and says that she is excited to be back in training. She floats regularly, and has been pleased to discover that “the warmth of the sensory deprivation tank is really nice during a Colorado winter.”
Doing her best to “remember the technical and mental things that made the end of 2019 so fun,” Kara is looking forward to taking her talents to Tokyo.
Which gives me an idea for a movie. It’s just like Altered States, except that when the scientists open the hatch on the tank, out pops a women’s javelin thrower with an Olympic medal around her neck. I know just the person to play that part.
The Odyssey, Homer’s epic poem, tells the story of Odysseus, a Greek noble who proves himself the greatest of all warriors during the conquest of Troy, but then for ten years is prevented from returning to his homeland, Ithaca, by the god Poseidon. It is a long, humbling journey, but in the end he finds salvation in the unbreakable fortitude of his wife, Penelope.
The Odyssey of Joe Kovacs began late in the summer of 2017, after a three-year run during which he’d established himself as one of the great shot putters of all time. He was twenty-eight years old, had tossed a PB of 22.57m earlier that season and appeared, outwardly at least, to be at the top of his game.
But there were gravitational forces at work behind the scenes in the sport and in Joe’s life, forces as powerful as the invisible hand of Poseidon. They would make the next two years the most challenging of Joe’s career.
Some of those forces were exerted by Joe’s planet-sized rival, Ryan Crouser, whose record-setting performance in Rio seemed to confirm suspicions that once a really big dude (Crouser is listed as 6’7”) figured out the rotational technique, the shot putting landscape would be irrevocably altered.
John Smith predicted such a moment in an article titled “Working the Earth” published in the old Long and Strong Thrower’s Journal in October of 2003. The article was inspired by Smith’s efforts to make the 6’6”, 330-pound Dan Taylor into a successful rotational putter. In it, he muses on the whole glide versus spin battle, details his training methods with Taylor, then concludes by writing…
Even though the rotational technique in the past has been a great equalizer for the smaller man to compete with the bigger man, I believe the evolution of the event is going to favor bigger men…if they can develop a move with good ground contact and leg action and learn to stay back and contained, I can envision the same throwing that we saw during the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s. The long throws will happen, there is no doubt in my mind.
Art Venegas, arguably the best and most influential rotational shot coach the sport has produced, was also attuned at that time to the possibilities of a very large man mastering the spin. In a conversation I had with him this past October, Art recalled his impressions of the young and very large (6’10”) Carl Myerscough who he first came across in the late ‘90’s while coaching at UCLA and still describes as “the best young putter” he’s ever seen. “I never recruited foreigners,” Art remembered, “but I made an exception with Myerscough because I wanted the world to see what was possible.”
Myerscough did become a rotational putter, but he ended up throwing at Nebraska, where he won indoor and outdoor NCAA titles during a career marred by injuries and doping violations. He retired with a PB of 21.92m, but Art believes that Myerscough had possessed the raw potential to throw eighty feet clean.
Art left UCLA in 2009 without having the chance to unleash a giant spinner on the unsuspecting shot put world, but in 2013 he began what would turn out to be a remarkably successful partnership with the more conventionally-sized (6’0″, 295lbs) Joe Kovacs.
Joe took up residence at the Chula Vista training center and quickly flourished under Art’s tutelage. In 2014, he broke twenty-two meters and won his first national title. In 2015, he upped his PB to 22.56m at a Diamond League meet in Monaco and then won the World title in Beijing.
Joe remained the best thrower on the planet for most of the summer of 2016, winning Diamond League meets with twenty-two-meter-plus throws in May (the Prefontaine), June (Oslo) and July (London).
His 21.95m at the Olympic Trials easily put him on the team for Rio, but it was at those Trials that Crouser, who’d had an unremarkable season to that point, hit his stride throwing 22.11m for the win.
Then came Rio, where Crouser’s 22.52m took out the previous Olympic record of 22.47m set by Ulf Timmerman–a product of the East German state doping program–in 1988. Thus did Venegas and Smith’s premonitions about a giant-sized rotational putter finally come to fruition.
Crouser was only twenty-three years old at the time, and it seemed possible that he was about to take shot putting to a whole new level. Joe finished second behind Crouser at the Olympics with a put of 21.78m–a distance that would have won every Games from 1992-2008. In Rio, did not get him to within two feet of the gold.
Venegas, who had seen Crouser up close during practice sessions in Chula Vista, described him as “the most intelligent, coordinated, focused thrower I’ve ever seen.” Not that he was unbeatable. Crouser demonstrated in the 2017 Worlds (where he finished sixth) that he was capable of having a bad day. But watching him ease his way through the ring in Chula Vista and repeatedly drop practice throws on the twenty-two meter line, it was easy for Art to picture a not-so-distant future where it might take twenty-three meters to win a major championship.
That prospect gave Joe and Art a lot to think about in the summer of 2017. For the past two decades, the rotational technique had served as, to use Smith’s words, “the great equalizer,” allowing Joe and other throwers his size to successfully compete against 6’7” gliders. But now, here was a 6’7” dude who seemed to have mastered the spin.
How could Joe counter?
It turns out that the 2017 Worlds provided a clue. Joe defeated Crouser in London, taking silver with a toss of 21.66m. But the winner that night was Tom Walsh of New Zealand—another compactly-built spinner—who, in concert with his coach Dale Stevenson, may have shown a way forward for the stubby folk.
Tom joined the twenty-two meter club in 2016 when he was twenty-four years old. He finished third in Rio behind Crouser and Joe. In London, he threw a season’s best 22.14m in the prelims before taking the gold with a sixth-round 22.03m in the final.
Those fine performances in high pressure situations announced Tom as a force to be reckoned with, and his gregarious personality made him easy to root for. But what was most intriguing about Tom was his technique. He and Dale had modified what might be called “standard” rotational form by having Tom set up for the throw with his left foot at twelve o’clock and his right foot staggered back about half way between the edge and the center point of the circle. Tom began his throws by sweeping his left arm open aggressively then whipping his right leg around from that stepped-back position. The super long path of that right leg allowed Tom to generate tremendous speed as he yanked it back in to the center of circle. When successfully transferred to the shot, that speed created the potential for massive throws.
Tom’s victory in London raised the possibility that he and Dale had figured out a way to restore the rotational advantage to those compact and nimble enough to make a similar adjustment.
The question Joe and Art faced was whether to stay the course with Joe–he had, after all won a world title just two years earlier–or embark on an experimental path that might give him the means to defeat Crouser going forward.
They chose to experiment, and decided to have Joe start his throws from a position that Joe’s wife and current coach, Ashley, describes as “facing a full ninety degrees to the right” of a normal setup.
Art described their approach as “looking at what Walsh did but taking it a step further.”
He was convinced that if Joe could get comfortable with this adjustment and then “catch it just right” one day, he might well throw eighty feet. “It adds more distance to the movement,” Art explained. “Like the regular spin gives you more range than the glide.”
Even under the best of circumstances though, altering Joe’s technique (which had been ingrained by many thousands of throws over many years) was a risky gambit.
When we spoke this fall, I mentioned to Art that David Storl–who glided his way to two World titles and an Olympic silver medal–had in 2018 considered changing to the rotational technique. Art acknowledged the difficulty of a world class thrower making that change in the span of a single off-season. “You can’t just try it,” he cautioned. “A guy like that has to be taught for six to eight months, and he can’t even see a toeboard. He’s got to be given drills and do turns with a barbell and never even pick up a shot for a while.”
The challenge that Joe faced in altering his starting position may not have been as daunting as that faced by a veteran glider switching to the spin, but there was still no way of predicting how long it would take him to get to the point where he could regularly “catch it just right.”
And as a man who makes his living throwing the shot, Joe did not have the option of taking the 2018 season off to concentrate on perfecting his new technique.
But with no Worlds or Olympics in 2018, they felt like they had a window leading up to the 2019 Worlds in which to implement the changes. Joe would still compete in 2018, but his emphasis would be on mastering his new approach.
At that point, however, another gravitational force intervened, this time exerted by the planet Life.
Joe and Ashley (at the time Ashley Muffet) had for some time been involved in a serious relationship, and with Ashley settled in as the immensely successful throws coach at Ohio State University, it became clear that it was time for Joe to relocate to Columbus.
Joe made the move that winter, with the idea that Art would coach him remotely. Ashley says that “at the time when he came here, we never talked about me coaching him. I would watch his practices, but I didn’t have a whole lot to add to it because what they were doing with the new technique was truly an experiment. It was nothing I had ever seen before, so I didn’t feel comfortable weighing in.”
Joe did not compete during the 2018 indoor season. He lived and trained in Columbus with occasional trips to work with Art in person. As the outdoor campaign began, he wasn’t comfortable enough with his new technique to use it in competition, so he continued working on it in practice while occasionally switching back to his “normal” technique for meets.
He tore a groin muscle working on the new setup early in the outdoor season, then switched back to his old technique ten days prior to the 2018 Prefontaine Classic, where he finished eighth with a throw of 20.36m.
Joe and Ashley then traveled to Los Angeles the week before the 2018 US Championships so he and Art could resume work on the new technique. Joe finished fifth at those Championships, using his old technique to produce a best of 20.74m.
The experiment continued that winter until finally, in December of 2018, they all agreed that it would be best for Joe to return full time to his old style of throwing.
