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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.

 

Olympic Predictions: Men’s Shot

With the Olympics just around the corner, it was time for me to sit down with my colleague Pat Trofimuk and come up with predictions for the throwing events.  As always,  predictions that turn out to be ridiculously inaccurate should be attributed solely to Pat.

Just last week archaeologists digging at the sight of the original Olympic Games uncovered a stone tablet from 547 BC predicting an American sweep in the shot put. We’re still waiting on that, but with another powerful trio of putters heading to Rio,  might this be the year when the prophecy finally comes true?

Let’s take a look at the contenders.

tomas

Sports psychologists tell us that in order to  excel in  pressure-packed situations–say the  Olympic Games, for example–you have to maintain your poise in the face of adversity. Just made a bad throw? Relax. Breathe. Remind yourself of all the times you’ve come through in  the clutch. The last thing you want to do is to stomp around trying to rip out clumps  of your own hair like some giant, demented opera singer. And yet, the latter approach has somehow netted Poland’s Tomasz Majewski two consecutive Olympic golds.

Injury and age have had their way with him in the four years since his 21.89m performance in London, but he is a 6’9″ glider who rises to the occasion better than anybody.  Raise your hand if you are willing to bet against Majewski throwing 21 meters in Rio… I’m waiting.

 

walsh

My brother-in-law who runs an elementary school in Switzerland tells me that New Zealand produces the best teachers in the world. They also do a pretty decent job of cranking out shot putters, as evidenced by double Olympic champ Val Adams and  reigning Indoor World champ Tom Walsh.

Walsh  is sort of the Kiwi version of Joe Kovacs. Compact build. Friendly personality. Super explosive spin technique.

Unlike Kovacs, though, Walsh chose to gamble that he could peak once indoors for the World Championships and then again five months later in Rio.

His recent 21.54m performance at the London Diamond League meeting  indicates that his gamble might well pay off.

hill

Darrell Hill of the United States hit a PR of 21.63m at the Trials–a huge throw under immense pressure. He lacks international experience, but for the past year has been training with Art Venegas, the Yoda (if Yoda was perpetually chapped) of American throwing, and if anyone can get him ready to withstand the rigors of the Olympic pressure cooker it is, well…Chapped Yoda.

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Ryan Crouser of the United States won the Trials with a monster put of 22.11m, a distance that will likely get him the gold medal in Rio if he can replicate it.  In order to do that, he is going to have to overcome his lack of international experience. In his favor is his unique ability to throw 20 meters going half speed as he did when he won the 2013 NCAA meet with a safety throw of 20.31m–his only mark of the competition. So, we know he will get six throws in Rio. The question is will one of them be far enough to earn a medal?

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Trofimuk and I first met Joe Kovacs of the United States at the NCAA meet in 2012 when he was a senior at Penn State. At that moment, he was not sure whether he was going to continue throwing. After notching a PR at the 2012 Trials, he ended up moving to Chula Vista and teaming up  with Venegas. Fast forward four years, and he is now the defending World Champion and owner of  five of the top ten ten throws in the world so far in 2016.

So, it looks like he made the right decision.

You could say that Joe is the American version of Tom Walsh, a great thrower and better person with one World title on his resume. The difference? Walsh’s win in Portland came against a weak field–all the other top putters (including Kovacs) sat that one out. Joe, on the other hand,  took down the best of the best in Beijing, including…

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…Germany’s David Storl , the two-time World Champion and defending Olympic silver medalist who since injuring his left knee in 2014 has employed an extremely reliable fixed-feet glide. I’ll bet the house, the car, and my VCR tape from 2000 on which the Olympic shot final is sandwiched between Teletubbies episodes that Storl throws over 21 meters in Rio. But the fact that he is still using the fixed-feet finish tells me that his knee is not quite right, which makes it unlikely that he’s capable of hitting 22.00.

