All posts by Daniel McQuaid

Gia for President

The Constitution says a person must be at least thirty-five years old to run.

Check. Gia is thirty-eight.

As we know, an ideal candidate should be someone who empathizes with rural America.

Gia lives on a farm.

They should understand the importance of having access to quality health care.

More on that  later.

They should be able to stand up to Putin.

Gia has taken on another terror from the East,  Sandra Perkovic, many times and during the 2013 and 2014 seasons handed the Croatian Sensation her only losses.

They should be tough as nails.

A year ago, Gia was so hobbled by a back injury that she could barely bend over to pick up her discus. This past weekend, she won the USA Championships.

I know how injured Gia was last summer because I saw her throw at North Central  College in a last ditch attempt to see if she’d be able to compete at the Olympic trials. She literally hobbled over to the cage during warm-ups and limped out of the ring after each attempt.

It was really tough to watch. I don’t know anyone in this sport who does not love and respect Gia, and to those of us who were at North Central that day it was pretty clear that Gia’s career was over. At her age (Sorry, Gia. I know we often talk about you as if your expiration date as an athlete has expired) it was hard to imagine her coming back from that severe of an injury.

But come back she did.

According to Gia’s coach, University of Illinois head track coach Mike Turk, her back problems first emerged in August of 2015, as she was preparing for the World Championships in Beijing.

“The day before she left for the USA team training camp in Tokyo, her back got really tight. Then, she got a bad seat on the plane and had to endure the thirteen-hour flight overseas in pain the whole way. She spent most of the time in Tokyo trying to get better. USATF did everything they could for her. They even took her to one of Japan’s team doctors for acupuncture.”

Unfortunately, nothing helped and according to Coach Turk, Gia “almost pulled out of the meet before qualifying.” She gutted her way though the prelims, but finished 11th with a throw of 60.55m, almost nine meters below her PR.

Her back problems (it turned out to be herniated discs in  L4 and L5) plagued her throughout the 2016 campaign.  Coach Turk recalls the low point coming at a meet in April when Gia told him though tears that she “could not do this anymore.” Her back hurt so much that she had to have someone hold her place in line during warm-ups so she could rest between throws.

Two months later, she was forced to withdraw from the Trials.

No one would have blamed Gia if she had decided to call it a career, but having fought for nearly fifteen years to make it to the world class level (she threw her PR of 69.17m at the age of 35) she was determined not to give up.

Coach Turk says that Gia’s agent, Karen Locke, was instrumental in turning things around.  Locke referred Gia to a medical team in Los Angeles, and one of the first things they did was to treat a leg length discrepancy that apparently caused a lot of undue stress on her lower back.

After being fitted with an orthotic, “she made an incredible commitment to weeks and weeks of therapy in LA followed by months of therapy in Minnesota (at the Hopkins Health and Wellness Center). It was a big financial burden to her family. A lot of people would have given up, but she wanted to show people that it could be done.”

 

Late in the fall of 2016, Gia was able to start training like a discus thrower again.

“When we started training, it was a real slow process. We started training in conjunction with the work in Minnesota. She would go up there for a week periodically through the fall and winter. Some time in January we actually started doing some full throws.”

But progress was slow, as she had missed an entire year of serious strength training.

“When we opened the season, she was throwing 55 meters because the strength wasn’t there. She was a little down about it, and I had to remind her that she’d been off for over a year.  I really believed her power would come back, I just couldn’t tell her when.”

Finally, in May, her  power made an appearance.

She hit 62.95m to get the A standard, then followed that up on June 2nd by drilling 65.81m at the Tuscon Elite meet.

Coach Turk was pleased, but not shocked by those distances.

“I knew about that time that she was ready to throw well. I could see things flying in practice a bit more the week leading up to Tuscon.  I could see especially the heavy implements going farther.”

Though her winning toss in Sacramento (62.65m) was, by Gia’s standards, not a bomb, she and Coach Turk were happy with it for several reasons: the 100-degree temperature, the 10:00 pm in Illinois starting time, the fact that she had been for all practical purposes crippled twelve months earlier.

“The goal was to make the team,” he explained. “For sure you want to win, but she really wanted to prove that she wasn’t too old, that she could come back at the age of 38 and make another team. And when people wonder how much longer she can throw, that’s the answer: as long as she keeps making teams.

Next up is a short trip to Europe, the first time this year that she will be road testing her back overseas. Turk is not worried about her ability to withstand the rigors of such a trip.

“We’ll make sure she gets herself set before she leaves. We’ll make sure she recovers when she gets back. If she can make trips to the west coast, she can make trips to Europe.”

In terms of strength, Gia’s lifting numbers (she focuses on dead lifts, power cleans and bench press) are close to 90% of what she was lifting when she threw that 69.17m.

Around the first of August, she will pack up that strength, a couple of discs and an over-sized load of determination for a trip to Birmingham where she will make her final preparations for the Worlds in London.

Coach Turk says that he and Gia have a theme for this season: The Story is Not Over.

 

With luck, the story will continue all the way to Tokyo and the 2020 Olympics.

After that, Gia might need to find a new passion.

I have just the thing.

Gia. The country needs ‘ya!

What I Learned from Talking with Gwen Berry

In the  days leading up to the USA Championships, one’s thoughts turn to big throws and  those that produce them.

One of my favorite contenders to make the team for the World Championships in London is the American record holder in the women’s hammer, Gwen Berry.

Gwen was nice enough to chat with me for a few minutes recently. Here are some things I learned from our conversation.

The woman can handle adversity.

In May 2016, Gwen broke the American record in the hammer with a toss of 76.31m at the Ole Miss Classic in Oxford, Mississippi. That throw earned her $30,000 in performance bonuses.

She got to keep none of it.

I wrote in detail about this situation last summer. You can find that article here: http://mcthrows.com/?p=1511

Basically what happened was that Gwen got suspended by USADA in the days following her American record throw because several weeks earlier she had self-reported her use of a common asthma medication called Breo. She never failed a drug test. There was never a question of why she took Breo. Simply put, she has asthma and like many people with asthma she needs medication once in while to be able to breathe.