Art says that he realized that it was unfair to Ashley and Joe to ask them to continue with the experiment when it became apparent that “it couldn’t work fast enough.”
They all decided that Joe should go back to basics, to hitting the positions that had helped Joe become World champion in the first place. This was an approach in which Ashley felt much more comfortable taking an active roll. “Besides,” she said later, “the way he was throwing at that point, I didn’t think I could make things any worse.”
It turned out, though, that switching back to his old technique was not an easy thing for Joe to do. He struggled to find his rhythm, opening in January with a 20.77m toss at a meet in New York, followed by a 20.86m mark at the Millrose Games and then a humiliating 19.52m at a meet in Columbus on February 15th.
He rebounded to finish second at the Indoor Nationals with a throw of 21.40m, but Crouser’s winning toss of 22.22m was a stark reminder of how far Joe still had to go to get back into the upper echelon of the sport.
According to Ashley, the struggle to regain his form was at times so discouraging that Joe questioned if he should continue competing.
He now had a house, a wife, an “adult life he hadn’t had before.” Maybe it was time to move on.
Had Joe fallen in love with anyone else, his career may well have ended last winter. But, like Penelope, Ashley turned out to be a woman of great strength. It also helped that she was a world class throws coach.
Art had met Ashley when she did a coaching internship at Chula Vista, and what he saw convinced him that she was going to become one of the best in the business and “change the landscape for women coaches.”
With Joe fighting to salvage his career, Ashley proved Art correct.
Her first priority was to get Joe to forget about the past, forget about the future, forget about everything except the things he could do to get a little bit better every day. “It was hard to see Joe miserable,” she recalled later. “But, I tell my Ohio State kids that if they are upset about how they’re doing, they need to fix it. I ask them why they think they deserve to throw far if they hit terrible positions or their rhythm is terrible. Stop complaining and fix it. That’s not an easy thing to say to your husband, by the way.”
“But, I told Joe that he had to forget about what Ryan or Darrell Hill were throwing. He had to pretend like he wasn’t even in the mix. Everyone thought he was washed up, and he hated that because one of the things he likes the most about throwing is the competing aspect. He loves to put on a show and do things people don’t think he can do.”
“I told him, ‘Yes, you’ve thrown 22.50m, but right now you’re throwing twenty meters in practice. You have to accept that and build yourself up from there.’”
In spite of opening outdoors with four consecutive meets under twenty-one meters (including a 19.77m clunker in Stockholm) Joe listened and persevered.
And as the season wore on, there were hopeful signs. Ashley recalls “a lot of meets where there were twenty-two meter fouls or warm-ups, so we knew it was there.” One of those meets was the 2019 Prefontaine Classic where Joe finished fifth with a throw of 21.39m but said afterwards that seeing the ball travel twenty-two meters even in warm-ups gave him hope that a breakthrough was coming.
It came three weeks later at the US Championships in Des Moines where his first three throws traveled 21.99m, 22.00m, and 22.31m.
This, according to Ashley, was the “turning point.”
“We were happy,” she recalls. “But we knew he had at least another fifty centimeters in him.”
Joe finished second to Crouser’s 22.62m at USA’s, but a month later hit 22.11m in Paris.
His last meet before Worlds was the Diamond League Final in Brussels where he suffered a major setback, finishing eighth with a best of 20.60m. Ashley says that “he didn’t like that a bit, but I kept telling him ‘it doesn’t matter. Stay focused.’”
Before Joe left for Doha, Art reminded him that “he has a better history of winning medals in big meets than any of those guys.”
Still, Crouser had extended his PB to 22.74m earlier in the summer. Walsh had broken twenty-two meters on six different occasions. Darlan Romani had set a new Diamond League record of 22.61m at the Pre. And Hill, Joe’s old teammate at Chula Vista, had gone 22.35m in September at the Europe v. USA match in Belarus.
Ashley, who had “learned something about horses” while going to school at Kentucky, had been advising Joe all season to “put blinders on,” but one has to imagine that even a blind horse could sense his competitors thundering past as Joe’s rivals seemed poised to do in Doha.
With Ashley serving as throws coach for Team USA, she and Joe arrived at Worlds ten days before the prelims and were forced to train each night in heat and humidity so oppressive that it was sometimes difficult for Joe to keep the shot from falling out of his hand as he ran the ring. It was one more challenge in a season full of them.
When the men’s shot prelims finally rolled around, he looked solid, surpassing the automatic qualification mark with 20.92m on his first attempt.
He looked solid again while warming up for the final. Ashley says that people with a clear view told her that some of Joe’s warm-up throws were “really far,” but she couldn’t see exactly where they landed.
Crouser was up first in the final, and wasted no time in knocking another ’80’s glider out of the record books. Werner Gunthor’s Championship mark of 22.23m had stood since 1987. Crouser relieved him of it with a toss of 22.36m.
Joe opened with 20.90m and Ashley thought that his tempo was “really slow” and “a little too passive.”
Walsh ended the first round with a monstrous PB and new Championship record of 22.90m.
Venegas says that in any other throwing event, a toss like that in the first round would have effectively ended the competition because everyone would have tightened up and lost their timing. But the shot is an “emotional event” where competitors can feed off of each other’s excitement. Romani illustrated this by crushing a 22.53m with his second toss.
Joe guaranteed himself a full six throws with a second-round 21.63m and followed that up with 21.24m in the third. As the fourth round began, he sat in fifth place behind Walsh, Romani, Crouser, and Hill, who had hit 21.65m in round three.
Joe’s 21.95m in round four moved him into fourth place, but a spot on the medal stand was still a long way off as Crouser hit 22.71m to knock Romani into third.
Ashley was still concerned about Joe’s tempo. “He didn’t have any fouls,” she recalled, “which is unusual.” After the 21.95m, she told him, “It doesn’t matter. Anything less than 22.50-22.60m might as well be a foul. It’s either a PR or a foul. We’ve got nothing to lose, so keep swinging.”
He reached 21.94m in round five, still in fourth behind Romani’s 22.53m.
At the end of Homer’s epic, Odysseus returns to Ithaca only to find his house occupied by murderous rivals bent on dividing his estate and erasing his legacy. He disguises himself as a beggar and approaches his palace just in time to see his favorite dog, who has loyally pined for him for twenty years, expire on a pile of dung. His enemies do not recognize him, but just for grins one of them picks up a foot stool and smacks him with it. It was an immensely frustrating situation for an immensely proud man. This close to redemption, but still likely to lose everything he had strived for.
And so it must have felt for Joe. Over the past two years he had been supplanted in the shot put rankings by Crouser, Walsh, Romani, Hill and–truth be told–many lesser throwers as well. He wasn’t exactly forgotten, but many assumed that his days of contending for gold medals were behind him.
Then, he fights his way back to the twenty-two-meter level only to find that it now took more than 22.50m to contend for a medal.
When Joe stepped into the ring for his final throw, I was at a park playing with my grandson. A few minutes later, I received a text that read, “Three guys over 75 feet!! Unbelievable!!”
I assumed the three had been Crouser, Walsh, and either Romani or Hill. Imagine my surprise when, later that afternoon, I sat down and watched a replay of the webcast.
Joe’s throw of 22.91m was one of the great performances in the history of the sport, made greater still when Crouser answered with his own PB of 22.90m, which knocked Walsh into third on the countback.
All three over seventy-five feet. Unbelievable, indeed.
Ashley says that speed made the difference on Joe’s winning toss. “I think he was more aggressive from the beginning of that throw,” she explained. “Technically, all day he looked pretty good, but because he brought more velocity into that throw I think he caught the ball back a little farther. He stayed connected to it, and the ball stayed on his hand for a long time, all from the speed he brought to it.”
Like Joe, Odysseus conquered his rivals. Only he used a sword, which is how manly men settled things in those days. His odyssey over, he and his wife settled in to enjoy the leisurely life of the landed nobility. Homer did not write a sequel, so we’ll never know if Odysseus ever sallied forth on further adventures.
In Joe’s case, the sequel is about to begin. He will open his Olympic campaign against Crouser at the Millrose Games in February. A summer of rematches with Hill, Romani, Walsh and the rest is not far off.
Based on post-Doha conversations with various athletes and coaches, it seems that previous big meet experience–sometimes painfully acquired–was a major factor in allowing throwers to flourish at these World Championships.
Rudy Winkler is a prime example.
The 77.06m PB he nailed in round three of the Doha prelims was the result, he said afterwards “of just following the plan set forth by my coaches. Every practice we would work on the same cues, so I knew if I just worked on those cues in the meet, I would throw far.”
Makes sense, doesn’t it? But when a thrower is new to international competition, sticking to a plan can be quite difficult.
Rudy discovered this while struggling mightily at the 2016 Rio Olympics and 2017 London World Championships. He arrived in Rio after setting a new PB of 76.76m at the Olympic Trials, but managed a top throw of only 71.89m in the qualification round there. His performance in London was equally disappointing as he failed to dent the 70-meter line.
Those were not pleasant experiences, but they laid the groundwork for Rudy’s success at the 2019 Worlds.
“At past international competitions,” he explained, “ I tended to change what I did because I saw other people doing things that I liked. This time around, I stuck to what I knew and did on a daily basis. Plus, you get used to these meets the more you go to them. The first ones you attend are exciting because you see all these athletes you’ve admired for years, and it’s like being at Disneyland. Now they are acquaintances and friends of mine, which makes it easier to focus.”