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Poland’s Konrad Bukowiecki just broke Storl’s World Junior record with the 6k shot. He is big, aggressive, and being a teen-aged male probably too dense to realize that he’s not meant to medal at the Olympics. This makes him a dangerous  dark horse candidate, and Trofimuk (himself a large, aggressive Polish man) came this close to predicting a spot on the podium for him.

Our Predictions

Bronze: Storl

Silver: Crouser

Gold: Kovacs

This was a rare case where Trofimuk and I came up with identical predictions and did not have to settle our differences with a tickle fight. We also consulted with former University of Wisconsin all-American Dan Block, who threw against both Crouser and Kovacs in  college.

All of us agree that you can’t count out Storl, but with the bum knee Crouser may have surpassed him on the Freak-O-Meter. Joe may be in  the perfect situation to win this thing.  He has the horsepower, he has the international experience, he has Venegas in  his corner.

In Rio, that will be a winning combination.

Some Facts Behind Gwen Berry’s Suspension

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If you follow the sport of throwing, you know by now that Gwen Berry, who in May set an American record in the hammer with a throw of 76.31m, has received a three-month suspension from USADA for “declared or admitted use of a prohibited substance.” Fortunately for Gwen, the suspension will end in time for her to compete in the Olympic Trials. Unfortunately, she will be stripped of her USA Indoors title in the weight throw and her record toss in the hammer. She will also lose $30,000 in prize money and performance bonuses that she had earned so far this year.

Probably most damaging, though, is the loss of reputation that comes with having one’s name associated with the use of a “prohibited substance.”  I know that any time I open the sports section and see that a baseball or football player has been suspended for using a “prohibited substance” I immediately assume that the substance involved was steroids and that the player was taking them to enhance his ability to crush a baseball or a running back. I tend to be especially cynical if the athlete has recently set a career high for home runs or RBIs or quarterback sacks. “Oh,” the little voice in the head says. “That’s how they did it.”

But it is important for Gwen’s sake, and for the sake of the sport, that it be understood that her achievements this year had nothing to do with using a “prohibited substance,” and that the substance for which she was sanctioned is a commonly prescribed asthma medication no different in its effect upon the human body than other commonly prescribed asthma medications that are on the WADA list of “approved substances.”

A little background.

Gwen competed collegiately for John Smith at Southern Illinois University, and planned to stay in Smith’s training group after graduation as she pursued her dream of competing in the Olympics. When Coach Smith took a job at the University of Mississippi last summer, Gwen followed him to Oxford.

Gwen had suffered from asthma much of her life, and the Mississippi weather aggravated her condition. According to Coach Smith, it got to the point last fall that she had trouble making it through more than ten throws per practice due to fatigue and dizziness. Seeking relief, she consulted a doctor who put her on an asthma medication known as Breo.

This doctor assured her that Breo contained nothing that could get her banned, that is was essentially the same as another commonly prescribed asthma medication called Symbicort, which is on the WADA list of approved medications.

This is where Gwen made a $30,000 mistake.  Athletes are ultimately responsible for what they put into their body, and it turns out that Vilanterol Trifenatate, a component of Breo, is not on the WADA approved list.

This March, after winning the weight throw at the USATF Indoor Championships, Gwen was drug tested and, per normal procedure, was asked to list any medications that she had recently used.  Coach Smith told me that he has always directed his athletes to report any medication they might have ingested, “even aspirin” to demonstrate that they had nothing to hide. Accordingly, Gwen indicated that she had been prescribed Breo.

In early May, USADA informed Gwen that she was facing punishment for “declared or admitted use of a prohibited substance.” Nothing had shown up on her tests in Portland, nor in any subsequent tests she was subjected to throughout the spring. Gwen was tested at the meet when she broke the hammer record, and during the 48-hour period afterwards WADA blood-tested her and USADA urine-tested her. All those tests came up negative for prohibited substances. The only reason USADA was aware that Gwen had ingested Vilanterol Trifenatate was because she wrote on the form in Portland that she had taken Breo.