Apparently, none of that mattered to USADA, and for a time last summer, it looked like the infraction would cost her a chance to compete in the Olympic Trials. Gwen was devastated.  According to her coach, John Smith, the stress of the controversy, of seeing her reputation tarnished “nearly killed her career. It took a lot to keep her going.”

In the end, Gwen was given a short suspension, which ended just in time for her to compete in the Trials. She was, however, stripped of her American record and the $30,000 she had earned in setting  it.

Then,  shortly after Gwen’s case was adjudicated, USADA published a decision in a case involving a swimmer who was charged with exactly the same violation…and let off with a “public warning.”

You can read about that case here: https://www.usada.org/sam-tierney-receives-public-warning/

I don’t know about you, but were I Gwen, I’d have been more than a little chapped. And I, for one, would not have blamed her if after breaking the American record again this  spring–this time with a toss of 76.77m–she’d have directed some choice words and perhaps a celebratory middle finger USADA’s way.

But, Gwen is not like that.

I asked her if she uses that whole controversy as motivation, if she enters the ring during competitions thinking “I’m going to kill this one to stick it to USADA.” Here was her reply:

“I don’t necessarily think of it like that. When I get in the ring, I want to kill one for everyone who doubted me early in my career. It took me a long time to figure out the hammer. The weight came easy for me, but not the hammer, so I guess when I get into the ring I think ‘this throw is for everyone who doubted me in the past.’ I don’t worry about USADA. I believe that everything happens for a reason. I know that life sucks sometimes, but the whole thing made me a stronger thrower and person.”

Indeed.

 

Gwen Berry and Morgan Spurlock have something in common.

Remember him? He’s the guy who made the Super Size Me documentary.  IMDB describes its premise this way:  “While examining the influence of the fast food industry, Morgan Spurlock personally explored the consequences on his health of a diet of solely McDonald’s food for one month.”

The main consequence was that subsisting on a McDonald’s-only diet made him feel like crap.

Gwen can relate.

After qualifying for the Olympics last summer,  she arrived in Rio two weeks before the women’s hammer competition. The plan was to get acclimated to her surroundings and develop a routine that would help her feel comfortable when it was time to compete.

But she could not stomach the food in the athlete’s village, and McDonald’s was her only alternative other than a two-week fast.

So, in the days leading up to the biggest meet of her life, Gwen took every meal under the golden arches.

Like Spurlock, her McDonald’s binge made her feel awful, and she did not qualify for the hammer final.

She is ready though, if she makes the squad for the World’s in London, to try a different tack.

“I will not go there early,” she vowed. “I will try to keep my normal regimen for as long as I can. If I qualify for London, I’ll go there a couple of days before my competition.”

According to Coach Smith, jet lag tends to hit athletes three days after arriving in a distant land, so Gwen will have to cut it pretty close and literally show up  two days before the hammer prelims.

She is confident she can make it work.

“That’s what I did in Japan,” she said (referring to her IAAF Hammer Challenge win in Kawasaki last May). “I’d never thrown 73 meters overseas before, and I threw 74.13m there.”

 

Gwen can throw great, even when her back is killing her.

When my back spazzes on me, I like to lie on the floor and whine so that  my wife will bring me snacks.

Gwen is made of sterner stuff.

This  past February, a month before the USA Indoor Championships where she was scheduled to compete in the 20-lb weight throw, Gwen strained her back so badly that she could barely throw or lift. According to Coach Smith, her workouts during the four weeks prior to the championships  consisted almost entirely of back rehab.

Two weeks out, she was convinced that she would not be able to compete.

Ten days out, she was able to throw a 25-lb training weight about 18 meters, and Smith convinced her to go to Albuquerque and take a whack at competing.

She did, and ended up throwing 25.60m to break the world record.

 

College kids these days are really soft.

Back in my day, if you stayed up late reading Goethe and got a craving for a freshly baked cookie you were out of luck. Even if you could convince a fraternity brother to take a break from his quantum mechanics homework and drive you to Seven Eleven, the freshest thing you could get was probably a pack of Chips Ahoy that had been on the shelf since the mid Phanerozoic Eon. It was balderdash, I tell you.

But times have changed, and now if you are a student at Ole Miss you can get freshly baked cookies delivered to your door any time between the hours of 9:00am and 3:00am.  And the person who delivers them to you might just be the American record holder in the women’s hammer.

Let her explain.

“I can’t work a real job,” Gwen told me when I asked how she was supporting herself. “So I deliver for Insomnia Cookies.  I practice every day at about 2:00pm, and then I go to work until 3:00am. I don’t mind it, though, and they are great about letting me take time off when I need it.”

One of those times is right now as she prepares for the US Championships. If she makes the team for London, her hiatus could be  extended for a couple of months.

Coach Smith says that she is ready not only to make the team but to extend the American record. His hammer throwers train with a wide variety of implements–heavy and light on both regular and shortened wires–and he keeps meticulous track of how  far each thrower throws each implement each practice.

Based on her training throws, he says that Gwen “is in much better shape now than when she broke the American record.”

So, if you happen to be in Oxford, Mississippi this fall and find yourself ordering up a late-night cookie, be ready. When you open your door you may well come face to face with a World Championships medalist.

And one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shadae Lawrence v. Maggie Ewen: a technical analysis

Watching the NCAA women’s discus final via the ESPN webcast last weekend I was struck by two things. One, it’s not only high school officials who are nuts.  The college guys are as well. Two different throwers whanged a disc off the cage so hard that it ricocheted straight up before coming to rest on the turf a few meters from the ring.  Both walked away assuming it was understood that they did not want those throws measured. Both assumed wrong. Ten meters forty. Eight meters sixty.  You can  look it up.

The second interesting thing about the competition was the sixth round when Kansas State’s Shadae Lawrence and Arizona State’s Maggie Ewen hammered great final throws.

Shadae went 61.37m for the win.

Maggie, after being pushed into third place by Shadae’s toss, responded with her best effort of the day, 60.11m, to take second.

You can see  those tosses on Macthrowvideo.com.

Right now, I’d like to take a look at some stills from the vids of those throws because I think they reveal why Maggie came up short in her effort to add a discus title to the hammer gold she’d won a couple of days earlier.

Here they are winding up:

Shadae has an unusually wide base here, and she uses a rigid right leg to keep her center of gravity from sliding to the right during her wind. I assume she does this to expedite the all-important transfer of weight to the left prior to entry.