Rudy’s performance in Doha confirmed that he has gotten much better at competing at championship-caliber meets. It also revealed the next hurdle he has to overcome if he wants to contend for a World or Olympic medal.
Unable to match his prelim distance in the finals, he finished eleventh with a best of 75.20m. Rudy attributed his drop-off to one, being tired after having given his all in the previous day’s prelims and two, letting himself get a bit too excited.
“I was going after throws a little too hard,” he said in retrospect, “instead of just doing what I did the day before.”
It is likely that no thrower in the world gained more experience in 2019 than Laulauga Tausaga. Her IAAF profile lists her first competition of the year as having taken place on January 11. That was an indoor meet at the University of Iowa where she was just beginning her junior season, which would not end until ten months later with the women’s discus final in Doha.
Like Rudy Winkler, Lagi launched a PB in the prelims at Doha, reaching 63.94m in the second round. Unlike Rudy, Lagi had never before competed in an Olympics or World Championships.
Luckily, she is a quick learner and competing in the USA v. Europe match in Belarus in September provided her with some valuable experience that she put to use at Worlds.
I recently wrote about the challenges presented by the heat and humidity in Doha. On the days they competed, athletes were forced to choose between exposing themselves to 120-degree heat by taking warm-up throws in an outdoor facility next to Khalifa Stadium, or accepting the possibility of having to make due with only two warm-up throws inside the stadium just prior to their flight.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on an athlete as young as Lagi (she turned twenty-one in May), but according to her coach, Eric Werskey, she had taken only a few warm-up tosses in Belarus prior to drilling a 63.71m PB, and that experience gave her the confidence to lay low and avoid wearing herself out in the hours before competing in Doha.
Another aspect of the USA v. Europe meeting that helped prepare Lagi for Worlds was competing against two-time Olympic and two-time World Champion Sandra Perkovic. Though she faced tough competition at the NCAA and US Championships, Lagi had never before gone head-to-head with a thrower of Perkovic’s stature, and as Rudy pointed out, the first time you are around people like that in person it can be hard to maintain one’s focus.
But tossing that PB and finishing second to Sandra in Belarus prepared Lagi well for the Doha “Disneyland.”
According to Werskey, Lagi showed up at Worlds feeling confident. Her 61.33m opener in the prelims was “maybe her best opener all year,” and her 63.94m gave her the automatic qualifier and turned out to be the best throw among the American women at the Championships.
Lagi’s experience in the final was similar to Rudy’s in that she couldn’t recapture the rhythm she’d found in the qualifying round. She entered the finals determined to contend for a medal, and ended up with three fouls. Werksey said that she might have been a little “overzealous” on those throws, but all in all “the biggest thing for her was that despite three fouls she walked away with her head high, knowing that she was one of the youngest in the field and she can hang with the best in the world.”
No one in Doha demonstrated the value of accrued big meet experience as clearly as DeAnna Price.
DeAnna has been throwing world class distances in the hammer since the 2015 season when she earned a spot in the Beijing World Championships with a toss of 72.30m at the US Championships.
Her best throw in Beijing, though, was 68.69m which put her in 18th place.
In 2016, DeAnna hit 73.09m to take third at the Olympic Trials and qualify for the Rio Games. This time, she advanced to the final with a throw of 70.79m. She then slightly improved on that mark in the finals and finished eighth with a toss of 70.95m.
The following year she raised her PB to 74.91m, finished third in the US Championships with a throw of 74.06m and advanced to the World Championships in London where she produced the fifth best throw in the prelims–72.78m.
She was unable to match that distance in the finals, and finished ninth with a toss of 70.04m.
According to J.C. Lambert, DeAnna’s coach and husband, a breakthrough came during the 2018 campaign when DeAnna finished first at the Continental Cup in Ostrava. Though her winning throw of 75.46m did not match the PB 78.12m she tossed earlier in the summer to win her first national title, J.C. says that finishing first in Ostrava was a “confidence booster. It showed her she could win overseas.”
Armed with a wealth of championship meet experience, DeAnna and J.C. were ready for anything in Doha. Job one was to shake off the rigors of travel and establish a comfortable sleeping pattern. J.C. says that he’s “learned as a coach how to deal with travel and jet lag.” He and DeAnna rely on an app called Timeshifter. “You plug in your schedule, info about your normal sleep habits, plug in all the info about your trip, and it tells you when you need to go to sleep, to wake up, when you need to have some coffee to help adjust, when you need to go outside or open your blinds up to get the most light possible, when you should avoid caffeine, when you should take melatonin.”
Timeshifter helped DeAnna fall into a healthy daily rhythm. According to J.C. she had trouble sleeping only once, after a heavy lifting workout.
J.C. says that the ups and downs of competing at two previous Worlds and one Olympics taught DeAnna that “those who learn to roll with the punches will be successful.”
That lesson came in handy the night of their first throwing session in Doha when they arrived at the practice facility to find that the hammer ring was unavailable. “They were redoing the rings,” J.C. recalled, “because apparently someone said they were too fast, that they were dangerous.”
Not wanting to completely lose a day of training, DeAnna took one full throw from the javelin runway. It traveled seventy-two meters. (Fun fact: it ended up taking 71.35m to make the final in Doha.)
The qualification round went smoothly as DeAnna surpassed the automatic qualifying distance on her first throw with a toss of 73.77m.
As noted above, DeAnna had made the final in both Rio and London but then turned in disappointing performances and did not challenge for a medal.
Now, in Doha, she and J.C. put to use a lesson they’d learned from those experiences.
According to J.C., “DeAnna did a quick lift that night after qualifying. She throws her best when she does a quick lift the night before competing. In London in 2017, I’d set her up to do her quick lift the night before qualifying so she could make it to the finals. She qualified no problem, but for the final she was completely dead and finished ninth She just did not look like herself. She was flat and said she was tired and sore after the qualifying round. This time around we treated qualifying like a practice.”
DeAnna came out smokin’ in the final, drilling a 76.87m opener and extending that to 77.54m (the eventual winning distance) in round three. Joanna Fiodorow of Poland took silver PB of 76.35m.
Next year in Tokyo, Rudy and Lagi will hope to follow DeAnna’s example and translate hard-won experience into a spot on the medal stand. As for DeAnna, defending her title (especially with the expected return to health of world record holder Anita Wlodarczyk) will present an entirely new challenge.
For throws fans, watching this battle-tested trio go against the best in the world should be a highlight of 2020.
The International Olympic Committee recently announced that the men’s and women’s marathon and race-walking events at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games will take place not in the city of Tokyo, but some five hundred miles north in Sapporo.
Thomas Bach, the head of the IOC, was quoted in the New York Times as attributing the change in venue to concern for “athletes’ health and well-being.”
The last two summers have brought record-setting temperatures to Tokyo, including an all-time high of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in July of 2018. Heat like that, combined with the high level of humidity (often in the 80% range) typical of the region in July and August, make Tokyo a potentially disastrous choice to host a marathon.
Sapporo was chosen as an alternate location because, according to the Times, “temperatures there in late July and early August are expected to be ten to twelve degrees (Fahrenheit) cooler than in Tokyo.”
Before you wear yourself out applauding Bach’s magnanimity for championing the “health and well-being” athletes though, keep in mind that all other events will remain in Tokyo.
Readers of this site might reasonably wonder how throwers will fare if Tokyo does indeed experience another heatwave next summer. As it turns out, we have a pretty good idea about that because the extreme temperatures that occurred the past two summers in Tokyo are similar to those that the athletes had to deal with at the 2019 World Championships in Doha.
In order to gain some insight into how throwers adapted to the heat in Doha, and will likely adapt in Tokyo, I spoke to several athletes and coaches upon their return from the Worlds.
If the IAAF (now known as World Athletics) thought that they could spare athletes from exposure to dangerously hot conditions in Doha by bumping the start of the World Championships to late September, they were wrong.
During the ten days of competition at the Worlds (27 September to 6 October), the temperature surpassed 105 degrees Fahrenheit four times. The lowest high temperature on any of those days was 96 degrees. Making matters worse, the humidity level stayed consistently in the 80% range.
These factors combined to produce a heat index that regularly topped 120 degrees.
Qatar sold the IAAF on their bid for the Worlds at least in part by promising to provide an air-conditioned, open-air competition venue, arguably an obscene notion in a world beset by climate change. Whatever qualms IAAF officials may have had about encouraging the Qataris to move forward with such a plan were apparently assuaged by back room financial shenanigans, the details of which are likely to come out when former IAAF president Lamine Diack and his son Papa Massata Diack stand trial for corruption next year in Paris.
Regardless, the Doha bid was accepted and the Qataris made good on their promise. Khalifa Stadium, with a capacity of 40,000, was ringed at three levels by vents blowing hard enough to keep the humidity at bay and the temperature inside the stadium manageable. I’m told that it may have gotten as warm as 85 degrees Fahrenheit within Khalifa, but most athletes and coaches I spoke to agreed that excessive heat was not an issue during competition.
It was a big issue, though, as athletes sought to stay sharp in the days leading up to their event.
Typically, competitors in a World Championships or Olympics arrive in the host city well before the day of their qualification round in order to give themselves plenty of time to shake off the effects of travel and to get acclimated to their surroundings.
