Category Archives: Interviews

Former Coach Lynden Reder debuts Velaasa

As a result of the “foul or no foul” scandal in the men’s shot at the recent World Championships, throws obsessives are a lot more familiar with Joe Kovacs’ feet today than they were a couple of weeks ago.

That’s Joe above. Those are his feet below.

And if you took a moment from trying to figure out if that really was a foul to ask yourself “What in the heck brand of shoes is that man wearing?” I can provide an answer to the second of those two mysteries.

Joe is wearing a prototype of a shoe that he is developing under the auspices of a company called Velaasa, which was founded by former University of Minnesota throws coach Lynden Reder.

Lynden started working at Minnesota in the fall of 2008, and stepped down after the 2016 outdoor season tired of  the travel demands of DI coaching.

After taking a month off to ponder his future, Coach Reder decided to start a business. His love for the sport of track and field dictated the direction of that business. A desire to solve a series of problems he had run into as a coach dictated the focus.

The first problem he decided to take on was, as he put it, “a lack of attractive, highly-functional, Olympic lifting shoes on the market.”

Having once considered a career in graphic design, he decided to use his long dormant artistic skills to design “the most athletic-looking lifting shoe of all time.”

The result was a product that Lynden dubbed the “Strake.”

 

Besides being a sharp-looking shoe, this product will come with three different heights of wooden heel that can easily be interchanged, and which can be decorated with a school logo.

The next problem Coach Reder decided to tackle was the inconsistency in diameter among shots and hammers of varying weights. He explained that “at Minnesota, we did a lot of training with light and heavy implements, but it could be awkward for the thrower as a sixteen-pound shot might be 129mm in diameter but a six-kilo shot might have a diameter of 110mm.”

Lynden’s favorite implements at Minnesota were those manufactured by Polanik, so he flew to Poland for a meeting and came home with an agreement to be a dealer for Polanik products including a newly designed line of training implements with consistent diameters.

For example, they will offer women’s shots in the 3k to 5k range in 0.25k increments, with all implements from 3k to 4.5k having the same 113mm diameter.

On the men’s side, they will offer shots from 14 to 18 pounds in 1lb increments, all with a diameter of 135mm.  Additionally, they will produce a 125mm 6k shot and a 9k at both 135mm and 154mm.

A similar variety of training implements for the weight, discus, and hammer will also be available.

A final problem that Coach Reder hopes to address through Velaasa is the difficulty that post-collegiate throwers in this country face in supporting themselves while continuing their careers.

He thinks he has a solution that will help grow his business while offering post-collegians a chance to make some money.

That solution is the Velaasa Track Club.

Club members, such as the aforementioned Joe Kovacs, will  use their contacts (social media and otherwise) to promote Velaasa products. When a customer purchases an item from Velaasa, they can designate Joe to receive a commission.

As mentioned above, Joe has been working with Velaasa to develop a rotational shot put shoe, and may collaborate with them on other products as well.

According to Lynden,  “One of the biggest things that differentiates us is that if you sign with the Velaasa Track Club, you will own your personal brand, we will partner with you to design a shoe or other products, and it will lead to a long term commitment with our company,”

And, rather than being at the mercy of a certain behemoth athletic wear company which has been known to giveth and taketh away sponsorship deals with little regard for the well being of the athlete, Lynden wants to give Velaasa reps “the opportunity to leverage their network to bring in revenue. And, since we are a small company, we can give lots of support and personal attention.”

For more information, visit https://velaasa.com/

 

 

 

 

A Q&A with Coach Dale Stevenson

You know how when someone loses an election or an Academy Award they always say they’re happy for the winner, but you know in their head they’re really thinking, “I hope that blankety-blank falls into an empty well or gets dengue fever”?

Well, there were for sure some bitterly disappointed competitors at last weekend’s men’s shot put competition at the London World Championships, but none of that bitterness was directed towards gold medalist Tom Walsh of New Zealand, one of the true gentlemen of the sport.

And it turns out that Tom’s coach, Dale Stevenson, is a great guy as well. The day after Tom’s win, he took a few minutes off from a celebratory visit to a London pub to talk about Tom’s career, his unusual off-season pursuit, and the challenges of grinding out a win at a major championship.

McQ: Congratulations, Coach. That was a huge win for Tom.

DS: Thanks. Tom is a great athlete and more importantly, a great human being. It is a fun journey to work with someone like that. We are both aspiring to be good at our craft, and it’s an exciting time for Tom and for the throws in New Zealand in general.

McQ: How long have you been Tom’s coach?

DS:  Officially since 2014. Prior to that we were competitors. I stopped competing in 2012, and was sort of mate/mentor to Tom for a couple of years. We officially formalized it in 2014 when I moved to New Zealand and started working there, and the rest is history.

McQ: Are you employed by the New Zealand federation?

DS: Yes, I’m the head throws coach for Athletics New Zealand.

McQ: You said you moved to New Zealand. Where did you move from?