And here that entry begins:

At first glance, both throwers appear to be in good shape. Each keeps the disc back as they swing their left side open. Their shoulders are level. The difference I see is that Shadae has turned her left foot harder and pushed her hips farther to the left than has Maggie. In fact, it looks like Maggie’s hips are sliding to the right a bit as her upper body turns and her left arm reaches left.

A couple of frames later, we can see that Shadae has continued to turn her left foot more aggressively than has Maggie, and that Shadae’s hips are opened much farther towards the direction of the  throw.

 

They both do a nice job of getting their right leg out wide, but Maggie’s left foot has stopped turning, leaving her in the position of having to run one direction while her left foot points in another. You can see that her discus is rising up a bit, which may indicate that her shoulders are too far out in front of her hips and she is falling into the throw.

 

Here they are just before right foot touchdown. They look pretty similar at this point, but if you take a close look at the video, you’ll see that as Maggie lands, her right leg has to absorb quite a bit of shock– another indication that she is falling rather than running as she travels  the ring.

 

You can see some of the effort that Maggie has to exert here to absorb the extra shock of landing off balance. It is probably that shock that has caused her discus to drop just when she’d like it to be rising up to a high point.

 

Here is the moment of left foot touchdown. Both have done a nice job of keeping their weight back on their right leg, but Maggie’s disc has dropped while Shadae’s is in an ideal position.

 

Both do a great job here of getting the right heel up before the disc sweeps past it. Unfortunately for Maggie, her center of gravity has shifted prematurely to her left leg while Shadae has stayed back on her  right.

 

Notice the direction of their hips at the moment of release. Maggie has a nice left side block and a super long right arm, but her momentum is pulling her toward the left foul line while her throw ends up landing near the right foul line. Shadae is on balance, her hips squared up in the direction of the throw.

 

The follow through on a throw is often a good indicator of how well the athlete maintained their balance while running the ring, and you can see that Maggie is falling off to the left. It took every ounce of her considerable athleticism to save this throw.

Most coaches will tell you that the success of a discus throw is determined by what happens at the back of the ring. That is absolutely the case here. Shadae did a better job of shifting her weight over an aggressively turning left foot. This allowed her to run the  ring on balance and produce a more efficient throw.

Let me conclude by noting that Maggie’s throw, though not technically perfect, was a big time clutch effort.  As was her NCAA record throw in the hammer. As was her sixth place performance in the shot. Clearly, she is one of the finest throwers in NCAA history, and fans of the throws have a lot to look forward to next year as Maggie and Shadae will both be back.

Porzingis squats: a great example of intelligent weight training

My coaching partner Bellini (he’s kind of like a “life partner” except our relationship consists entirely of coaching and talking about coaching over lunch) sent me this video last night, and I love it so much I have to write about it.

In the vid, the star NBA player Kristaps Porzingis of the New York Knicks performs some body weight squats and  static single leg squats while a muscular man helps him with his posture. Take a look:

What I love about this vid is that the strength coach looks like the stereotypical meat head weight room guy (Why do they never have a full head of hair?) but there is nothing reckless or ill-conceived about what he is doing with Porzingis.

I know that every strength coach wants to be able to brag about how strong they get their clients. It’s good for business.

So, I’m sure this guy would love to Facegram all his friends the news that he got Kristaps Porzingis to squat 500 pounds! It would be his legacy, the thing he would be remembered for long after he is forced into retirement because his neck has gotten so big he can no longer find a shirt that fits.

But putting any amount of weight on Porzingis’ shoulders would be crazy at this point because Porzingis, like many tall young athletes, can barely maintain a safe posture while performing a squat with only his body weight.

By “safe posture” I mean torso upright, shoulders aligned over the hips, like this:

You can see in the vid that Porzingis has to fight like crazy not to lapse into this kind  of posture…

…during his squat reps. Doing so with even a light load  would put him at a high risk of injuring his back.  His trainer clearly understands this and so is putting him through the hard, tedious work necessary to prepare him for some sort of loaded squatting–if and when Porzingis can handle it.

That, in my humble opinion, is excellent strength coaching.

The guy has ascertained Porzingis’ weaknesses and has designed a plan to address them.

And I’ll bet if a different kind of athlete, say somebody like Olympic javelin champion Thomas Rohler…

…walked into that guy’s gym he would not use the same workout that he uses with Porzingis.

Rohler is literally a foot shorter than Porzingis and has great core strength and flexibility. I’ll bet he could do a set of 50 of those single leg squats that Porzingis struggles with in the video.  What would be the point of putting those two very different athletes on the same routine?

And what if world champion shot putter Joe Kovacs walked into that gym?

Joe is stout, super explosive, and not very flexible. He could probably rip my Prius in half, but he’d flunk the sit-and-reach test in gym class. Would he, Porzingis, and Rohler all benefit from the same training program?

I think not.

So, when I watch the  Porzingis video I see two important facets of strength training  displayed: patience and individualization.

And those are things that all of us who train kids in the weight room should try to include in our programs.

 

 

 

Michigan to open throws palace in 2018

 

michigan field house

 

Next January, the University of Michigan will inaugurate a new indoor and outdoor track facility. Currently under construction, it is  known as the “Stephen M. Ross Athletic Campus Athletics South Competition and Performance Project” but it won’t be long before it picks up a catchier name among throws aficionados, something along the lines of “The Stephen M. Ross Palace of Awesomeness.”

Ok, it won’t just be a throwing facility.

The field house will also contain a state-of-the-art, 200-meter, banked, hydraulic track surrounded by a three-lane, 300-meter practice track, a weight room with 42 platforms, training facilities for the rowing, soccer, tennis, wrestling, lacrosse, and  gymnastics teams, and enough locker room space for a good chunk of the civilized world.

But, the fact that you are reading this article on this site tells me that you are not terribly interested in banked tracks or gymnastics facilities, so let’s get to the good stuff.