Most of the athletes I contacted showed up in Doha a week to ten days prior to qualification only to find themselves confined–because of the heat–to their hotel during daylight hours. After sundown, they would venture out to one of two practice facilities, the old Doha Diamond League stadium at the Qatar Sports Club or the Aspire Zone sports complex located next to Khalifa Stadium, where they struggled to make their final preparations in grossly humid conditions.
Rudy Winkler, the American hammer thrower, recalls needing “multiple gloves, towels, and a change of clothes” to make it through the evening workouts.
J.C. Lambert, husband and coach of DeAnna Price, had a similar experience, even though he was not the one doing the training: “I did not think there were places much worse than southern Illinois in terms of humidity,” he said, “But I was wrong. I was at practice for an hour and a half one night in Doha, and I was absolutely soaked. My shoes were sloshing with sweat. I’m out at practice at SIU for seven or eight hours a day, and I’ve never been that soaked.”
Ashley Kovacs, official throws coach for Team USA (which included her husband Joe) at the Worlds, described the heat as “unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.” She said that at the nightly practice sessions it was common to see the ball slide right off a thrower’s neck mid-spin. It was so humid that, “you’d put the shot down and there would immediately be condensation on it. A lot of people were mad and flustered by the conditions.”
Kara Winger, who probably could have taught Fred Rogers a thing or two about staying positive, made light of the nightly practice conditions when I spoke with her after Worlds, suggesting that they weren’t much worse than what she’d experienced in Austin, Texas, or at a 2015 training camp in Tokyo which she called her “sweatiest practice in memory.”
She also found herself awash in positive vibes while practicing at the Doha Sports Complex. “I competed there at the 2014 Diamond League meet,” she explained. “It was my first Diamond League meet after recovering from knee surgery, which was a big moment for me, so getting to throw there again was an unexpected, encouraging surprise.”
Tom Walsh took a different approach in the days leading up to the men’s shot competition. He and his coach Dale Stevenson set up camp in Cyprus right after the Diamond League final and did not arrive in Doha until four days before the men’s shot qualification.
“We didn’t want to be in Doha too long,” Dale explained. “With the lack of things to do because of the heat and the type of country it is, we knew we’d be hotel bound once we arrived there. Cyprus is in the same time zone and the weather is much nicer, so it seemed like a good idea to cool our jets there.”
Because of their late arrival, Tom ended up having to endure only two throwing sessions in the Doha heat which Dale described later as “shocking, oppressive, and inescapable.”
The question of when and where to warm up prior to competing was also greatly complicated by the heat and humidity.
At competitions like the Worlds, the host has to provide a warm-up facility outside the stadium as athletes are often given a limited number of tosses (sometimes no more than two) in the competition ring prior to their flight.
In Doha, the athletes were given a choice of two different areas at which to prepare prior to entering the stadium: the outdoor throwing facility at the Aspire Zone, or the climate-controlled Aspire Dome. Athletes were not allowed to take any throws inside the dome, so they had a decision to make. Knowing they might only get two warm-up throws once inside Khalifa, should they expose themselves to heatstroke-level conditions by taking some tosses at the outdoor facility, or should they limit their activities to literally chilling out in the dome?
NCAA discus champion Lagi Tausaga, competing in her first World Championships, took no warm-up throws outside of the stadium prior to the women’s disc qualification.
Her coach, Eric Werskey, said afterwards that “Lagi reminded me that she didn’t take throws on the outside track in Belarus for the USA v. Europe meet, and she threw a PR there, so I trusted her.”
“Our plan was to do drills in the call room holding her shoe, then do a dry throw in the ring once they brought her into the stadium, then two full throws. If they had given her another, that would be icing on the cake, but you always have to go in with the mindset that you are getting two throws.”
“When warm-ups began inside the stadium, they set the clock at twenty minutes, but they wouldn’t open the cage for throws until about fifteen. They let people walk in and feel the ring one time through, then I think everyone got two throws before they cut it short to put them in order for the competition.”
Rudy Winkler wanted to avoid overheating at the warm-up ring… so like Lagi, he took no throws there prior to the prelims or finals. He did do some drills at the outdoor facility, but frequently retreated to an air-conditioned tent to stay cool.
Also like Lagi, he was not worried about getting minimal warm up throws inside Khalifa, having “worked on feeling ready in my first few throws at practice.”
On the day of the women’s hammer final, J.C. Lambert estimates that the temperature outside of Khalifa Stadium was “anywhere from 100 to 110 degrees” with the heat index topping the 120-degree mark, so DeAnna stayed indoors prior to competing.
Kara Winger braved the heat and reported to the warm-up track prior to her qualification round even though that meant ducking into a non-air-conditioned bathroom to change clothes before competing.
She was able to find an air-conditioned bathroom after warming up for the final the next day, but it was so small that she “had visions” of dropping her uniform into the toilet while changing. Such is the glamorous life of the professional javelinist.
Tom Walsh took no throws outside the stadium prior to the men’s shot prelims or finals.
One reason Tom might have felt comfortable with a truncated warm up was that he had been throwing very well in the days leading up to Worlds. According to Dale, “Tom was clearly ready. He threw PRs with our tracking shots in training, and traditionally he throws better in competition. Going by some of the marks he threw in Cyprus and the sessions we had in Doha, it was evident that he was in the best shape of his life.”
Joe Kovacs has been known to take a lot of warm-up throws before competitions, many of them at a high level of intensity, but even he was forced to adjust to the conditions in Doha. According to Ashley, Joe took no warm-ups outside the stadium prior to the qualification round.
He did, however, take several throws (Ashley estimates about eight) at the outdoor facility prior to the final before reporting to the call room where he stripped down to his boxers and put on a fresh outfit. Once inside Khalifa, he took three or four more throws.
As you can see, each of these athletes took a somewhat different approach to getting themselves ready to compete in the awful conditions they experienced in Doha.
Each found a method that worked for them.
Both Rudy and Lagi PB’d in prelims and advanced to the final. Kara got off a nice toss of 63.23m in the fifth round of the final and placed fifth. DeAnna dominated the women’s hammer competition.
And Joe Kovacs and Tom Walsh finished first and third in the greatest shot put battle of all time.
In hindsight, it is hard to say that there was any “best” way to handle the heat at Worlds. Arriving a week or more before prelims and pounding away in the ghastly humidity of those evening practices worked just fine for some of the throwers I spoke with for this article, but there were plenty of others who followed a similar schedule and then performed poorly.
Tom Walsh had a fantastic showing after chilling out in Cyprus, but that plan did not work for everyone. The German throwers also trained in Cyprus, but 2016 Olympic discus champion Chris Harting failed to make the final in Doha. His coach, Torsten Lönnfors, told me that Chris had problems with his blood pressure during the qualification round. Like Tom Walsh, Chris chose not to take any warm-up throws outdoors prior to the competition, but the difference in temperature between the Aspire Dome where he sheltered from the heat and Khalifa Stadium was still enough to throw him off.
In the end, any lesson that might be learned from what these athletes overcame in Doha was best summed up by Dale Stevenson. “To compete at this level,” he reminded me, “you have to be able to handle anything.”
That advice should prove useful next year as athletes will face similarly daunting weather conditions while struggling to adapt to a much greater time difference (at least for those living in the Western Hemisphere) in Tokyo.
Also, the 2020 Olympic stadium will not be air conditioned.
Tokyo, for that the planet thanks you. The athletes may not.
As the 2019 World Championships begin, I thought it might be interesting to reflect upon the very different roads traveled over the course of this long season by two outstanding young Americans: shot putter Maggie Ewen and discus thrower Laulauga Tausaga.
Maggie, after an astonishingly productive NCAA career, endured some very difficult moments while navigating her first year as a professional.
Laulauga, known to her friends as “Lagi,” experienced almost unrelenting success over the course of a season that began last December and will not end, she hopes, until October 8th–the day of the women’s discus final in Doha.
Let’s focus on Maggie first.
Her plan, after graduating from Arizona State University in 2018, was to remain in Tempe and continue throwing the shot put under the tutelage of the man she worked with for most of her college career: ASU throws coach Brian Blutreich. As Blutreich coached Maggie to NCAA and USATF titles in the shot in 2018, this seemed like a wise approach.
She also intended to continue competing in the hammer as a professional, and though she had flourished in that event under Blutreich as well, winning the 2017 NCAA title and finishing second at that year’s USATF meet, Maggie decided that fellow ASU alum Kyle Long, who serves as a volunteer assistant to Blutreich, would be her primary hammer coach.
The plan seemed to be working well when she opened in January with a put of 19.28m at the New Balance Indoor Invitational.
But it would take her nearly eight months to produce another throw past the nineteen-meter mark.
Early in the outdoor season, she struggled to get within a meter of her 19.46m PB, opening with an 18.58m toss at the Oxy Invitational, followed by bests of 18.48m and 18.57m in Shanghai and Nanjing.
From there, things got worse as she failed to dent the eighteen-meter mark twice in early June, throwing 17.83m at the Paavo Nurmi Games in Finland and 17.30m at the Bislett Games in Norway.
That was a shocking regression for a thrower who, when she hit that 19.46m PB at the 2018 US Championships (a competition where she also had a foul just short of the twenty-meter line) seemed ready to succeed Michelle Carter as the preeminent American female putter.
Meanwhile, she wasn’t exactly killing it in the hammer either.
After setting a PB of 74.56m in 2017 and following that up with a best of 74.53m last year, she opened the 2019 campaign with a solid 72.50m only to tail off with a best of 68.62m at the Desert Heat Classic in Tuscon in late April.
