Experience Not Required…But It Sure Helps. Part 2 of our Look Back at Doha

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.”

It worked.

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.

A Look Back At Doha, Part 1: Handling the Heat

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.

Ewen, Tausaga take divergent paths to doha

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.

Coach Eric Werskey breaks down the technique of NCAA discus champ Laulauga tausaga

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.

Photo 1

 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? 

Photo 2
Photo 3
Photo 4

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?

Photo 5
Photo 6
Photo 7

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.

Photo 8
Photo 9
Photo 10
Photo 11

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!


Chase Ealey leaves no doubt: A report on women’s shot at the 2019 Toyota usatf outdoor track and field championships

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.

Day four at the toyota usa Outdoor Track and field championships: Women’s Discus

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.

Full results may be found here.

And the hits just keep on coming: day 3 at the Toyota Usatf championships

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.

These are the Days: a report on Men’s hammer and shot at the 2019 Toyota USATF Outdoor Track and Field championships

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.

Full results from yesterday’s events are here.

Time to head to the track for the women’s hammer throw, which will feature some of the best in the world. Like I said, it is a great time to be a throws fan!

The 2019 Toyota USATF Championships begin: A report on the Men’s Discus and women’s Javelin

The discus is a fickle event. Timing is everything, and a strong headwind doesn’t hurt either.

Last year’s USATF men’s discus competition has attained legendary status (three competitors over sixty-six meters, including a monstrous 68.61m for Reggie Jagers) at least in part because of beneficent winds that presaged the arrival of a violent thunderstorm.

No storm swept into Drake Stadium last night, just an annoying bit of rain that made footing treacherous during the final round of the men’s disc, a competition that will be remembered as more odd than epic.

That may be fitting, as 2019 is an undeniably odd year for track and field athletes with the World Championships taking place in Doha in late September and early October—a full six weeks later than normal.

These US Championships were pushed back a month as well, leaving athletes with the challenge of staying sharp during a portion of the summer when there are few meets available here in the States.

That can mess with a person’s training plan and with their head, and may help to explain why neither of the two favorites in the men’s discus made the podium yesterday.

Reggie Jagers, after a fairly consistent summer that included two excellent Diamond League performances (64.89m for fourth in Doha and 64.59m for sixth in Rabat) did not even make it out of the prelims.

Mason Finley, the 2017 World Championship bronze medalist who finished second to Reggie here last year with a toss of 67.06m, earned the full six throws but ended up finishing seventh with a best of 61.05m.

As best I can tell, though, Mason will still represent the US at the Worlds as the man who finished third yesterday, Kord Ferguson, does not have the qualifying standard of 65.00m and Mason is the highest finisher other than the top two (Sam Mattis who took first with a season’s best 66.69m, and Brian Williams who came next with a PB of 65.76m) to have met that standard.

Back in the day, Kord would have had a few weeks to “chase the standard” and make the team for Doha, but this time around the USATF has designated these championships as the final chance for any athlete to achieve the needed mark.

If that seems confusing to you, don’t feel bad. As you can tell from this interview with Mason neither of us had a clear understanding of the current qualification system when we spoke after the competition.

Could that have anything to do with the fact that the IAAF is constantly tinkering with the process? That they made substantial changes to it last year then changed their minds and kind of changed it but not really? I’m going to let Mason and myself off the hook and say yes.

One thing that is clear is that Sam and Brian showed up ready to rumble. Each had his best throw in round one, and when Reggie failed to make the final it was clear that they were Doha-bound.

Kord’s route to the podium was, shall we say, a bit more circuitous. Competing in flight one, he sandwiched a pedestrian 60.13m between two fouls, then had to sit fingers and toes crossed while the flight two contestants did their best to send him packing.

He entered the final sitting eighth and last, but opened the proceedings with a PB of 63.25m and hung on for the bronze.

Just how in the hell did that happen?

I’m not sure that Kord himself knows, but you can hear his thoughts on the matter in this interview with him, Sam and Brian.

While on the subject of dramatic and perhaps inexplicable turnarounds, let us turn our attention to the women’s javelin.

A nice feature of the throws setup at Drake is that the discus or hammer can be run concurrently with the jav, so fans can enjoy two competitions simultaneously.

That’s a lot of enjoyment, especially when it means getting a chance to watch Kara Winger ply her craft.

Are you a fan of consistency? Of sustained excellence?

Kara won her first USATF title in 2008. Last year, right here in Des Moines, she won her eighth.