Four years ago, Michigan hired this man…

…Jerry Clayton, as head coach of the men’s track team.  He brought with him thirty years of experience at the University of Illinois, Southwest Texas State, the University of Florida, and Auburn. During that time he coached…

• 2 World champions

• 2 Olympic Medalists (Silver, Bronze)

• 16 individual NCAA Champions

• 80+ All-Americans

He also accumulated quite a bit of expertise in the construction of track and field facilities, so when  the athletic department acquired two old warehouses on the edge of campus and decided that the land they occupied would be an ideal spot on which to build new indoor and outdoor track arenas, Jerry was the perfect guy to have on hand.

Fortunately, the  administration at Michigan realized that and gave Jerry lots of leeway in designing the new facility.

Those of you who have been involved in the construction of a track venue know that this is a rare and wondrous occurrence. When my school rebuilt our athletic facilities a few years ago, our principal called me into his office and demanded to know why we had to have a concrete pad from which to throw the discus. “Can’t they just spin around on the grass?” he fumed. We got our concrete, but I always felt like he resented it as an unnecessary expense.

Jerry’s experience at Michigan has been just the opposite.

“During the fall of my second year, they really started serious planning,” Jerry told me in a recent interview. “They knew that I had built facilities at three of my previous four jobs, and it was incredible how much the administration allowed my input.”

Jerry is one of those guys who could probably coach any event in track and field, so he was able to pitch in with advice on everything from the layout of the track to the ideal seating capacity (2,000 permanent seats, which can be expanded to 3,500 if he gets his wish to someday host the Big Ten and NCAA championships).

But his area of expertise is the throws, and three decades of coaching world class shot putters and discus throwers  such as Mike Lehmann, Gabor Mate,  Edis Elkasevic, and Cory Martin gave him a chance to visit a great variety of training and competition venues  across the United States and Europe. Jerry also encouraged his athletes to send him pictures of the facilities they came across on their travels overseas.

Given the opportunity to design the new facility at Michigan, he tried to combine the best features of all these places, some as close as Lincoln, Nebraska, others as far afield as Berlin, Germany.

A top priority was creating a space that would allow for year-round training of the long throws.

“At one end of the indoor facility (see the illustration above) we will be able to throw the hammer and discus into nets outside of the oval and also outside of the 300-meter track so athletes can still train on those tracks while we throw.”

The finished product will look something like this…

One trick to constructing an effective indoor training space is  to find the right material in which to throw the  hammer. It has to be flexible enough so that the implement does not rebound back at the thrower, but sturdy enough to withstand a lot of abuse.  Luckily, Jerry’s former putter Eric Werskey spent a lot of time in Germany over the past couple of years and was able to obtain the exact specs for the materials the Germans use in their indoor throwing facilities.  According to Jerry, “they  throw the hammer into strips of  PVC vinyl, one quarter inch thick (see photo below). You hang the strips so that they overlap and you can throw a hammer into it and it will only deflect maybe a foot and a half.”  The Michigan space will use that exact grade of PVC.

While many coaches working in a northern climate would be thrilled for their athletes to have the ability to launch hammers and discs into a net all winter, the new facility will allow Jerry to take cold weather training a step further.  If you are a true throws geek, you have likely seen this video of Robert Harting:

He is throwing from an indoor ring through a large open doorway onto an outdoor grass field. Here is another view of a similar facility:

Notice how misty/rainy/crappy the weather looks outside. Kind of like a typical day in the Midwest between November and March.  But with a setup like this, who cares? Your athletes can throw from a dry, covered ring and still know how far their attempts are traveling, which is a distinct advantage over throwing into a net.

Here is a closeup look at the end of the field house where Jerry’s rings will be located:

Two of those rings will be like the ones in those videos, where the athletes will be able to throw from inside the field house onto…

…these outdoor throwing fields.

What makes the Michigan facility potentially better than the German training centers will be the ability to throw the javelin from indoors to out as well. Notice on those blueprints that an extended straightaway from the practice track ends just short of the throwing rings. Jav throwers will be able to use that section of the track as a runway while launching the spear out onto the grass.

One more aspect of the Michigan facility bears mention, though it does not pertain strictly to the throws.

As much as I love the sport of track and field, I  think I can speak for most coaches, athletes and fans when I say that sometimes meets, especially indoor meets, can drag on a bit too long, A lot too long when you have a field of elite pole vaulters.

Jerry has sought to remedy that situation by setting up his new facility so that not only can the weight, shot, and  high jump be run concurrently, but so can two long jump and two (Thank you, Jesus!) pole vault runways.

The facility is set to open in January, 2018, with a quad featuring Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan State. Jerry predicts that meet can be completed in two hours.

He is also trying to put together a Big 10 v. ACC challenge featuring at least nine teams, which he believes will take no more than five hours, start to finish.

And speaking of making track and field more fan-friendly, Jerry also designed the new facility to allow live streaming of practices and competitions.

“I made sure they put the conduit in, and also put in  locations for cameras, with a toggle switch in a control room so you can cover the meet live.  The parents will be able to sit at home and watch. That’s the direction that track needs to go. We need to get it out to more alumni, fans and parents. We will have to purchase the cameras later, but when we do the facility will be ready for it.”

Whatever they end up calling this new athletic complex, kudos to Jerry for envisioning a cutting-edge venue that will provide a great track and field experience for coaches, athletes, and spectators.

And kudos to the Michigan administration for hiring a coach with vast experience in his sport and then trusting his advice.

Maybe they should call it the Palace of Miracles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A look back at Coach Smith’s busy day in Rio

Qualifying two throwers in different events for the Olympics is a dream come true for any coach, including John Smith of the University of Mississippi who accompanied shot putter Raven Saunders and hammer thrower Gwen Berry to the Rio Games. Unfortunately, the women’s shot prelims and finals took place on the same day as the hammer prelims, making August 12 probably the busiest, most pressure-packed day of Coach Smith’s life. 

I talked with John a couple of days later, and asked about his impressions of the Rio Games in general, and more specifically how he survived his big day.

Coach, what were the accommodations like in Rio?

I stayed with the other coaches at the  hotel  for personal coaches of high performance athletes. It had air conditioning and toilet paper, so it was pretty good.

The US has a naval base that belongs to the Brazilian navy and there’s a track there and a weight room there.  Basically my time was spent going to the track, practicing and lifting. 

Did you lift at the naval base?

Yes. They had a US-only training place. It is right on the ocean. You could see the sailing competitions from it. If you saw the sailing competitions on TV that’s where our track was.