When I traveled to California to cover the Prefontaine Classic in June, I was very interested to get some insight from Maggie as to what was going on with her career.
Quite a bit, as it turns out.
In this short interview recorded the day before the Pre, Maggie announced that she’d recently made a coaching change. She would no longer train the shot with Blutreich. Kyle Long would be her primary coach in both her events.
In that interview, Maggie mentioned a difficulty faced by post-collegiate throwers lucky enough to keep training with their college coach: How do you get the attention you need when you are no longer part of your college program? Coaches at places like ASU get paid to produce NCAA point-scorers–a very time-consuming job. How much of their time can they afford to give you when you are no longer one of those NCAA point-scorers? For an athlete like Maggie, it can’t be easy to go from being your college coach’s number one priority to being someone they struggle to fit into their schedule.
Compounding this problem was the fact that Maggie now had to travel on her own to compete. Her three indoor meets, for example, were in Boston, Albuquerque and New York. Then, during the first two months of the outdoor season as mentioned above, she traveled to Los Angeles, Shanghai, Nanjing, Turku and Oslo.
I spoke with Kyle Long recently, and he told me that all of the changes Maggie had to endure as she made the transition from collegiate to professional made it very difficult for her to find a comfort zone.
“Maggie and Blu were gearing up for a great year,” he said. “It was an issue of circumstance and being the first year that she traveled. We also had a new strength coach, so there was some variety in the lifting that she wasn’t used to. So, with a new strength coach, Blu as shot coach and me as hammer coach she was getting feedback from three different voices. That’s a lot going on in someone’s head.”
Shortly before the Prefontaine, with her season and a chance to compete at the World Championships possibly slipping away, Maggie, in consultation with Long and Blutreich, decided to revise her training plan.
According to Kyle, they realized that, “in the shot, we needed one voice. We also got a new lifting program with someone she trusts as well [shot put great Ryan Whiting, another ASU alum who trains his Desert High Performance athletes in Tempe and who Maggie has known for several years], and that helped.”
The transition to Long as shot put coach was made easier by the fact that Kyle was coached by and now coaches alongside Blutreich, so him taking over Maggie’s shot training did not involve any major adjustments in her technique.
“Everything we do is Blutreich based,” he explained. “I’ve been volunteering for him for two years, and my coaching alongside Blu has helped me help her. Basically, we stuck to his plan.”
According to Kyle, Maggie never lost hope that she could salvage her season.
“When we were at our low towards the Oslo DL meet,” he explained, “she understood that like training in the fall it’s going to suck, but if you keep chipping away it will turn around. So not throwing well didn’t make her not want to throw or to train hard. Her attitude was ‘I’m not going to let myself get buried in this.'”
“We both knew she was talented enough to make the World Championships team. Making the changes when we did gave us a month to figure some things out before USA’s. She did a great job of keeping her eye on that and having faith in me and having faith in herself.”
An 18.04m toss at Pre, though nowhere near her PB, may have been just far enough to reinforce that faith and save her season.
Kyle told me that “had she gone under eighteen meters again at Pre, it’s a different year.”
But something about the way she competed there, the way her throws felt, gave her confidence that her new plan was working and that she had a fighting chance to make the US team for the Doha Worlds.
Which she did, by going 18.44m in the pouring rain at the USATF Championships in Des Moines in late July (here is a quick interview with a rain-soaked Maggie after that competition).
In addition to putting Maggie on the team for Doha, her third-place finish in Des Moines got her an invite to the USA v. Europe match on September 10th in Minsk.
And it was in Minsk that Maggie finally found her groove, though it came about in an odd way.
After fouling out of the hammer competition that morning, then producing a less-than-prodigious opener of 17.06m on her first attempt in the shot, Maggie stepped into the ring in round three and blasted out a 19.47m PB.
You can view that competition and the look of utter relief on Maggie’s face after they announced the 19.47m here.
I asked Kyle whether he had any insight into why Maggie struggled so much with the hammer that day, and he suggested that things were going so well with the shot in practice and she was so focussed on throwing the shot in Minsk, the hammer was “pushed to the back of her mind.”
Understandable, but the obvious follow-up question is this: After all her struggles this season, should throwing the hammer be “pushed to the back” of Maggie’s mind permanently?
Kyle says no.
He acknowledges that “doing both hammer and shot takes a serious physical gift,” but thinks it is possible if an athlete also has “a serious amount of discipline in taking care of themselves.”
In training, he says that “we always have to be aware of how she feels, especially with her history of back trouble.”
But, he believes that Maggie’s “natural rip in the hammer” gives her a chance to compete at a world class level without training it every day and points to her late-season results as proof a balance can be struck.
“We got 75.04m at USA’s and then 19.47m in Minsk while we were training for both, so it can be done.”
He acknowledges that “some people will be skeptical of our decision,” but believes that Maggie is “clearly capable” of excelling in both events.
And the main reason they intend to continue with both?
“She enjoys it so much. It was hard enough for her to give up the discus–her favorite event. If you’re going to break new ground, you’d better be passionate and she is passionate about throwing both the hammer and the shot.”
Speaking of breaking new ground, how about an American discus thrower who travels to her first senior-level international competition, one held in a stadium in Europe, and bombs a PB?
Unfairly or not, American discus throwers have been maligned over the years for launching wind-aided PB’s from wide open cages located outside of stadiums then folding in big international competitions in settings like the one illustrated above.
But it seems that Laulauga Tausauga, the 2019 NCAA discus champion from the University of Iowa is out to change that narrative.
Lagi’s 2019 season could not have been more different from Maggie Ewen’s. She was shockingly consistent, going undefeated in the discus in the months of April, May, and June. a streak that included a 63.26m blast for the win at the NCAA meet in Austin.
A month later, she made the US team for Doha by tossing 62.08m to take third at the US Championships in ideal conditions outside the stadium in Des Moines.
She then threw even farther, a 63.71m PB, inside the stadium in Minsk.
I asked Lagi’s coach at Iowa, Eric Werskey, how she pulled it off.
It turns out that many factors combined to make her performance possible.
First, according to Eric, Lagi possesses “true, raw power.” She can, for example, trap bar deadlift 515 pounds. With that type of strength, Lagi does not need a helping wind in order to throw far.
Second, Lagi is, as Eric puts it “an incredible competitor. When she gets into a stadium her adrenalin gets going and she channels it really well.”
Third, it turns out that Lagi is used to throwing from an international style cage like the one used in Minsk. Eric told me that when Iowa was ready to install a new cage a year ago, he requested one in the IAAF style with doors that are ten meters tall. He says that “if the wind blows slightly, it pushes the net right up to the sector line,” so Lagi has no problem launching throws through a narrow opening.
Also, Eric spent time during his own career as a shot putter training at Chula Vista alongside Joe Kovacs and Whitney Ashley. Their coach, Art Venegas, was very careful to prepare his throwers for the odd quirks of international competitions where throwers might, for example, be given a few warmup tosses at a facility outside the stadium then experience an extended wait before getting a brief warmup period inside the stadium just prior to the competition.
Eric says that while training for the World Championships in 2015, Venegas sometimes had Kovacs and Ashley take a few warmup tosses, sit for half an hour, take two more warmup throws, and then do a practice competition.
Eric took a similar approach in preparing Lagi to compete in Minsk, and it turned out to be a good thing because once the discus competitors were brought into the stadium, they received exactly two warmup throws.
One last factor contributed to Lagi’s big night in Minsk.
Eric says that Lagi did not have great practices in the days leading up to the USA v. Europe meet.
“Usually in training, if she’s on she’ll throw sixty-two meters pretty consistently, but we weren’t at that level. She was hitting sixty or sixty-one maybe one out of every eight throws.”
Eric was not able to make the trip to MInsk, so he asked Justin St. Clair, who has built a fantastic throws program at North Dakota State University (and who was present at the USA v. Europe meet to coach Payton Otterdahl) to keep an eye on Lagi when she practiced the day before the competition.
It turns out that St. Clair noticed Lagi was letting the discus sneak ahead of her as she began her right leg sweep out of the back. That made it difficult to high point the disc as she hit her power position and was really messing her up as she practiced on the day before the meet. St. Clair suggested that Lagi focus on locking the disc back at the end of her windup, and that did the trick. She hit some nice practice throws and showed up the next day confident and ready to rumble.
After a pedestrian 54.43m opener, she hit 63.03m in round two and that 63.71m PB and under twenty-three world lead in round five. You can see those throws here.
Doha is next, and in spite of the Lagi’s youth and the fact that her college season began nine months ago, Eric believes she can perform quite well there.
He anticipates the automatic qualifying mark for the finals to be in the 62.00m-62.50m range, and sees that as comfortably within reach.
“Based on how well she competed in Belarus, my goal for her is to make the finals. She’s the person to do it. It’s been an incredibly long year, but she trains well, she accepts the challenge and always rises to the occasion. I don’t want to leave empty handed.”
Neither does Maggie Ewen. At the end of this impossibly long season, a strong showing in Doha might provide just the momentum both these fine young throwers will need to carry them through a short off season and onto the next challenge–contending for a medal in Tokyo.
It’s been a heck of a year for the University of Iowa’s Laulauga Tausaga. She opened her outdoor campaign with a second place finish in the discus at the Florida Relays and then went undefeated in that event for the months of April, May and June.