That’s a Tom Brady-like run, with the significant difference that Kara does not come across as a weird, kale-eating robot. Rather, she seems to take joy in every aspect of competing. She’s happy when she throws well. She’s happy for her competitors when they throw well. She is unfailingly polite to fans who want to say hello or take a selfie. She is remarkably gracious when folks like me shove a camera in her face and ask her to analyze her performance when she’s got fifteen relatives waiting to take her to dinner.

She is, as I refer to her in this interview, a national treasure. If you don’t like her, you probably don’t like ice cream.

Kara has competed a lot this year, and she has had some nice results, including 63.11m on June 6th in Rome, and 62.89m on July 9th in Lucerne.

So far, though, she has been unable to produce a big, sixty-five-metersish throw, and that was the case again yesterday.

Her 59.73m toss in round three gave her a four-meter cushion over Avione Allgood entering the final, but her inability to improve on that throw left the door open for the aforementioned dramatic turnaround, this time courtesy of Ariana Ince.

Ariana announced herself as a contender by nailing a two-meter PB of 63.54m in June, which made her performance in yesterday’s preliminary rounds difficult to characterize. Baffling? Maddening? Bizarre?

She opened with 46.80m and followed that up with 49.05m, so you tell me.

A round-three 52.95m bought Ariana three more attempts, but left her seven meters off the lead.

She remedied that situation in round five, drilling 61.06m and vaulting ahead of Kara. That throw would hold up for the win.

In a conversation afterwards, she made a valiant attempt to explain this rather astonishing turn of events.

Speaking of astonishing, third place went to Stanford’s Jenna Gray who hit a PB of 57.29m and who apparently competes in both track and volleyball for the Cardinal. Unless she has a twin sister who goes by the exact same name.

I will investigate this and other matters as the 2019 Toyota USATF Outdoor Track and Field Championships continue today!

Full results, by the way, are available here.

coach Jerry Clayton on Andrew Liskowitz and the art of building a shot putter

I’m always looking for an excuse to talk to Jerry Clayton, and a couple of weeks ago his shot putter Andrew Liskowitz was nice enough to provide me with one.

Andrew just completed an outstanding redshirt junior year throwing for Jerry at the University of Michigan. He won the 2019 Big Ten indoor shot put title, broke the twenty-meter barrier twice during the outdoor season (including a 20.23m mark at the Virginia Challenge in April) and made First-Team All-American by finishing eighth at the outdoor NCAA Championships.

Then he really got rolling.

A near PB of 20.22m at the Ashland Summer Series on June 20 showed that he was still in great shape after the grueling collegiate season, and a 21.15m bomb a week later at the Michigan Throws Tune-Up vaulted him into the ranks of world class throwers.

But it’s one thing to drill a PB in a no-pressure competition at your home facility and quite another to travel across the pond, survive a qualification round, and face the likes of Poland’s Konrad Bukowiecki in a final as Andrew did at the World University Games in Napoli, Italy on July 8th. 

But Andrew did more than survive in Napoli—he took the silver medal with a toss of 20.49m. (A video of the competition can be found here.)

After that, I was left with no choice but to give Jerry a call and find out how a young man with a high school PB of 59’10” had become one of the best young putters in the world.

First off, I asked Jerry what he saw in Andrew back in his prep days that indicated he could be a successful Division I thrower.

Apparently, Andrew possessed a “fast arm,” and a powerful right hip action, which Jerry attributed at least in part to Andrew having grown up playing hockey. “To me, anything like hockey, baseball or softball the way you swing a bat or a stick has a lot of carryover to throwing. If you look at baseball, what they do swinging a bat where their left foot is flat and the left knee has slight flexion, it’s the same as the discus or shot.”

Once Andrew arrived on campus and hung up the skates for good, Jerry began the process of figuring out the best way to train him, which he says usually takes about a year and a half. 

That might sound surprising, as you’d think a guy who has been coaching world class throwers like Mike Lehman, Edis Elkasević, Gábor Máté and Cory Martin for the last four decades would be pretty set in his ways when it comes to how to train a putter.

But Jerry does not use a one-size-fits-all template when he sits down on Sundays to write workouts for his athletes. He tries to create training plans that best fit each individual, and says that anyone watching the way Andrew trains and they way any of his other throwers train would “not think they have the same coach.”

For example, Jerry used to have Grant Cartwright, a 19.61m putter who graduated in 2018, take a lot of throws with light implements in practice because Grant had been a glider in high school and throwing the light shot helped to smooth his transition to the rotational technique.

During Andrew’s first year at Michigan, he spent a lot of time throwing light shots as well, primarily the 6k to help him get ready for the 2016 USA Junior meet at which he placed fourth with a toss of 19.58m.