What was it like getting around?

They had shuttles for us to and from the practice track every day. Everything was there at the naval base. The weight room was like the Chula Vista weight room. They even had a safety squat bar that I requested. We were able to do everything training wise that we needed to do just like we would at home. Because of that, our athletes were prepared and ready to go. Compared to other Olympics, it was unbelievably accommodating for the coaches. USATF and the USOC gave us a chance to do what we needed to do.

This was my fifth Olympics and you could tell  the organizers weren’t ready. The day we finally got to go to the stadium. they had just put in toeboards at the practice track the day before. And they were building the cage inside the stadium the day before. But, at least  they had an Olympic lane on the streets so we could avoid the traffic. Even with that, for the athletes it took an hour to get to the naval base and an hour to go from the village to the stadium. It pretty much took an hour to go anywhere important.

Did the streets feel safe?

You had to be careful. Where we were at there were bars on the windows, metal doors.  There were even bars on the windows on the second story.

You had to be happy with Raven getting a PR of 19.35m and finishing fifth.

We were in great shape. In practice prior to the Games,  she did some fantastic things, but you never know if they are going to come out or  not.  We had a practice in the last six or seven days where she threw a sixteen-pound shot 45 feet, and a 3.75k 66 feet. She usually matches her 3.75k distance in a meet, so she was pretty excited. After she qualified for the final,  I said “Raven, go for it. On your first throw get into the top eight then just go after it. I don’t care if you foul.”

She was pissed afterwards that she didn’t throw 65. She only has one speed–all out. She is fearless and that is what makes her great. I expect her to throw 66 feet next year. The only think I may add to her repertoire is I may have her lose a little weight and I may add push jerks.

Are you planning on adjusting her  diet?

Yes. There is a lot of room for improvement in her diet. I’d like her weigh about 245.

How would the push jerks specifically help her?

As fast as she gets across the ring, she needs to get up quickly. I have her throw into a net every other throw in practice–one to the net, one to the field. And we emphasize getting up at the end of the throw.  But after seven days in Rio without the net, she lost her ability to lift at the end. Her speed has to go from horizontal to vertical. When she fouls it is because she doesn’t get up soon enough or hard enough, 

How did Gwen look leading up to the Games?

Gwen was ready to go. She threw the 3k 280 feet in training, but this was Gwen’s first time, and the failure rate the first time at an Olympics or Worlds is 85-90 percent.

Deanna (Price. who John coached at Southern Illinois University) was the same way last year. I asked her what was the difference between this year and last year, and she said, “Last year I was scared. This year I wasn’t.” (Note: Deanna made the World’s team last year, but did not make the final in Beijing. In Rio, she did.)

World qualifying is a bitch. Until they go through it…

Can you take us through your day on August 12 when both girls  competed?

I got up at 5:30 to catch the 6:30 bus, but it got lost on the way to the track, so it took an hour and fifteen minutes to get there when it should have taken 35 minutes. I had to go get my credentials to get in the practice track, and once I got in, I had Raven take a non-reverse half-turn and a non-reverse full, another non-reverse half-turn and non-reverse full.  I had her take a full throw to see that everything was balanced okay, then I took her to the waiting room and went inside the stadium.

She fouled her first throw then hit the automatic qualifier (18.40m) on her second throw (18.83m), which for someone in their first Olympics is fantastic.

I thought it would take 18-meters to qualify, so for several weeks we practiced twice a day where I would  give her four warm-up throws then she would get three throws to throw 18 meters with the 3.75k, then she would go home. We did that for ten weeks.

We got to the point where I was comfortable that she could  make it.

Then the day before the competition we were going to rest, but it started to rain, and there was a chance it would rain the next day in the competition, so I took her  to the track and had her take some throws to get used to those conditions. She threw about 63 feet with the 3.75k.

After the shot qualifying, they had a car for me, Michael Carter (father and coach of Michelle), and Larry Judge (coach of Felisha Johnson) to go back to the hotel. I felt bad for Michael because the airline lost his bags and he ended up wearing the same clothes for six days. We got back just after noon, and I went to have something to eat at a smorgasbord where you put your food on the plate and pay by the pound.

I left on the 5:30 bus to go to the track again, and this time I had Gwen getting ready for the prelims, but the warm-up area for the long throws was at a different practice track, so I had to go back to the stadium and then take a shuttle to the long throws track, which looked like a vacant lot with a hammer cage on it.

From there they took the girls to the call room, and they had another bus to take the coaches back to the stadium.

While you were at the warm-up track with Gwen, where was Raven?

She was at the warm-up track at the stadium and Connie was there. (Note: John is married to former Olympian Connie Price Smith who was the head coach for the women’s track team in Rio).

So you were positioned to manage that potentially difficult situation.

Yes. And if Gwen ended up in  the second flight, which competed when  Raven was throwing, JC would have coached Gwen. (Note: “JC” is JC Lambert who Smith coached at SIU and who took over as throws coach there when the Smiths moved to Ole Miss) He’s worked a lot with Gwen, so it would not have been a problem.

Anyway, it worked out well that Gwen was in the first flight, because the second flight competed during the women’s shot final, so when Gwen was done I just walked around to the other side of the stadium, and Raven was already warming up.

 I never did get to see Raven after the competition. Connie did, but I had to catch the 11:30 bus back to the hotel.

That was quite a day!

Yes. I had one fantastic performance and a girl that came up a little short and still had a lot of emotional baggage. Gwen felt like she had something to prove instead of just getting in there to throw. After the whole thing with the asthma medication, she felt like she had to prove that she wasn’t on drugs.

Will Gwen keep throwing?

I hope so. Whenever an athlete has a disappointing Olympics they sort of re-think their career. But I think she will. She has tons of potential. 

 

 

Olympic Predictions: Women’s Discus

The following is a public service announcement from Captain Obvious:

Sandra Perkovic of Croatia is going to win the women’s disc.

sondra

Here’s how we know:

-She opened the season with a 70.59m toss on March 6 in Split.

-She threw a 70.88m world-leader on  May 14 in Shanghai.

-She threw 69 meters twice in July, most recently 69.94m in London on the 23rd.