DS: I’m originally Australian. Born and raised in Melbourne and competed for Australia. My wife and I moved to New Zealand in 2014. It was a major checkpoint for our lives, and here we are three years later and loving it.

McQ: What does your wife do?

DS: My wife was originally in real estate. Now she works in recruitment. She is incredibly supportive. They say behind every good man is an even better woman. I want to thank her…she supported me right through my throwing career and now as a coach in a job that requires extended time on the road and is not a nine-to-five job. I love her with all my heart, and she is a huge part of this result here in London, as are the other members of our team.

McQ: How does Tom maintain such a high level of performance over the long season from indoors to the end of the outdoor season? Last year, for example, he was World Indoor Champion then still threw great at the Olympics five months later. How do you keep him at that level for such an extended time?

DS: It is a bit of a different philosophy than in the US model. We don’t have the collegiate system, so there is not a huge amount of pressure on our athletes to be at their peak when they are seventeen/eighteen/nineteen years of age. Tom is twenty-four now, and we’ve had a long term plan with incremental improvement. We don’t take crazy risks to make fast gains. I guess it’s a bit more measured from other philosophies out there. There are guys who are super strong five, six, seven years younger than Tom just blowing crazy numbers up, but they tend to have more erratic series in meets like major championships. I was fortunate to have spent a lot of time under the mentorship of Don Babbitt (longtime throws coach at the University of Georgia) and spent a lot of time training with Reese Hoffa. And that’s probably something that Reese did well across his career, and as a result he’s one of the greatest shot putters of all time. Improve by small increments over time, and brick by brick you end up building an impressive career. We’ve got the luxury of taking that kind of approach in New Zealand because we don’t have the rigor of the hard selection trial like the US Championships every year. And we get support from the federation. We are trying to leverage our advantages, and as a result it has been a long, steady road, and we are now at the point with Tom that his bad days are still enough to get him through qualifying rounds.

McQ: Is his good health partly due to the slow progress in training that he’s made over the years. To the fact that he wasn’t rushed?

DS: Absolutely. Tom was incredibly fortunate. His first coach when he was a young boy was a really wise man who lives in a small, rural town in New Zealand. He taught Tom that no one competition was worth sacrificing your health and well-being. He planted the seed at a young age, but it requires a certain kind of demeanor and Tom has it. Some guys like to get really fired up and go out and chase that one huge throw, whereas Tom is more prepared to say “What am I going to do to get one percent better today?” Eventually, that adds up. That incremental improvement is something that we are looking for.

McQ: Is it true that Tom does construction work in the off-season?

DS: Yes, he does. In October, November, and December he works three hard days a week depending on training and where he is at physically. He’s got a good relationship with his employer. They basically let him pick his own hours. And it is an important part of his development as a shot putter. We feel this is crucial for his development as a good human being and a good athlete.

McQ: Do you feel that it is mentally healthy for him to go back to being a “normal person” for a couple of months a year?

DS: Totally. We want our athletes to be balanced. We want them to be smart and to feel grateful for the opportunity of getting paid to do sports for a living. When you’re up at 5:30am and you’re laying bricks, you’re laying a foundation, or you’re digging holes or whatever you are doing on the construction site it gives you a really gracious mindset when you come into training. Training feels like a privilege. It is good for Tom to have something in his life other than throwing. For his development as a young man, it’s crucial.

McQ: Will he go back to working construction this October?

DS: Yes, We’ve got a short turnaround this year with World Indoors in March and then the Commonwealth Games, which is a reasonably big deal in New Zealand, in April. So, he may have a shorter time on the job, but we’ll have a conversation about that when the season in Europe ends.

McQ: Let’s talk about the Worlds. Tom had a perfect day in qualification. One throw. Killed it. (22.14m to be exact). That had to feel good.

DS: Absolutely. It doesn’t matter whether you throw 20.75m, the auto, or 24.75m as long as you get the qualifying out of the way. It gives you the peace of mind to go ahead and line it up the next day.

McQ: Watching the competition, it seemed like it took everybody several throws to find their timing.

DS: That’s not unusual for a major championship. Guys like Ryan Crouser and Joe Kovacs, they’ve been there and done it before and they still get challenged by that. It’s not unusual for them to take a couple of rounds to get into their work. You’ve just got to work through it and deal with it and bring your way into the competition. Get into the top eight to guarantee yourself six throws. And guys started to free up towards the end. But to be honest, those were funny results. But it is what it is. Championships do funny things to people.

McQ: Even with super-experienced throwers, do you feel like the atmosphere at a World Championships or Olympic Games can be hard to manage?

DS: It’s just so infrequent. The exposure to it three times every four seasons. And guys like David Storl, Ryan Crouser, Ryan Whiting, Joe Kovacs, Tom…they want to be regarded as among the handful of throwers who are the best who ever picked up a shot. They are vying for their legacy, essentially. The first things that people look at are the Olympic Games and World Championships, and you’ve got to perform well there if you want to be considered among the best. When it means something, it does funny things to us as human beings. It is strange that we pin our self-worth and our meaning as a human being on an arbitrary kind of competition where you pick up a metal ball and throw it, but hey, we all do it.