There is no Big Book of Drug Sanctions out there that lists exact penalties for each prohibited substance. USADA is meant to consider extenuating circumstances and to assess a punishment appropriate to the specific violation.

Gwen’s best chance of receiving a minimal ban or possibly even a warning was to prove that she actually had asthma and that her condition was genuinely improved by asthma medication. For help with this she consulted Dr. Robert McEachern. Step one was to put Gwen through what is called “pulmonary function testing” which is essentially a measurement of a person’s ability to breathe. According to Dr. McEachern, this test proved that “Gwen had clinical symptoms that were consistent with asthma.”

Step two was to repeat the test after administering a dose of asthma medication. If Gwen’s ability to breathe improved at least 12% on the medication, then USADA would accept the fact that she genuinely needed to take asthma medication. Dr. McEachern found that Gwen’s breathing improved by 54% when on medication.

So it was clear that Gwen suffered from asthma and needed to be medicated. Unfortunately, this did not change the fact that the medication Gwen had admitted to using, Breo, was on the prohibited list even though Symbicort, which according to Dr. McEachern is so similar to Breo that “we use them interchangeably” was not.

Dr. McEachern was puzzled by this. “If they accept Symbicort, then they ought to accept Breo. If they said all this category of drugs for asthma are performance enhancing, that would be one thing. But to say that one is and one isn’t, that makes no sense to me.”

Dr. McEachern was also troubled by the lack of information readily available to physicians who may one day treat an aspiring Olympian. “I wish they (USADA) had sent something out a long time ago saying ‘if you have any competitive athletes, Breo is not on the approved list.’”

After accepting the fact that Gwen truly needs asthma medication, and that Breo has no more of a “performance enhancing” effect than the approved Symbicort, USADA sanctioned Gwen in a way that would not prevent her competing in the Olympic Trials.

Coach Smith says that after an agonizing month spent contemplating the possible end of her career, Gwen is now able to focus again and will be ready when she steps into the ring in Eugene.

I have been reading the New York Times for thirty years, and today for the first time in my memory a photo of a hammer thrower appeared in its pages. The occasion? A big article on the Russian doping scandal.

When the only publicity the sport of throwing gets is due to a massive doping operation, it is natural for observers of the sport, fans and non-fans alike, to dismiss all the athletes as cheaters. This is especially true when they read that a particular athlete, like Gwen, has been sanctioned for using a prohibited substance with an unfamiliar, impossible to pronounce name.

Hopefully, people will take the time to consider the facts of Gwen’s situation and to understand that though she made a mistake in taking Breo (a mistake for which she had paid dearly) she is not a “cheater” or a “doper.” She is a hard-working young athlete of whom we can be proud if we turn on the television this August and see her taking a flag-draped victory lap around the track in Rio.

 

 

 

 

 

A visit to Houston: Part 2

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I woke up that Monday morning determined to spend some time in the training hall. It opened at 8:00, so I did a quick dumbbell workout in the hotel fitness center, cancelled that out with a spinach and cheese croissant from the Starbucks in the lobby, and headed to the hall around 7:45.

There were small groups of lifters walking toward the hall as well, and I figured if I blended in with some of them it might increase my chances of sweeping past the security guard without having to debate the finer points of whether or not I had the right credentials to get in.

Unfortunately, the group of lifters I attached myself to consisted of several Cubans, and I…uh…do not look Cuban, so the woman guarding the entrance spotted me as an impostor straight away and ordered my Irish-looking butt out of that cluster of Cubans and off the premises. When I asked if I could take a quick picture of the day’s lifting schedule that was posted on an easel there at the entrance, my audacity  was too much for her to bear.  “No…you…may…not!” she hissed, jutting her jaw and flexing her substantial forearms.