-All in all, she has six of the top ten throws of 2016.

-Beyond that, she is quite simply the best women’s discus thrower in history, and at the top of her game. I know, I know, her PR of 71.08m is the 85th best throw of all-time. But throws 1 thru 84 on that list took place between 1981-1992, and all but one of them was made by an athlete from the Eastern Bloc. That one throw (71.22m, number 78 on the list) was produced by Ria Stalman of the Netherlands who, earlier this year, shocked the world by admitting that she took supplements other than vitamin C during her career.

These throwers will be vying for the silver and bronze: 

yaimi

Yaime Perez of Cuba threw 68.86m in Havana in February. She followed that up with a 67.91m in June, also in Cuba. For the past two months, though, she has not been impressive.

caballero

Yaime’s teammate, Dania Caballero, won the  World Championships last year by hammering a 69-meter first round toss that Perkovic could not answer. This year, her best of 67.62m came June 29 in Portugal after she was destroyed by Perkovic in Stockholm and  Oslo.

nadine

Nadine Muller of Germany took the silver last year in Beijing with a 65.53m toss. This year she won the  German championships with 65.79m–her season’s best. We are wondering, though, if something is up with her health, as she finished fourth at the Euros (62.63m) and then threw 59.95m at the London DL meeting.

 

shanice

Shanice Craft, also of Germany, has thrown 64.62m this year, and finished third at the Euros. She is super consistent, but at twenty-three-years-old may not be ready yet to bust a 66m and get in  the hunt in Rio. Then again, I did not think her countryman Daniel Jasinski had a prayer of getting on the podium, and we know how that turned out.

dani

Dani Samuels of Australia was the World Champion in 2009 but has not medaled at a major meet since. Why, I do not know. This year, she hit  67.77m in Shanghai in May, so she has the horsepower to get on the podium in Rio if she can find her form.

julia

Germany’s Julia Fischer finished fifth in Beijing last year with a 63.88m toss, and earned this season’s European silver (65.77m).  She also threw a huge PR of 68.49m in May.

Here are Trofimuk’s predictions. I disagree, which is why he is currently locked in the basement.

Bronze: Muller

Silver: Caballero

Gold: Perkovic

Here are my picks:

Bronze: Cabellero. She’s not producing the results  she was last year, but is for sure capable of going 66+.

Silver: Fischer. Is she ready to pull a Chris Harting and take the leap to the big time? Why yes, she is. Unfortunately, and this is not a dig at Piotr Malachowski, no matter how far she or anyone else throws, Perkovic will throw father.

Gold: Perkovic. She  was banged up last year, and  could not respond in her usual honey badger style when Caballero killed one in the first round in Beijing. That will not be the case in Rio. If she has to, she will go 70+ to get the win.

 

Olympic Predictions: Men’s Discus

Trofimuk and I disagree on this one, but twenty years of marriage   has trained me to avoid conflict by employing subterfuge, and since I have the password to the blog and he doesn’t…here’s what I think.

This is going to be a two-man battle for the gold, with the bronze medal totally up for grabs.

The Contenders (for the bronze)

Finleycrop_t640

Mason Finley of the United States  created great expectations for himself at a very young age by one, being ginormous, and two, breaking the all-time high school record in the disc.  Seven up and down years later, he came up yuuuuge at this year’s Trials, hitting a PR 66.72m in the prelims and following that up with 63.42m for the win in the rain-soaked final.  Trofimuk and I became fans of Mason when we interviewed him in Des Moines at the 2012 NCAA meet. At the time he was getting a lot of career advice from courageous internet trolls who were outraged that he was taking too long to develop into the next great American thrower, so we were afraid he might be a little surly with us media types. But he could not have been more gracious. He kind of fell off the map after graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2014, and we had no idea what he was up to until last summer when Mac Wilkins told us that Mason had spent a few months at the Chula Vista training center and had shown a lot of potential while there. He picked a great time, this Olympic year, to start realizing that potential and even though he is unlikely to get near the  podium in Rio, if he can make the  final and then stay in the  game for another four years he may fulfill those expectations after all.

stahl

Daniel Stahl of Sweden finished fifth in Beijing last year.  Twenty-five-years old, athletic and having just hit a PR of 66.92m last month, he is definitely a threat to medal in Rio.

gerd

Can it be eleven years since Estonia’s Gerd Kanter announced himself as the next great discus thrower by blasting a 68.57m toss at the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki? Virgilius Alekna came up big on his last throw to prevent Kanter from claiming the gold that night, but for Kanter, Helsinki was the beginning of a streak of dominance that included winning the Beijing Olympics and breaking the 70-meter mark in six consecutive seasons.  The emergence of a certain German as maybe the  best big-meet thrower in history (more on that below) pushed Gerd out of the  limelight, but he remains a fierce competitor who rises to the occasion. Don’t forget, he came within a few centimeters of defeating that…uh…German fellow in London. Kanter’s best this season is the 65.27m he threw to take bronze at the European Championships.  That won’t be enough to get him a medal in Rio, but don’t be surprised if this cagey veteran nails a season’s best and gets himself into the hunt.

 

chris

Younger, taller, and mellower than his famous brother, Christoph Harting of Germany has flashed signs that he might be ready to succeed big bro as the best discus thrower in the world. 2015 was a breakthrough season for Chris, as he upped his PR nearly three meters to 67.93m and came within a phantom foul of medaling in Beijing. This year he threw 68.06m early and has been consistently in the 65-meter range since, taking fourth at the Euros with 65.13m. It can’t be easy operating in the shadow cast by big brother, and you hate to place too much importance on a single competition, but medaling in Rio would be a giant step in this young man’s career.

 

phil

Philip Milanov of Belgium threw 66 meters in June of 2014, then must have gotten either injured or kidnapped because I was at the European Championships that August and do not recall seeing him throw. So, I was surprised as anyone last year when he broke the Belgian record with a 66.90m toss that got him the silver in Beijing. He hit a PR 67.26m this May, and finished second at the Euros with a 65.71m toss. If anyone could challenge the  two Big Dogs (more on  them in a moment) should they falter, it would likely be Milanov.