The highlight of that remarkable streak was the 63.26m bomb that won her the NCAA title in Austin. Iowa throws coach Eric Werskey was kind enough to give us a frame-by-frame breakdown of that throw.
Here she is at the end of her wind up, just about to begin her shift left. What do you see here? Her wind is not as extensive as some—is that the result of experimentation?
Yes. Once I arrived on campus [Eric took over at Iowa for the 2017-2018 season] I noticed her balance seemed to be a bit inconsistent at the back on the ring, which created some inconsistencies at the front with her delivery. We spent a lot of time in the fall doing static start drills. She seemed to take a liking to it, so we carried it into her full throw because it became comfortable to her.
In her first movement, our goal is to be centered with the center of mass with a slight stretch through the right side. Now, you may not see it in the photograph, but she has a slight “rock” into her right side with her right heel planted in the ring. This creates a stretching feeling, and once she feels that she will start to sit into her left side.
These next three pics take us from the moment she starts to unwind to the moment her right foot leaves the concrete. What do you two emphasize in this portion of the throw?
Once Lagi comes out of her backswing we emphasize having a “long and wide” back of the ring. We want to shift the center of mass to the left side by thinking of an “out and around” approach. Her tendency is to cut the back of the ring “short” and fall into the middle a bit. We try to prevent that with the way we set up the throw out of the back. The “long” aspect refers to patience and loading the center of mass to the left side and the “wide” cue is to emphasize a wider sweep leg. Once she executes that part of her throw, she can then look to get across the ring efficiently and maximize her middle separation.
Here we have the portion of the throw from Lagi’s right leg sweep to right foot touchdown in the center. What do you focus on during this phase?
In the first picture (photo 5), she has executed her “long and wide” out of the back cue, which made it really easy for her to complete her long sweep into the middle. As you can see, in single support she is balanced and her right foot is about as wide as the edge of the ring. As the sweep leg penetrates into the middle, we want the knee to bend slightly and we use the cue “let the ground come to you” versus reaching for the ground. The idea is if the right leg lands flexed or loaded she can pivot with balance and transition seamlessly into the power position.
Throughout the season, she would often execute the back of the ring well but had a minor habit of a delayed push from the left causing her left foot/leg to over-rotate and be open/”in the bucket” at the front. To correct this, we cued “bring the left with you.” As she felt the right leg sweep carry her into the middle with her upper body facing the direction of the throw, the idea was to have her left leg coming with to the front with a tight squeeze of the knees (photo 7). That way when she made ground contact in the middle, her left foot/knee/leg was in the same plane as the right side which helped her keep the discus back with tension/torque. Once she executed that cue, it was a matter of keeping the lower body moving to the front. She tends to “peek” over her left shoulder (as you can see a bit in photo 7), but we also try to face the back of the ring so the head and eyes stay back as she lands in double support at the front with the discus back and under tension.
Speaking of double support at the front, here she is hitting her power position then blasting through the finish.
As she rotates to the front, she lands (photo 8) balanced with her chest slightly down, head/eyes back and the discus back. You can see that her right heel is a bit off the ground. Lagi is incredibly explosive and vertically jumps exceptionally well (she is 6’0”, 240lbs and can grab a 10’ basketball rim with ease) so we use the right leg slightly different than some might. When she is loaded with the right foot this way, it caters to her vertical, then rotational finish.
With the discus back, the idea is maintaining tension through its orbit. The way Lagi does this is by feeling her right heel lifting then rotating to the throwing sector (photo 9). We also cue “eyes up” or “head back” to help create some “reverse C” in her body. By doing this, it creates maximal tension on her discus. We want her left arm to stay level and reach for the sector. We don’t cue the left arm as much as we probably should, but it’s something that she naturally does. She predominately has her weight loaded on the right side, allowing her to lift and rotate the right knee and hip while keeping a long-levered reach with the left arm.
Lagi has had an innate ability to make the discus fly with some of the best that I have seen and trained with. I have only ever seen a few athletes with such feel that I witnessed daily, those people being, Aretha Thurmond and Whitney Ashley.
Once she feels the right side begin to penetrate and the left arm reach to the sector, she attempts to lift and rotate violently. I like to have the left foot come off the ground first (photo 10). As the left pops off the ground, this will trigger her right side to slam through the finish. I don’t like to use the term “jump”, but at times we do so she can feel her legs extend. Lagi has an ability to stay long through the point of delivery, so when she squares up to the finish I know there will be some serious heat on the release. As she releases the discus and recovers (photo 11), we cue her to finish her right hip and right leg to the left sector with the heel down. To me, when this cue is executed, the hips and body have put all tension through the discus and the landing/recovery is balanced. This also allows for a clean recovery and no debates about the heel brushing the top edge of the ring.
We spend a large part of the fall dedicated to stand throw drills and cueing how the legs work through the finish. In the fall, we spend roughly two to three weeks on each segment of the system/sequence of drills then by November we are beginning to work into full throws, but not many. Roughly two-thirds of the throws workouts in November and December are still dedicated to drill-type motions and partial movements. The idea is that we get a large base from these drills that allows the carryover into the full throw rhythm. Once positions are natural and locked in, we can just focus on rhythm then distance. During the season if we have a week off, we will get back to the drawing board and revisit some of the drills and cues from the fall for a quick touch up.
Lagi is incredibly dedicated to her craft and trusts the processes that develop within the course of the year(s). It is not always easy for her physically and when she does not understand the cues or positions we are aiming towards, she will communicate that versus going with the flow of her own interpretation. To me, this is significant because it makes me have to break things down a bit simpler which caters to my coaching development.
Note: Lagi’s amazing season continued with a third-place finish at the 2019 USATF Championships in July. She and Eric are now preparing for the World Championships in Doha. The women’s discus prelims will take place on October 2nd, nearly ten months after Lagi’s collegiate season began. Hopefully, we will catch up with Eric afterwards and get him to reflect on the challenges of maintaining top form over such a remarkably long period of time. Stay tuned!
Self-doubt is antithetical to great throwing, especially when it starts to creep up in the moments before a big competition. To keep it at bay, many athletes rely on a warmup routine designed to calm the nerves while limbering up the joints.
One of the best parts about attending a meet like the 2019 USATF Outdoor Track and Field Championships is that you get to watch the athletes go through those routines.
As mentioned in a previous post, Joe Kovacs used the warmup period prior to the men’s shot to unleash a series of ferociously passionate throws. Power positions. Step and throws. Fulls. All launched with maximum effort.
It was an impressive display, and it worked. Dropping bomb after bomb near the 22-meter line in warmups put him into the mental and physical state he needed to go 21.99m, 22.00m and 22.31m during the first three rounds of competition.
It also may have drained him a bit, as his final three throws of 21.28m, 21.43m, and 21.39m seem to indicate that he became fatigued. But, who cares? Every thrower’s job is essentially to produce one great throw in competition and that’s what he did.
Ryan Crouser also produced one great throw on Friday, going 22.62m in round five.
But he took a very different approach in getting himself ready for the competition. He began with power positions, then launched quite a few full throws, but I didn’t get the impression that he put one hundred percent effort into any of them, even the ones that travelled nearly twenty-two meters.
I’d argue, in fact, that his first three competition throws (a foul, 21.91m, 21.93m) were just a continuation of his warmup. He spent more time tinkering with his rhythm during the additional warmup period between prelims and finals, and finally when round five rolled around he was ready to hammer one.
Valarie Allman demonstrated a totally different approach prior to the women’s disc. Her entire warmup consisted of two full-out full throws, and that was it. A few minutes later, she drilled a first-round 64.34m that would turn out to be the winning throw.
Probably the most interesting warmup period of the entire weekend, though, came prior to flight two of the women’s shot.
Rain started falling at the end of flight one, and it picked up in intensity as the ladies of the second flight lined up to take practice throws.
Before long, it was pounding down and the competitors started draping themselves in towels and jackets while waiting for their turn in the ring, which quickly became slick enough that one of the throwers face planted over the toe board on her follow-through.
The timing could not have been worse for Chase Ealey, who over the course of the season has established herself as the best American putter. She was indoor national champion, and is the current Diamond League points leader in her event. On a normal day, she would be a lock to advance to Doha. But this is her first year as a rotational thrower, and competing in a wet ring in a high pressure meet would be a challenge even for the most grizzled veteran.
Speaking of which, I’ll bet Michelle Carter was glad her father had made her a glider each time she sloshed her way into that ring for a warmup throw. After two seasons hovering around the eighteen-meter range, she needed to get on the podium here and advance to Doha in order to get her career back on track, and maybe the rain would give her an advantage in a field full of spinners.
It turns out that one of those spinners, defending champion Maggie Ewen, was glad to see the rain, which is surprising because if anyone needed a confidence-building warmup followed by a confidence-building performance it was Maggie.
Her first year as a pro has been difficult. She split earlier this season with her college coach Brian Blutreich, and coming into this meet had shown no sign of the confidence and impeccable rhythm that allowed her to throw 19.29m to win the title last year.
But she hit a hammer PB of 75.04m on Saturday, and the possibility of inclement weather for Sunday got her thinking about her triumph in a rain-soaked battle for the 2018 NCAA discus title. So the skies opening up on Sunday may have actually helped Maggie dispel any doubts she had about her ability to get back on the podium in the shot.