I’ve never been one to enjoy a punch in the face that early in the morning, so I beat a hasty retreat and took a nice long stroll in the morning sun.

Here I am enjoying that stroll:

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Here is an outdoor ice rink they were setting up not far from my hotel on this 70-degree day:

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Here is the symphony center, which appears to be a cross between the Parthenon and a bomb shelter:

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When I returned to the training hall a couple of hours later, Officer Friendly was no longer guarding the entrance, and her replacement gave me a smile and a wave as I walked right in.

I spent the next few hours watching the best lifters in the world practice their craft.

Have you ever stood in the middle of a crowded weight room, looked around, and said to yourself, “Jesus H! Will somebody please do one lift, just one lift,  correctly some time this century?!?”

If you coach at a high school like I do, you know what I’m talking about.

Well, standing there in that training hall was just the opposite. I probably spent six hours in there over the course of two days, watched hundreds of lifts, and saw exactly two missed attempts.

Two.

Everything those lifters did, whether with the bare bar or a bunch of weight, they did with precision. Here are some vids I put together that will show you what I mean:

 

 

 

As a coach of young lifters, it was so cool to see these men and women work on their technique. The way they kept perfect posture on their squats. The way they moved the weight at maximum speed every rep of every set . The way they warmed up for every exercise by doing a set or two with no weight on the bar–an approach that many of the high school boys I’ve coached over the years would tell you is “for wussies only.”

Schleizer arrived around lunch time, and after a quick bite he and I found Anna at the Eleiko booth.  We asked Anna if she wanted to head over to the training hall with us, but she told us that the fine young American lifters CJ  Cummings and Mattie Rogers were due at the booth any minute to sign autographs and pose for pictures.

This was great news for me, as two of my lifters are, shall we say, enamored of Mattie and I had promised them that I would get her autograph.

This was good news for Anna, because as part of her studies she was hoping to take a whole bunch of physical measurements of elite lifters there in Houston in an effort to build a database of, well, the physical measurements of elite lifters. She wan’t 100 percent sure of how she was going to round up those lifters, so she was excited that Mattie and CJ would be coming to her.

Here is photo I got with them. They were both, by the way, very gracious.

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So gracious, in fact, that when Anna asked them to accompany her to a nearby conference room so that she could measure their limbs and poke them with calipers, they agreed.

I headed back to the training hall as Anna, Schleizer (enlisted to jot down numbers as Anna measured) and the two lifters went off to strike a blow for science.

We met up later to watch the women’s 58K and men’s 69K classes compete. Here are some vids I took of those sessions:

 

Afterwards, we sat down for drinks in the hotel lobby. It’s funny, isn’t it, how sometimes you have to go to a place like Houston in order to find the time to sit down and have a drink with your friends? I’ve known Schleizer and Anna for more than fifteen years, shared hilarious and triumphant and brutally disappointing  moments with them in throwing rings and on lifting platforms, and…let’s just say that getting to hang out with them made the expense and hassle of the trip totally worthwhile.

Schleizer took off that night, so the next morning I headed back to the training hall by myself, flashed the wristband that the ever-generous Eleiko folks had given me, and once again walked right in.

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If you coach kids in the Olympic lifts, I would recommend doing whatever you have to do to get yourself into one of these training halls some day. I grant you, it is motivating and a lot of fun to sit around with your athletes and watch vids of great lifters hitting huge competition lifts. But if you think about it, 499 out of every 500 lifts our kids perform are with submaximal loads, most often as partial movements like power snatch, muscle snatch, lift-offs, pulls, power jerks or what-have-you.  So to see the best lifters in the world practice those movements taught me things that were immediately applicable to my not-nearly-the-best-lifters-in-the-world.