Robert-Urbanek

Robert Urbanek of Poland announced himself as a world class thrower with a 66.93m toss in 2012,  and helped Poland to a 1-3 finish in the disc last year in Beijing by tossing 65.18m to take the bronze. He struggled at the Euros last month, finishing ninth at 62.18m. His best this year is  65.56m., and in spite of his struggles in Amsterdam, I see him as a twenty-nine-year-old version of Kanter in that he can be relied on to throw  65-something under pressure in a stadium. However, if things get nutty in Rio and it takes 68.00m to medal he will likely be out of luck.

The Contenders (for the Gold)

piotr

Piotr Malachowski of Poland is like those fantastic NBA teams of the 1990’s (Karl Malone’s Utah Jazz, Shawn Kemp’s Seattle Supersonics, Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks, Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets) who had no shot at winning a title as long as Michael Jordan was at his ass-kicking best. Piotr’s 67.82m silver-medal-winning toss at the Beijing Olympics should have set him up as the heir apparent to Kanter, and a 69.15m national record throw at the 2009 Worlds in Berlin seemed, for a few minutes anyway, to indicate that he was ready to assume the throne. But we all know how that turned out. (Buy me an iced tea and I’ll be glad to re-enact the BBC coverage of round six for you).  Piotr had nobody but himself to blame for a lousy 9th place finish in Daegu, but he came back strong in London (67.19m) only to finish fifth, and even stronger in Moscow (68.36m) only to finish second to “He Who Shall Not Be Named Until the Next Paragraph.” Back to the basketball analogy, it wasn’t until Michael Jordan briefly retired that another team (Olajuwon’s Rockets) was able to win an NBA title.  In Malachowski’s case, he  finally broke through and became World Champion last year (with a 67.40m toss) when that Certain Someone was unable  to compete in Beijing  due to a knee injury. This year, Malachowski leads the  world at 68.15m, is dominating the Diamond League race, and seems primed to make a run at his first Olympic gold.  However…

harting

…Robert Harting of Germany, the Dark Prince of the Discus, the Beast from the former East is back, and the beast…is…hungry.

I know this from personal experience. In March of 2015, four months his surgery for a torn ACL, I attended one of Harting’s practices. At the time, he was determined to get the knee ready for a defense of his World title that August in Beijing. I had interviewed him a year earlier and he had seemed like a pretty friendly guy, so of course I said hello as I approached the discus cage. He turned around, shirtless and looking mighty buff, and  literally growled at me.  A sane person probably would have dropped his notebook and made a run for it, and don’t think I didn’t consider it, but instead I just wet myself a little and then stuck around to watch as he treated every stand throw, every full, every imitation like it was round six of the Olympic final. His intensity was so intimidating that I climbed to the other side of a small fence that surrounded the throwing area just to signal that I was staying the  heck out of his work space.

In hindsight, I think that accounts for the difference in his demeanor between the  first couple times I met him and this particular moment. He didn’t mind having a semi-annoying American asking him a bunch of questions in a hotel lobby or as he relaxed at the  track after a competition.  But when it was  time to work on his craft…well, that was a very different story.

As noted above, he was not able to make it back for the 2015 World Championships, and there were a couple of moments this spring when a torn pec and  more trouble with the  repaired knee threatened to derail his career for good. Then came the final round of the German Championships. The winner would receive a guaranteed spot in the Olympics. Everyone else would have to continue battling another three weeks for the remaining two slots. Robert wanted to secure that automatic bid so he could begin to focus strictly on Olympic prep, but as he stepped in for his final effort his  brother sat in first place at 66.41m. I doubt anyone in that stadium was surprised by what happened next. Certainly Malachowski wouldn’t have been. A 68.04m bomb. Robert’s best throw in two years. The automatic bid secured. Order restored.

And the medals go to…

Trofimuk is a big guy, and it would hurt to be punched by him, so I am going to go ahead and give his predictions even though they are completely wrong.

Bronze: Robert Harting

Silver: Milanov

Gold: Malachowski

 I…ahem…beg to differ. 

Bronze: Chris Harting. He was also at that March 2015 practice and was super nice. Didn’t growl at me even once. For that, I am forever grateful.

Silver: Malachowski.  I met Malachowski at the New York Diamond League meeting a couple of years ago. He is a really nice guy, and after we chatted for a while I thanked him for his time and  told him I thought he was a great thrower. “Maybe,” he replied, “but Harting always beats me.” Unfortunately for Piotr, that trend will continue in Rio.

Gold: Robert Harting.

 

A Coach Prepares for Rio

For a track coach, having one or your athletes make the Olympics has got to be an amazing feeling. What I wondered though, watching the recent Olympic Trials, is “What happens next?” How do you deal with the logistics of coaching your athlete through the biggest meet of their career, especially when you factor in the unique difficulties presented by the current situation in Rio?

University of Wisconsin throws coach Dave Astrauskas was kind enough to talk about his experience in  preparing to coach discus thrower Kelsey Card at the Olympics.

First of all, Dave, as a coach you work non-stop to get an athlete to the Olympics. Then, what happens? Does USATF or the USOC support you with info/advice on how to proceed?  Does the University support you? Can you give me an idea of how you even knew where to begin in terms of logistics, scheduling, etc…?

