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London Predictions: Men’s Discus

As with the men’s shot put, the men’s discus competition in London will feature a giant dude who has spent the summer dropping bombs.

That would be the big Swede, Daniel Stahl, who has four competitions over 68 meters this season including a 71.29m blast on June 29th at the Folksam Grand Prix meeting.

In London, Stahl will seek to exorcise memories of an awful performance in Rio where a best effort of 62.26m did not get him to the final (this, after finishing fifth at the  2015 Worlds in Beijing with a toss of 64.26m).

Oddly, Stahl’s main competition in London will come from three other athletes whose experiences in Rio were also at least semi-disastrous.

Frederick Dacres produced a groan-inducing best of 50.69m in Rio, but has looked fast, powerful, and confident on the Diamond League circuit this summer, hitting 68.36m in Stockholm, 67.10m in Oslo, and 66.66m in London.  Also, like Stahl, he performed well at the 2015 Worlds, finishing 7th with a toss of 64.22m and thus proving that he has the ability to make the final at a big meet in a big stadium.

Philip Milanov staked his claim as next great thrower on the horizon by taking silver at Beijing in 2015, then bit the weenie in Rio where he finished ninth. He has looked sharp this season with his best effort of 67.05m coming in Stockholm.

Robert Harting, arguably the best big meet thrower since Al Oerter, looked ready to  pull off a major comeback in Rio after blowing out his knee in the fall of 2014 and missing the entire 2015 campaign. He won the German championships in 2016 with a 68-meter effort, but suffered a back spasm the night before the Rio prelims while bending over to turn out a light. His best mark this year is 66.30m, but if the young bucks tighten up a bit and those Rio memories start to nag, can he be counted out?

Three of the top four finishers in Rio will not be competing in London. Neither gold medalist Chris Harting, who suffered an early spring back injury that threw him completely out of kilter, nor bronze medalist Daniel Jasinski made the German squad. Fourth place finisher Martin Kupper managed a season’s best of 62.86m.

Last year’s silver medalist, however, will compete and in spite of a lackluster 2017 campaign must be considered a threat to make the podium.

That would be Beijing champion and perennial victim of various Hartings, Piotr Malachowski. His best of 65.90m puts him tenth on this season’s performance list, and for the first time in about a hundred years he did not win the Polish championships, but his experience and toughness make him a contender.

Speaking of contenders, there are twenty-two throwers who have gone beyond 65 meters this year, among them Gerd Kanter (65.87m) who even Malachowski probably refers to as “Gramps,” Robert Urbanek (66.73m) who  defeated Malachowski at the Polish nationals, and the Lithuanian Andrius Gudzius (68.61m).

That said, let’s make some picks.

Trofimuk

Gold: Milanov

 Reason: As Trofimuk humbly puts it, “He is the only sensible pick. His performance at Beijing gives him the edge over the guys throwing the best this season.”

Silver: Malachowski

Reason: “He always performs well at the World Championships.”

Bronze: Stahl

Reason: “He’s having a great year. He’s young and  hungry for a medal at a major championship. Plus, he’s bigger than a refrigerator.”

McQ

Gold: Harting

 Reason: When those young bucks Milanov, Stahl, and Dacres start warming up in London, everything had better go right for them or those Rio-inspired doubts might be tough to suppress. Those guys are only human, right? Harting might be too, but he’s that odd, Michael Jordan kind of human who performs best in situations where others would be mired in doubt. In 2009, Malachowski throws a national record 69.15m in round five at the Berlin World Championships putting Harting in the position of having to conjure up a PR in  round six. We all remember how that turned out. At the London Olympics, he felt like crap. At the Moscow Worlds, he had a back injury. He still found a  way to win. If nerves or what have you keeps the best throwers in the 67-meter range next week,  he’s my pick to squeeze out a winner.

Silver: Stahl

Reason: Like Trofimuk, I respect a man who could punch out a dinosaur. Even if he has a kind-of-crappy day, he’s going  66 meters.

Bronze: Malachowski

Reason: Sentiment. Watch this ESPN vid and tell me you won’t be rooting for him:

http://www.espn.com/videohub/video/clip?id=19906682&categoryid=null

 

London Predictions: Men’s Shot

It is time for my former thrower, Pat Trofimuk, and I to make our annual Big Meet predictions. I’m a bit worried that this will be Trofimuk’s last time helping me as he is but a few days from getting married and I know from experience that what a fiance puts up with a wife may not. If the little woman makes him choose between spending time keeping track of throws stats and spending time watching professional wrestling…. I’ll need a new partner.