The other thing that was cool to see was the way these lifters approached their training. Raise your hand if you’ve ever had some idiot in charge of your weight room who thinks that heavy metal music played at ear-splitting volume is essential to a successful workout. Strangely, the best lifters in the world do not seem to adhere to that principle. There was no music in the hall. None of the lifters had head phones or earbuds. The coaches never shouted. If they had advice for their athletes they spoke to them quietly between lifts. Many of the athletes paused for several seconds with their hands on the bar, marshaling their focus before attempting a lift–even lifts with clearly less-than-maximum loads. The main goal seemed to be executing each movement with precision.

After a while, Anna found me in the hall and enlisted my help. She was on the hunt for the fine Brazilian super heavyweight Fernando  Reis, and I agreed to act as wing man.

We found Fernando a few minutes later at the Eleiko booth, and when Anna asked if he would submit to be measured and calipered in the name of science, he cordially agreed.

That’s the thing about Anna. She’s just one of those people who if she asks you to strip down to your compression shorts and let her pinch the hell out of you with a set of calipers, you don’t think twice about saying yes.

So Anna, Fernando, and I retired to a nearby conference room and next thing you know there’s Fernando in all his massiveness carrying on a friendly conversation with us while Anna took measurements and I recorded.

At one point, Anna mentioned her hope to discover the qualities necessary to become a great lifter, and Fernando offered his insight into the matter.

“You know what you need to be a great lifter? Big balls. That’s what you need. You have to be willing to hurt.”

“Well,” replied Anna, “I don’t think we’re going to measure those.”

Here is a pic of Fernando and Anna after she finished working him over:

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He could not have been nicer about the whole thing. Truly a class act.

I still had a several hours before heading to the airport for my flight home, so after Fernando left us I made a beeline back to the training hall where I got to see the Polish super heavyweight Krzysztof Klicki front squat about a million pounds.

I was totally in the zone, taking vids on my iPad mini and posting them to Youtube when all of a sudden a harsh voice interrupted my reverie.

“Excuse me, may I see your pass?”

She was a very short lady, dressed in an official blue blazer, and looking really chapped.

I held up my arm so she could see my Eleiko wristband.

“That is not the right pass, sir! You need to leave immediately!”

She had brought one of the loaders as backup. I recognized him from last night’s competition. He was a sizable dude, and looked pretty chapped as well so I didn’t argue. I left immediately.

Actually, I lingered for a second near the exit because I spotted a mountain of a lifter warming up and wanted to take a quick photo of him. I knew my guys would get a kick out of how massive he was.

Nothing doing, though.

The lady was right on my heels like one of those little yappie dogs.

“Sir, you need to leave this area!”

“Can I just get a picture of the huge guy?”

“Sir, I will not have you bothering the lifters!”

This after I had spent hours over the past two days filming and photographing many lifters, none of whom seemed the least bit cognizant of my presence.

It was only later while lunching at a local Chipotle that I considered the absurdity of the situation.

The meet organizers had erected seating for at least 250 spectators in the training hall. During the many hours I spent in there, though, there were never more than a dozen people occupying those seats. I have to figure that those dozen people, myself included, are the kind of passionate weight lifting fans of which there are not exactly a plethora in this country. So, short mean lady, if you happen to read this I’d love to hear the logic behind jacking me out of that training hall. If you really love the sport, I would think you’d be thrilled that at least a handful of people in this country shared your passion enough to want to spend their time watching lifters train. If, on the other hand, what you really love is the feeling of power that your blue blazer and meat head lackey give you, well…

After lunch I visited the Eleiko booth one last time to say my goodbyes to Anna. I could not wait to get home to see my wife and daughter, to deliver those autographs to my lifters. and to get them back on the platform.

 

 

 

 

 

NCAA Predictions Part 3: The Discus

Women

Looking for a sure thing in this uncertain world of ours? Here you go.

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Texas A&M’s Shelbi Vaughan won the title last year. She then spent the fall and winter training rather than playing volleyball. This year, she threw 64.52m at the SEC Championships, which has her ranked among the top ten female discus throwers in the world.