In terms of their approach to warming up, all three of these ladies seemed to be most like Crouser. They all started with easy power position throws and built from there. None of them launched any bombs aside from a nineteen-meter-plus South African by Ealey which, come to think of it, is actually a bomb.
But as far as full throws go, I’d say Chase was a bit over nineteen meters, while Michelle and Maggie each dropped a couple in the mid-eighteen meter range.
All three were methodical and calm, and it turns out that once the competition began, all three were ready. Maggie opened at 18.14m, Michelle with 18.02m, Chase with 18.46m,
Maggie followed that up with a second-round 18.44m, then Chase basically sealed the win with a 19.56m bomb.
Michelle improved to 18.69m in round three, and with the rain pelting down and no other thrower able to establish any sort of rhythm, it looked like the medalists were set.
Finally, in round six Jeneva Stevens, whose best throw of the day to that point had been 17.70m, dug deep and launched one that must have made Maggie’s heart skip a beat. It turned out to be 18.36m, and Jeneva was left with the small consolation of being the only thrower outside of the top three to break eighteen meters.
I spoke with the three medalists afterwards. You can view Chase’s comments here, Maggie’s here, and Michelle’s here.
I also had a nice chat with Lena Giger the recent Stanford grad who finished seventh after throwing 17.35m out of the first flight. Lena is a very articulate young lady who is about to take the great leap from collegiate to professional. I, for one, am confident that she will flourish as she was born and raised in the great state of Illinois.
So that’s it for the 2019 Championships.
Much thanks to the athletes who put up with my hopefully not-too-inane questions, and to the folks at Drake and the USATF who ran a fantastic meet.
I hope that, in spite of the fabulous facility soon to open in Eugene, the Championships will return to Des Moines on occasion. If not, I will miss the kindness and cheerfulness of all the folks who volunteered their time to make this event happen.
I will also miss Jethro’s BBQ, where my friends and I spent hours after each day’s competition happily rehashing all the big throws
Finally, I’d like to give a shoutout to two fellows who I’ve had the privilege of working alongside in the interview room at Drake Stadium the past two years, Mark Cullen who writes for Track and Field News and runs a website called trackerati.com, and Erik Boal who covers meets for Runnerspace.com.
Their passion for and knowledge of our sport is truly breathtaking. I’ve seen them conduct an insightful interview with a thrower, then turn around and do the same thing with a distance runner or sprinter. It is a weird and wonderful sight to behold, and I hope to join them in reporting on next year’s Olympic Trials in Eugene.
Last year a storm blew in on the final day of the USATF Championships, and the winds that preceded it helped produce some fantastic results in the men’s discus.
Yesterday, throws fans seated on the hill overlooking the discus cage at Drake Stadium were hoping for a repeat performance, this time by the women.
Foul weather loomed on the horizon as flight one of the women’s discus warmed up, and the flags dangling from the safety ropes strung along the right foul line indicated a right-to-left cross wind was developing. Though for sure not a world record wind or a Hawaii wind or even a 2018 men’s discus wind, we spectators hoped that it might prove useful to Val Allman, Kelsey Card, Gia Lewis Smallwood, Laulauga Tausaga, Whitney Ashley and others fighting to make the team for Doha if they could fly the disc just right, or that it mind change direction a bit and morph into more of a headwind.
It was interesting to watch the flight-one competitors wrangle with the wind during warmups. A couple of throws released prematurely and seemingly headed out of bounds to the right were blown back into the sector. Several of the athletes had trouble keeping the disc flat, which can be challenging in a cross wind.
All in all, it seemed to be of no help to the gals in the first flight, as once the competition began only one of them notched a season’s best. That was Jere Summers, whose round-two toss of 59.66m was also a PB.
It might be that most of the flight-one competitors simply lacked the horse power to take advantage of this wind, as some of the flight-two throwers (most notably Allman, Card and Tausaga) hit long throws when their turn came to warm up.
As with the previous throwing events, each flight was given thirty minutes to prepare, which for a group of nine discus throwers is quite a lot of time.
I wrote previously about how some of the men’s shot putters, especially Joe Kovacs, used the long warmup period to take a lot of throws, and it was interesting to see the different approach taken by Val.
She went right to full throws, no stands, wheels, or fixed feet fulls, and she only took a handful of them.
When I asked her about this after the competition, she said it was a habit she developed while competing overseas. “You’re only ever guaranteed two warmup throws,” she explained, “so you have to learn to make do with that.”
She looked sharp on the warmups she did take yesterday, and seemed to be in great shape to defend her national title.
Once the competition began, things quickly got interesting.
Card, third up in the flight, took an early lead with a throw of 62.37m.
Kelsey is really fun to watch. She lacks the long levers possessed by a lot of world class discus throwers, but her entry and sprint through the ring are smooth and efficient and her fixed-feet finish allows her to thoroughly work the ground. Two years ago her coach, Dave Astrauskas, was nice enough to break down Kelsey’s technique for me, and you can read his analysis here.
Val was next up, and she snapped off a 64.34m just to let everyone know there would be no let down on her part.
Tausaga and Ashley both fouled their openers, and the round ended with Gia Lewis Smallwood moving into medal contention with a toss of 61.49m.
What can be said about Gia, aside from the fact that she is amazing? Like Kara Winger, she has spent a remarkably long time at or near the top of the US rankings in her event. Gia is the only thrower I’ve ever researched whose “Progression” page on her IAAF bio does not fit on one screen. You have to scroll down to find out that she threw 55.52m in 2000, and has thrown over sixty meters in nine of the last ten years, the exception being 2016 when she injured her back so badly that just bending down to pick up a discus off the ground was difficult.
Also like Kara, Gia is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.
So it was cool to see her banging away at what was, in the words of Kara who was serving as PA announcer for the long throws, “at least her fifteenth US Championships.” According to Kara, the records “only go back to 2002,” so I guess we will have to wait for archeologists to fill in the gaps some day.
Tausaga knocked Gia out of third with a round two throw of 61.51m, while both Card and Val fouled. Ashley got on the board with 54.70m, but that left her in thirteenth place.
She punctuated her round three effort with a long and barbaric yell, which resulted in a mark of 61.52m. Thus was Tausaga knocked into fourth.
I have, by the way, a soft spot in my heart for Whitney. Not only is she an excellent thrower and super articulate person (check out this post-competition interview), but I have a great memory of watching her blast her first-ever sixty-meter throw right here in Des Moines in round six of the NCAA final her senior year at San Diego State. That throw lifted her from middle of the pack into the lead and showed for the first time that she had world class potential.
As Whitney mentions in that interview, a funny thing happened during the short break between prelims and finals yesterday: the wind stopped.
So, those on the outside looking in (Val, Kelsey and Whitney occupied the top spots going into round four) would get no help from Mother Nature.
It turns out that Tausaga didn’t need any, as she smashed a 62.08m toss that jumped her back into third.
That put Whitney into a bad spot (fourth place when the top three go to Doha) and she bombed away at the 60-meter line on each of her final three attempts, determined to claw her way onto the podium.
Each time she came up short (60.29m, 60.57m, 60.19m) as did Gia, whose sixth-round 61.51m left her in fifth place.
Afterwards, I spoke with Tausaga and Card about navigating the difficulties inherent to collegiate (Laulauga) and post-collegiate (Card) chucking. That interview is here.
I also spoke with Val, who is making the transition from collegiate to post-collegiate athlete look pretty easy. That interview is here.
A storm that drifted by on the outskirts of Des Moines forced a ninety-minute evacuation of Drake Stadium at the start of day three of the 2019 Toyota USATF Outdoor Track and Field Championships yesterday. But Mother Nature could not slow down the Force of Nature that is DeAnna Price.
DeAnna provided one of the highlights of the meet last year when she blasted a fifth-round toss of 78.12m to break the American record. The crowd had to wait a bit longer this time—round six—but you could tell from her first attempt that she was locked in. Her series went: 75.66m, 77.51m, 76.40m, 75.77m, 76.72…and then the big one, 78.24m for an American record, facility record, personal best, and world lead.
That last bit carries a more legitimacy right now than it might have in years past because Poland’s Anita Włodarczyk will not be defending her World title in Doha. She is on the mend from knee surgery and has shut it down for the year.
So a solid case can be made that DeAnna is the favorite going into Worlds where a seventy-seven or seventy-eight meter throw will likely win.
Talking to her after the competition (you can find that interview here) I was surprised to learn that her season was almost derailed by back and hip issues that have plagued her for weeks.
She credits former hammer thrower and current chiropractor Brian Murer with keeping her in one piece and is confident that with his help she can keep the train rolling through Doha.
Second-placer Gwen Berry took a very different route to the podium, opening with two long fouls out of bounds to the right. Thus she found herself in the nightmarish situation of having to dial down the intensity to get a mark in round three while still putting enough juice into the throw to make sure she advanced to the final.
Complicating matters was the way she set up at the back of the ring. From my perspective, looking down from directly behind the cage, Gwen stood way to the left, almost facing the landing area as she began her wind.
I’m not an expert on hammer technique, but it seemed like she would have to consider altering her stance and moving over a bit to make sure she placed her third attempt between the sector lines.
And while messing around with the start of your throw is no big deal during practice, it’s not something you want to do in the middle of a competition when you basically have one attempt to keep your dreams and maybe your career alive.