I guess I had a general idea of what to expect from being at several USATF High Performance Summits when I coached a javelin thrower named Alicia DeShasier a few years ago. After the discus competition at the trials I went through USATF team processing with Kelsey the following morning. This was when I learned A LOT about how the next 6 weeks would play out. While at processing, we had to decide on a Rio arrival date, a Rio departure date, whether to participate in opening/closing ceremonies, and when to go to the ‘other’ team processing. I also learned about the lay of the land in Rio and how long travel times may take to get from one location to another. I was introduced to the women’s Olympic throws coach and she explained how communication between myself, Kelsey, and USATF would work. I was made aware that a US practice venue had been secured and that would be where we would train leading up to the qualifying round. A practice schedule for the venue was also presented. I also learned the pros and cons of lifting at the weight room located at the Olympic village. I was told what implements would be made available at the practice facility and we were able to request some additional discs. They shared with me some precautionary things I could do to ensure better health while in Rio. It was also explained to me that USATF had secured housing for some of the personal coaches and that there was a pecking order so I would have to wait to see where I would end up if I got housing at all. I was also made aware of the ‘other’ (USOC) team processing in Houston, TX, that was also mandatory.
As for me personally, I am blessed to be employed by the University of Wisconsin. Wisconsin treats me well and UW supports our track & field / cross country program in almost every possible way. Wisconsin will cover my airfare and room & board. I ended up getting housing that was secured by USATF and is only 10 minutes from the practice venue. I called our UW travel agent and I had my flights to Rio before I left Eugene, OR. I learned from our agent that a rental car was not the way to go and that public transportation and taxis would suit me better. Our UW travel agent was helpful because she had already been through this with our swimming coaches. I also received advice/suggestions from several people from the time I knew I was going to Rio until now and they are Nate Davis (UW Assistant Coach), Connie Price-Smith (Women’s Olympic Head Coach), Jerry Schumacher (Bowerman Track Club Coach), John Smith (Ole Miss Throws Coach), Bonnie Edmondson (Olympic Throws Coach), Art Venegas (USATF Coach), Greg Watson (Kansas St. Throws Coach) and Brett Halter (Mizzou Head Coach).
What were the pros and cons of working out at the weight room in the Olympic Village?
The pros were basically the location and you are able meet a lot of athletes from different countries. The cons were it is open to all types of sports so it will be crowded. As a coach I would have to commute approximately 40 minutes. Also, it is not near the US training facility so we’d be unable to lift directly after a throw session. Ultimately, Kelsey will lift at the Olympic Village one time and lift at the US training facility 3 times.
What advice were you given about the Zika situation?

I was made aware of the risk and was told to find an insect repellent. So, I bought Sawyer’s Fisherman Formula with picaridin which was ranked the best by Consumer Reports in a recent study with the aedes mosquito which carries the zika virus. Yes, I am a research/science geek!

Speaking of science, did they talk at all about the possible ramifications of contracting Zika? Did they give you any updates regarding testing and transmission? I know that part of being an elite athlete is blocking out distractions, so I’m wondering how you all are dealing with this cloud hanging over the situation.

Not much else on Zika other than what I stated. I did not go through USOC processing with Kelsey so maybe she learned more there.

The other cloud hanging over this Games that is not normally a factor is security, Not in the sense of terrorism, the prevention of which has been a worry of Games organizers for quite some time, but in the sense that the streets of Rio have a reputation for being somewhat dangerous. Were you given any advice on that?
They only told us to travel in groups and only take as much money as you need when you leave

Olympic Predictions: Women’s Shot

The contenders:

carter

Like Tom Walsh on the men’s side, Michelle Carter of the United States rolled the dice on a double peak in this Olympic year and the early returns were outstanding: a monumental 20.21m toss on her final throw in Portland for the win. Unfortunately, she injured her back on  that attempt and has yet to regain top form. Her best toss so far outdoors was her 19.59m winner at the Trials. Her ability to medal will depend entirely on her health. When fit, she has the experience, toughness, and horsepower to compete with anyone.

 

marton

Like Carter, Anita Marton of Hungary went all-in for Portland, blasting a sixth-round 19.33m to take the silver. Unlike Carter, she has been able to surpass that sterling  performance outdoors, hitting 19.49m earlier this month.  Twenty-seven years old and possessing  fine rotational technique, she is in her prime and throwing great. Unfortunately, at this Olympics it may well take 20 meters to medal, and that is out of her range.  She’ll make the final, but  not the podium.

raven

Another rotational thrower likely to make the  final in Rio is Raven Saunders of the United States, the twenty-year-old enfant terrible of the women’s shot. She set the NCAA meet record of 19.33m in June, followed that up with 19.24m to take second at the Trials and, under the direction of veteran Coach John Smith, will likely surpass 19 meters again at the Olympics. A top five finish would be a huge accomplishment, and if we had to  pick an early favorite for Tokyo, it would be her.

 

felicia

My money is on Felisha Johnson to make the final as well. She hit a PR of 19.26m in a low-pressure meet at North Central College in beautiful Naperville, Illinois, this summer (full disclosure: I live there) and backed that up with a 19.23m toss at the highest high-pressure meet of her life: the Trials. A similar distance won’t get her anywhere near the podium in Rio, but hopefully she will find a way to stay in the sport and put her Olympic experience to use in Tokyo.

 

gong

China’s Gong Lijiao has thrown at least 20 meters  in seven of the past eight years including a PR of 20.43m two months ago, so I’m going to go out on a limb and say that she will very likely throw 20 meters in Rio and contend for the gold.  Her most recent effort was a 19.73m toss on July 29.

val

Since finishing 7th at the 2004 Olympics, New Zealand’s  Valerie Adams has won two Olympic golds, four outdoor World Championship golds, and three Indoor World golds. She could finish 57th in Rio and still be considered by folks in the know (well, by me anyway) the best shot putter in history.

Not that it’s been easy for her lately. Multiple surgeries kept her from throwing 20 meters last year for the first time since 2005. This winter, she took third in Portland with a 19.25m toss and began the long, slow climb back to the top.

Unfortunately for the rest of the world, she appears to have made it. Twice this month, she surpassed 20 meters with a best of 20.19m on July 18th.

It turns out that Val’s beloved coach Jean-Pierre Egger will not be able to make the trip to Rio due to a bum knee, but my guess is that his absence will only make Val more determined to bring home the win. And a determined, healthy Valerie Adams will be hard to beat.

 

 

schwanitz

Germany’s Christina Schwanitz won gold at the Worlds last year in Val’s absence, but got a late start this spring due to knee surgery.  Like Val, though, she seems to be rounding into form just at the right time winning the European title with a 20.17m chuck. I’ve heard that a German biomechanics study determined that the  base in her power position is inefficiently wide, but her fixed-feet glide technique reliably produces 20-meter throws with no fear of fouling. That makes her a formidable opponent in any big meet.

 

Our picks:

Bronze: Carter. Having grown up in Texas with a former NFL defensive lineman (and Olympic medalist) for a father, she is not going to let a little thing like back pain slow her down.

Silver: Schwanitz.  The fixed feet glide can be deadly in a high-pressure meet.

Gold: Adams. She’s been a dominant competitor and tireless ambassador for the sport for a dozen years. Plus, her brother (NBA star Steven Adams) can beat up your  brother.