But as Jerry got to know Andrew’s strengths and weaknesses better, he decided that training often with heavier shots would serve him best. As Jerry describes it, Andrew was “so fast that I had to keep him more on the heavy implements to make him work the ground better and emphasize force production. Sometimes with the light implement, he doesn’t create much separation and he loses connection with the ball. So, I kind of go back and forth with him.”

When Jerry says he has Andrew throw “heavy implements,” he is referring mainly to the twenty-pound shot, and yes, Andrew takes full throws with it.

Be advised, though, that Jerry does not recommend any coach putting a twenty-pound shot in an athlete’s hand without one, thinking long and hard about whether or not throwing heavy is best for a particular kid, and two, devoting the time necessary to help an athlete who trains with the heavy ball keep his or her hand and wrist healthy. 

Over the years, Jerry has developed “a whole protocol for protecting the hand.”

He learned a lot about the topic from Christian Cantwell, the 2009 World Champion, who recommended a series of stretching exercises that the Michigan putters now perform before and after throwing sessions.

Jerry has also come to rely on a specific method of taping the hand and wrist in training. 

These precautions have allowed Andrew to stay healthy while training with shots ranging from the twenty-pounder all the way down to the 5k. And that consistency in training has produced remarkably consistent improvement during Andrew’s time in Ann Arbor, as evinced by his seasonal bests:

2016: 18.52m

2017: 19.15m

2018: 20.28m

2019: 21.15m

His outstanding throws of the last month may have been set up during a training block Jerry put Andrew through in March. 

He knew that this would be an especially long season with Andrew scheduled to compete in the World University Games and the US Championships, so after the NCAA Indoor Championships he “took Andrew back into training for a pretty good block” with no competitions for four weeks. They needed that time, according to Jerry, “to do things in the weight room and with the heavy implements” that would prepare Andrew for the long outdoor season ahead. 

Speaking of the weight room, Jerry’s approach to lifting has evolved quite a bit over the years. 

He used to construct his training plan using a double periodization model, but now he peaks his athletes primarily by manipulating the weight of the implements they train with. “The weight room is part of it,” he says, “but I look at lifting as general strength. We don’t max out, and I don’t use percentages any more.”

Instead, he uses an app called GymAware to measure bar speed on squats, bench presses, and cleans.

“I have certain ranges I am looking at whether we are working on max strength, absolute strength, or speed strength, and I don’t let the bar speed go below a certain level. If it does, we stop or we do another set with less weight, but we can keep pushing the weight up as long as the bar speed is right.”

Jerry adopted this approach four or five years ago. Prior to that, he wrote workouts using percentages based on his athletes one-rep maxes, but he came to believe that those percentages were often inaccurate as the maxes were achieved when the athlete was in peak lifting form.

During the course of a long season, there are going to be many times when an athlete is lifting while fatigued from throwing or traveling or just being human, so their actual max on that day is significantly less than what they produced under ideal conditions.

This leads to what Jerry refers to as “grinding out reps” in the weight room. “And if the bar is moving slowly,” he asks, “how much carryover does that have for our sport?”

Jerry says that with his current approach his athletes rarely miss a rep and are less susceptible to injury or overtraining.

During the competitive season, he breaks his training cycles into two-week blocks, which he designs based on how things are going for each athlete. 

“I look at what they did the previous two years. I look at different workouts they’ve done. But the biggest thing is the feedback an athlete gives me and what I‘m seeing. If I’m not seeing what I like, if they need more of a speed component we’ll throw lighter stuff. If they are blowing through positions, we will emphasize the heavy implement.”

This ability to synthesize experience, observation and intuition is what Jerry refers to as “the art of coaching,” and it has served him well in his training of Andrew.

In the two-week block leading up to Andrew’s 21.15m bomb for example, Jerry had him back off the heavy implements so he could “get the feel of throwing far.” He soon produced a practice PB of 21.20m with the fifteen-pound shot and surpassed twenty-three meters with the 6k, which showed Jerry that he was ready for a big throw with the sixteen.

Next up is the US Championships in Des Moines. Andrew finished sixteenth there last year, so making the final would be another nice step forward.

This fall he will be back at UMich for another year of training under Jerry’s guidance. With Ryan Crouser, Joe Kovacs and Darrell Hill still in their prime it would be asking a lot for Andrew to get in the mix for a spot on the 2020 Olympic team, but in the meantime he and Jerry will be tucked away in Ann Arbor constructing his future one two-week block at a time.

by Dan McQuaid & friends