If you were surprised to see Dani Bunch dueling Raven Saunders and Michelle Carter for the national title and world lead last weekend in Sacramento, you were not alone.
I crossed paths with Dani twice over the last five years, and neither time did I walk away thinking “Holy cow, she might be national champion some day.”
The first instance came during the 2012 NCAA Outdoor Championships in Des Moines, back in the days when world class track meets were occasionally held in the Midwest.
Dani, a sophomore at Purdue, threw 16.21m and finished ninth in her flight. At that time, Tia Brooks, a junior at Oklahoma who won in Des Moines with a toss of 18.44m, and Michelle Carter, who a year later would break the American record with a throw of 20.24m and then break it again with a gold-medal winning put of 20.63m in Rio, seemed to be the ascendant putters among American women.
The next time I ran across Dani was at the Chicagoland Throws Series in 2015. She was in her first season as a professional and had, just three months prior, switched from the glide to the rotational shot technique.
She threw 17.28m that day, more than a meter under her glide PR. The fact that she was able to function at all as a rotational putter so quickly after making the change was impressive, as was her determination to continue in the sport when she appeared to be a long way from cracking the upper echelon of throwers. But, if you watch this video, you’ll see that she had a lot of work to do if she hoped to develop a level of comfort with the spin technique similar to the other elite putters in the competition, Brittany Smith, Becky O’Brien, and Tori Bliss.
Here is an interview I did with Dani at the Chicagoland meet. Please ignore my stupidity in occasionally using the words “glide” and “glider” when referring to the rotational technique.
After the Chicagoland meet, Dani went back to Lafayette, Indiana, and hunkered down with her college coach Keith McBride to pursue her dream of becoming a world class putter.
For the rest of 2015 and all of 2016, she toiled in relative anonymity.
Last year, at the Olympic Trials, she thew 17.37m in the prelims then fouled all three throws in the finals.
As noted above, Michelle Carter grabbed gold in Rio with a sensational sixth-round effort. Also in Rio, Raven Saunders established herself as the thrower of the future by hitting a PR of 19.35m to finish fifth.
With the spotlight on those two ladies, Dani began the 2017 campaign no longer in “relative” anonymity. She had achieved a state of “complete” anonymity.
But, according to Coach McBride, he and Dani could tell long before the start of this season that she had the capability to become a nineteen or even twenty-meter putter.
The key was having the courage, patience, and possibly misplaced confidence to commit to the rotational technique.
McBride had actually broached the possibility of converting to the spin a couple of times during Dani’s career at Purdue.
“She had kind of a rotational finish anyway,” he told me in a recent conversation. “She was kind of up and turning all the time. She was that weird glider who would throw out of bounds to the left because she turned so far through it.”
This video provides a clear illustration of Dani’s glide finish:
“So, I brought it up with her once or twice in college, but she wasn’t mentally ready for it. Her argument was, ‘I can’t throw the discus, so how can I spin in the shot?’ If the athlete isn’t ready for it, you can’t shove it down their throat.”
Finally, in February of her first year out of college, Dani competed in a meet at Purdue. Still a glider, she threw well under eighteen meters.
Throwers from Southern Illinois University also competed in that meet, and their coach at the time, John Smith (now at Ole Miss) advised McBride and Dani to make the switch to the rotational style.
Smith remembers that moment well, and described it to me in a recent conversation.
“When Raven was a freshman, we went to a meet at Purdue. It was Dani’s first year out of college, and Keith told me that he was thinking about switching Dani to the spin. I asked him how far does she throw from a stand? He told me fifty-two feet. I said if she wants to compete at the world level as a glider, she’s going to have to have a fifty-seven foot stand throw like Michelle or Tia Brooks. If you don’t think you can do that, then she needs to spin.”
With the US Indoor Championships looming, McBride and Dani decided to postpone the decision. After finishing seventh with a toss of 17.11m at that meet, Dani came home ready to make the switch.
I asked McBride if it was hard on Dani to accept throwing shorter distances while she adapted to the rotational style, but as he remembers it, “She threw far right away. Her first meet with the spin, a little meet somewhere in Illinois, she threw 18.50m. Then she went to Tuscon Elite and threw 18.89m.”
As he anticipated, Dani’s rotational-style finish in her glide lent itself to the full out rotational technique.
“She had been a rotational finisher from day one, and knowing how to strike in that position helped. Out of the back we were just trying to hit that power position she had been using in the glide. We kind of melded the spin and glide.”
The most challenging part of the conversion turned out to be getting Dani to the point where her technique could hold up under the pressure of big meets.
Her tribulations at the 2016 Trials typified her struggles. “The issue,” according to McBride, “from the very first was not “Can we throw far?’ but ‘Can we stay in the ring?’ She was tattooing stuff right from the start.”
The 2017 season began in promising fashion as Dani hit 19.12m at a meet in Lafayette, which gave her the world lead at the time. That throw enabled Dani’s agent to finagle an invitation to the Diamond League meeting in Shanghai.
She finished second there with a toss of 18.98m.
That result earned Dani an invitation to a meet in Brazil.
She won that competition with a 19.55m bomb, and as a result was invited to the Diamond League meeting in Rome where she finished second with a put of 18.95m.
McBride considers the Rome meeting to have been a pivotal moment in Dani’s development. “In the fifth round, Michelle Carter passed her up, and Dani was like ‘I’m not losing to her’ and she came back and beat her in the sixth round. That showed us that she finally had the confidence she needed to make big throws in pressure situations.”
Dani proved that definitively with an epic performance at the US Nationals. She opened at 18.92m and followed that with a solid 19.18m that seemed likely to net her a spot in the top three. Not willing to take any chances against a dangerous field, Dani cranked up the intensity and after two fouls killed one in the fifth round. Her 19.64m put her into first, and after Raven blasted out a PR of her own (19.76m), Dani showed that the 19.64m was no fluke by powering her final attempt out to 19.57m.
She is now ranked second in the world with two competitions (the Portland and New York stops on the Tracktown Series tour) remaining before Worlds.
And what might the future bring, now that Dani is fully confident with the rotational style?
“As big as that throw in Sacramento was,” says McBride, “she can go farther. She definitely has twenty-meter power, and if we keep progressing she will be challenging the USA record some day.”
From eighteen-meter glider to twenty-meter spinner in two years time? It sounds crazy, but combine Dani’s determination, her great working relationship with Coach McBride, her innate feel for the rotational style, and the intense rivalry brewing between her, Raven, and Michelle, and you just can’t put it past her.