That said, here we go.

Men’s Shot

When I played little league baseball, there were always one or two kids in the league who were legitimately eleven years old but through some quirk of nature looked to be in their mid-20’s.

I exaggerate, but you know what I mean. There were always a couple of guys who were way more physically mature than all the  other kids, and when they pitched against your team you knew you had no shot.

And I don’t mean you had no chance of winning the game. You had no shot at making contact with the ball.

You’d slouch your way to the batter’s box knowing you were about to strike out and just hoping that you could get through it without taking a fastball to the head.

Three or four pitches later you’d be on your way to the safety of the dugout, glad to have survived.

Competing against Ryan Crouser must be kind of like that right now.

In a world filled with outstanding shot putters (14 have gone over 70 feet this year) he appears to be unbeatable.

Twenty-two meters in an Olympics or World Championships is a great performance.  Throw that in London, and you’ll for sure be in the hunt…for second place.

Consider Joe Kovacs.

The 2015 World Champion, Joe is a super explosive, technically excellent putter. Just entering his prime, he can already make a case as being one of the best of all time.

Accordingly, he came up huge this past June at the USATF Championships with a sixth round bomb of 22.35m (73’4″for you provincial types).

That’s a monster put, and because of it, Joe only lost by a foot when Crouser responded with 22.65m.

Former indoor World Champion Ryan Whiting, another all-time great, also showed up big in Sacramento. After enduring a couple of sub par years due to injuries, his  21.54m demonstrated that he is once again ready to fight for a spot on the podium at big meets. It also left him nearly four feet behind Crouser.

How about New Zealander Tom Walsh, the Rio bronze-medalist who nailed a 22.04m toss just the other day at the MF Athletics Shot Put Invitational?  (By the way, how in the heck does a guy from New Zealand, where the season begins in January, still make great throws seven months later? Tom, you need to give a seminar on that some time soon. Until then, we will all start eating vegemite.)

But again, even if Tom goes twenty-two meters in London (and he may well do that) he’s not walking away with the gold.

How about my guy David Storl? I love the glide technique, and this two-time World Champ may be the best glider ever. Like Whiting, he has been limited by injuries the past couple of years, but his recent 21.87m put suggests that he’s in great shape.

If he matches that distance in London, he’ll have an outside shot…at a bronze medal.

Anyway, you get the idea.

So, without further ado, here are our predictions.

Trofimuk:

Gold: Crouser

     Reason: Duh!

Silver: Walsh

     Reason: To quote Trofimuk, “He has been tearing it up on the Diamond League. At his last Diamond League meeting, his worst throw was 21.46m. Plus, he’s no wussy. Plus, I love New Zealand.”

Bronze: Kovacs

      Reason: Trofimuk says that three spinners will medal, (is it just me, or does that sound a tad biased?) and that Joe is the only contestant aside from Walsh and Crouser who can throw 22.00m.

 

McQ:

Gold: Crouser

     Reason: At the 2013 NCAA Championships in Eugene, a young, skinny Crouser was sitting on two fouls as he entered the  ring for his third throw. According to Dan Block, probably the greatest thrower in Illinois prep history who was competing for Wisconsin at that time, Crouser took a slow motion safety throw. The result? Twenty meters thirty-one for the win. Crouser beating a stacked NCAA field, which included two-time defending champ Jordan Clarke, with a half-speed throw suggested the possibility of  future dominance. Now, four years and forty pounds later, the future has arrived.

Silver: Kovacs

     Reason: Joe is the only putter in the field aside from Crouser who can  go 22.20m on a “good” rather than “insanely great” day. Insanely great performances are rare at the World Championships.

Bronze: Storl

     Reason: At the risk of sounding like that friend who just can’t accept when a relationship is over…”If only she’d give me another chance!”…”Dude, she’s been married for five years”…”I know, but if only she’d give me another chance!”…I am not ready to give up on my favorite glider. Have I told you about the time I sneaked into a press conference for the German team at the 2014 European Championships to ask Storl why he had switched to throwing non-reverse? Some might call that stalking. I prefer “loyalty.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

crouser

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?

kovacs

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…

storl

…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.

konrad

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.