Can Michigan State Freshman Katelyn Daniels (59.06m at the Big 10 meet)…

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…or Wisconsin Senior Kelsey Card (59.91m at the West Regional)…

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…pull off the upset?

Nope.

Here are Vaughan’s throws at various meets this season:

Regional (May 28) 60.93m

SEC (May 14) 64.52m

TCU Invite (May 2) 58.69m

Sun Angel (April 9) 58.70m

Stanford Invite (April 3) 59.19m

Texas Relays (March 25) 61.48m

Baldy Castillo (not sure who that is)  (March 20) 59.49m

Any of those throws would be far enough to win in Eugene.

Wild Card: None. Should be a great battle for second between Katelyn and Kelsey–two outstanding Big 10 throwers.

 

Men

This is a whole ‘nother story.

LSU’s Rodney Brown hit 65.04m in April at Penn…

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…and with 6 meets over 63 meters this season has been Mr. Consistency.

Virginia has two dynamic sophomores…Filip Mihaljevic (63.11m PB):

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…and Jordan Young (62.27m at the East Regional):

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Sam Mattis of Penn threw his PB of 62.13m last year…

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…but has been over 61 meters on three different occasions this season.

And what about Alabama soph Hayden Reed, the defending NCAA and USATF champion?

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He has struggled a bit this year, hitting a season’s best 60.70m on April 17, and finishing 10th at the East Regional with a toss of 57.45m.

But can you count a guy out a year after he won the USATF meet as a college freshman?

Hmmmm.

And this year’s champion will be…

When we talked about Mattis, Trof got a gut feeling–and I don’t think it was from the cucumber dip. Trof thinks Mattis is a great athlete who is ready to break loose.

Reed caught lightening in a bottle last year, but I can’t see that happening again.

I’d say Brown would be considered a lock but for the memory of last year’s meet, when he threw 63.34m at the regional but finished 10th in Eugene with a disappointing 58.47m.

As a coach, you always hope your athletes learn from experience, and I think Brown will ultimately benefit from last year’s flameout.

He’s our man.

Wild Card: Mihaljevic. He’s a huge guy (6’7″) who talks like the Terminator. What’s not to like?

NCAA Predictions Part 2: The Hammer

 

 

 

Men’s Hammer

What a long, strange trip it has been for Connor McCullough.

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Will this be the year when he finally brings home an NCAA title? Or will Michael Lihrman of Wisconsin (PB 75.29m)…

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…or Chukwuebuka Enekwechi of Purdue ( PB 72.77m)…

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…crush his dreams in Eugene?

 

And how about the defending NCAA champion, Kent State’s Matthias Tayala…

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…who went 71.20m at the Mid-American Championships on May 14?

And the champion will be…

Trof is all for McCullough, and if you think a website named “Mcthrows” is going against an Irish guy…you have another think coming.

Wild Card: Tayala. I know, I know. Lihrman is a giant who threw the weight 800 feet indoors this year, and Chuck could easily beat up several motorcycle gangs, but…Tayala won it on his final throw last year and that…matters.

 

Women’s Hammer

Here is your defending champion, Julia Ratcliffe of Princeton by way of New Zealand.

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Her best is 68.53m this year.

 

This year’s collegiate best belongs to Brooke Pleger of Bowling Green…

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…who  hit 69.72m at the Mid-American Championships on May 14.

 

Southern Illinois senior Deanna Price nailed a 67.72m on May 2.

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And the champion will be…

Ratcliffe has two advantages: she is from New Zealand and was smart enough to get into Princeton. That’s enough for Trof, who picked her to repeat. I, however, am not one to go against the John Smith factor. He has been coaching since the 1870’s and if there is any trick in the book…well…he wrote the book. So, we are going with Price.

Wild Card: Kearsten Peoples of Missouri. According to Trof, she has won about 8 million medals at NCAA meets in the past 4 years, so she is not likely to be intimidated.