To her great credit, Gwen kept her composure and squeezed out a 68.62m toss that moved her into sixth place and guaranteed her three more attempts. Again, my knowledge of the hammer is superficial, but it looked like she moved over a bit at the start of that throw to avoid the disaster of a third foul.
Since the prelims consisted of one flight of fifteen, there was only a brief pause for reordering before the finals. And while making those finals was essential, Gwen still faced the task of climbing into the top three. She did that with a 76.46m toss that vaulted her into second and knocked Maggie Ewen to fourth.
Maggie, maybe the greatest thrower in NCAA history, has gone through some first-year-as-a-pro struggles this season, compounded no doubt by the challenge of competing in both the hammer and shot put.
So it was a nice surprise to see her launch a PB of 75.04m in the second round. Unfortunately for her, business is booming in the women’s hammer in this country (seven of the fifteen competitors came in having already achieved the Worlds standard) and that throw did not get her on the podium.
She was in great spirits afterwards though, and is looking forward to defending her title in the shot put today. You can view my interview with Maggie here.
Brooke Andersen arrived in Des Moines with a season and personal best of 76.75m but could not find her rhythm in warmups. That’s not a good feeling when a World Championship spot is on the line, but she kept her composure and her round three toss of 76.46m held up for third place. I think you’ll enjoy her rather delightful account of this rather terrifying experience. My chat with Brooke can be found here.
Alyssa Wilson of UCLA is determined to follow in Maggie’s footsteps as a triple threat. She is the only thrower competing in the hammer, discus and shot put here in Des Moines, a task that today’s predicted high of eighty-eight degrees will make all the more challenging. The disc starts at 3:00 today, with the shot following at 6:20, so she won’t have much time to recover between events.
I spoke with her after the hammer, in which she finished a very respectable eighth place, and something tells me we will be hearing a lot more from her in the future. Alyssa’s comments are here.
The second throwing event on Saturday was the men’s javelin, and unlike the women’s hammer, not one competitor in the jav came to Des Moines having achieved the Worlds standard, which is 83.00m.
Nor, after five rounds did it seem likely that anyone would.
As the sixth round began, the top three spots were occupied by Michael Shuey (77.32m), Riley Dolezal (76.82m), and Tim Glover (76.33m).
Not the kind of marks likely to cause a stir in a world where it often takes close to ninety meters to win a Diamond League meet.
Then strange things started happening.
In hindsight, it seems that Curtis Thompson may have been responsible. In round six, Curtis hit his best throw of the day, 76.56m, to jump Glover for third place.
Glover responded with a season’s best toss of 77.47m, which moved him into the lead.
Dolezal, throwing next in the order, then hit a season’s best of 82.84m.
Shuey, now sitting third and no doubt filled with vexation, responded with a PB of 82.85m.
It was crazy and wonderful to watch and very fun to talk over afterwards with the three medalists in this interview during which I once again demonstrate my ignorance regarding the process of qualifying for Worlds. Though none of these gents has attained the qualifying mark, it turns out that Michael and Riley have a decent chance of being added to the field in Doha based on current world rankings.
So, to sum up, here are the various paths to Doha for American athletes:
-Achieve the qualification standard by today and finish in the top three here in Des Moines.
-Finish in the top three here, and if you don’t have the qualifying mark hope that the IAAF will need dip into the list of world-ranked performers in order to fill out the field in your event.
-If you are Jon Jones, supply Ryan Crouser, Joe Kovacs, and Darrell Hill with all the protein shakes and foot rubs they need because if one of them wins the Diamond League final in August you are going to Worlds.
If anyone out there knows another path to qualifying, please keep it to yourself. My brain is full.
As always, full results for the 2019 Toyota USATF Outdoor Track and Field Championships may be found here.
If you are a fan of watching explosive humans launch inanimate objects, as I know you are if you are reading this post, this is a glorious time to be alive in the United States of America.
For sure yesterday was, anyway.
It was the kind of day that those of us lucky enough to have witnessed will talk about for years to come. Should anyone have the temerity to bring up the topic of great throwing in our presence, we will set down our glass, pause dramatically, and say, “That sounds interesting, but let me tell you about the time I saw Jon Jones throw 21.40m and finish fourth…by seventy centimeters!”
Our friends, having heard this story many times will roll their eyes. Some will excuse themselves to “take an important call.” Others will attempt to change the subject.
We will ignore those attempts, blithely convinced that no one could ever get sick of hearing about day two of the 2019 Toyota USATF Outdoor Track and Field Championships.
It all started with the men’s hammer, and let me say that if you are old enough to remember the days when a World Championship standard was something that American men’s hammer throwers often chased and rarely achieved, those days are over.
Two athletes, Alex Young and Sean Donnelly, entered yesterday’s competition having already surpassed the mark (76.00m) necessary to qualify for the trip to Doha. Remarkably, both threw well on this sun kissed afternoon and neither reached the podium.
Donnelly, having thrown 77.00m or better on three occasions this year, stepped into the ring during round one and drilled a 76.38m toss that in years past would have assured him a spot on the team.
But he barely had time to take a seat before Rudy Winkler knocked him into second with a season’s best 76.51m, and Connor McCullough knocked them both down a spot by blasting a facility record toss of 76.92m.
Then in round two, Daniel Haugh, the recently-crowned NCAA champion, shoved Sean into the dreaded fourth slot by nailing a PB of 76.44m.
Sean still had four whacks at busting back into the top three, as did Alex whose second-round 73.20m got him into the final, but neither could jump past Haugh or Winkler.
Alex ended up sixth with a best of 74.80m—a damn good throw and likely to have put him in the top three in days gone by. Sean could not improve on his opener and fell six centimeters short of making the squad for Doha.
Meanwhile, Connor backed up his opener with a round-two 76.86m and then announced himself as a medal contender at Worlds with 78.14m bomb on his final attempt.
Sean showed a lot of class afterwards, patiently answering questions about what must have been a heart-breaking day. You can view his comments here.
Rudy and Daniel were both ebullient at having survived a wicked competition and each spoke insightfully about his performance. You’ll find Rudy’s interview here and Daniel’s here.
It what I have to say was a great bit of scheduling, men’s shot warmups began almost immediately following the conclusion of the hammer. This absolved throws fans from having to kill time by pretending to be interested in running events.
Instead, after a short walk back inside the stadium from the long throws area, shot put aficionados were greeted by a field of competitors featuring an Olympic champion, a World champion, a Diamond League champion, and eight other athletes who had achieved the Doha standard of 20.70m.
The battle for spots on the podium promised to be a bloodbath, and it did not disappoint.
I remember talking to Joe Kovacs here last year after he’d finished fifth with what for him was a pedestrian throw of 20.74m. He was in the middle of a fairly chaotic year that would include a wedding, a relocation from California to Ohio, and a minor knee surgery. Any one of those changes alone could muck up an athlete’s focus, but Joe assured me that all was good and that he had every intention of contending in Doha and Tokyo.
I got to speak with him again at last month’s Prefontaine Classic, at which he threw pretty well (21.39m) but still did not look like vintage Joe. Again, he assured me that all was going according to plan.
It turns out he was not lying.
For some reason, the putters were given an extra-long warmup period yesterday, and it was really interesting to watch Joe go to work. His approach to getting ready to take on Ryan Crouser, Darrell Hill and the rest of that ridiculously talented field was to take a bunch of precise and passionate throws. He took several stand throws, a couple of step-and-throws, and numerous fulls. All were full out “I’m going to knock the hell out of this one” jobs. He was clearly a man on a mission and not worried about leaving anything “in the tank” for the competition.
And it worked.
He opened at 21.99m, followed that with 22.00m, and followed that with a 22.31m blast. It was throwback Joe and super fun to watch, especially as Darrell Hill seemed determined to match him blow for blow, hitting 21.99m in round two and 22.11m in round three.
Darell showed a couple of weeks ago that he was rounding into form with a 21.85m toss at a meet in Chula Vista. It is tricky business being a top American putter because you’ve got to be at your best at the US Championships in order to make the team for a Worlds or Olympics, but you’ve also got to modulate your training in a way that allows you to be at your even better best once those Worlds or Olympics comes around.
I spoke with Darrell’s current coach Greg Garza the day before the competition and he was confident that Darrell was ready to throw big in Des Moines but was also on track to go even farther at the Diamond League final and then Doha.
Darrell fouled his final three attempts yesterday, but there was nothing tentative about those throws. He was going for it, and like Joe, he looked fast and powerful. If, as Coach Garza predicts, he is able to combine that power with a more refined rhythm later in the season, watch out.
That brings us to Crouser, who provided a fascinating contrast to Joe’s balls out approach during warmups.
Crouser often seems to be moving in slow motion when he takes warmup throws, but somehow many of those throws end up traveling nearly twenty-two meters. When that happens, it’s fun to watch the reaction of people in the crowd and hear comments like “Wow! How far will he throw when he speeds that up?”
The natural inclination on the part of us throws fans is to imagine Crouser blasting through the ring like Joe or Darrell and destroying the world record.
But Crouser does not swing that way.
Rather than notching up the speed, he appears to tinker during warmups, and often during competition throws as well. He’s like a safe cracker, patiently turning the dial over and over listening for the tumblers to fall into place.
Yesterday, he found the right combination in round five, and his 22.62m is now the facility record.
Each of these gentlemen was kind enough to share their thoughts about the competition, their season, and their career. Darrell’s interview is here. Joe’s here. And Ryan’s here.