McQ: During competition, I know a  lot of throwers like to  check in with their coach between throws. Do you and Tom do that?

DS: No, we don’t. I’m there, but my end game is to make myself redundant, so we are working towards Tom becoming more and more independent and not needing me. I’m trying to work towards being more of a safety net. It’s probably going to take a little more time, but I’m pretty content Tom’s got a good feel for what he’s doing now. He knows what he has to do and when he has to do it. My role is kind of like the bumpers in ten pin bowling. If he goes too far one way, I sort of give him a nudge back the other way. He’s getting better and better at bowling strikes, so my role is probably becoming more and more redundant, which is fine with me.

McQ: Did you say anything to him during the final in London?

DS: Yes. There were a couple of technical things he needed to iron out. He was throwing early in the order in the first three rounds, then last in the order for the final three rounds, so that meant that he had twenty or twenty-five minutes between throws from the third to the fourth round, so I think more than anything just to break up that time he came over and we had a few words. It was mainly to get out of the heat of the battle, because you’ve got twelve guys pacing around in a fairly confined arena. Sometimes just getting out of that and going and seeing a different face helps you to reset.

McQ: Was your heart beating like crazy when some of those guys were taking cracks at twenty-two meters?

DS: Absolutely. It would have been foolish to think that the competition was sewn up at any point when you have guys that can throw well over twenty-two on any given day. We knew it would come down to the wire and we were prepared for that. I was probably more calm than I have been at any other major championship because I knew Tom was in good shape. We’d done all the work that could be done. But, the heart rate does go up. When it was all done and Tom came over, I found myself jumping the fence and running out on the track to give him a hug.

McQ: But you kept your clothes on, right? Unlike the guy on Saturday night?

DS: Say again?

McQ: You kept your clothes on, unlike the streaker on Saturday night?

DS: I did keep my clothes on. Security was keeping a close eye on me. I managed to shrug a few of them off I was so pumped for him. Tom’s an amazing athlete and he deserves everything that comes his way. I just wanted to affirm that for him, and it’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

McQ: I know people in the sport really like Tom.

DS: I was talking to Art Venegas (coach of Joe Kovacs) last night about this. We talked about how important it is to mentor athletes into becoming good human beings. I’d rather coach a lesser athlete who is a good person than a medal winner who is an asshole. But you can have good athletes who are also good people, and certainly Tom is one of them as is Joe and Ryan and many of the other guys. As we speak, I’m out having a drink and Ryan Whiting has come to join us to help celebrate Tom’s victory. That speaks to the character of Ryan and to his selflessness. We are incredibly thankful to everyone who has helped us around the world. We’ve got great friends in the US and they continue to welcome us and have us back every year. I’d like to say thanks to everyone who has helped us along the way.

McQ: One last question. Were you surprised that Stipe Zunic (the bronze-medalist from Croatia) was able to put Tom on his shoulders during the victory lap?

DS: No. Stipe is probably the strongest guy throwing at the moment. He is a beast. Stipe could probably pick up three guys and put them on his shoulders. He’s a large man who can move. He competed in the martial arts and was a fine javelin thrower. I wouldn’t want to get in his way, but fortunately, he’s a great guy too. He seized his opportunity to get on the podium, and good on him.

 

Dani Bunch spins her way to relevance

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.

Pun intended.

 

 

 

 

 

John Smith on Raven’s bomb at USA’s

Holy crap, there is some great shot putting going on in this country right now, and if you signed up for the NBC Gold package you got to see a good chunk of an epic women’s shot competition at the USATF National Championships last week.

When the Sacramento dust cleared, the United States had the two leading women’s putters in the world, and the defending Olympic champion was, surprisingly, not one of them.

Unfortunately, NBC Gold coverage of the final three rounds was spotty, and throws fans were left to piece together the action as best they could by checking the live results page.

Luckily,  John Smith, coach of newly minted US champion Raven Saunders, agreed to provide not only his perspective on a truly amazing competition, but also to share some insights into the training that has made Raven the thrower to beat at the Worlds in London this August.

Here’s the way things played out on a sweltering afternoon in Sacramento:

Dani Bunch got the party started  with throws of 18.92m and 19.18m in rounds one and two. The latter toss seemed likely to have secured her a ticket to Worlds.

Michelle Carter,the aforementioned Olympic champ, got rolling in round three with a 19.34m toss, which appeared likely to guarantee  her a trip  to London.

Raven, meanwhile, struggled to find a groove. After an immensely disappointing fourth place finish at the NCAA meet two weeks earlier, it would have been good for her and Coach Smith’s state of mental health if she had killed one early, but it was not to be.

Her opener was an easy 18.30m safety throw, good enough to buy five more tosses and to briefly quiet her version of the little voice we all have in our heads that says things like, “You blew it at the NCAA’s so for sure you’ll blow it here!” but unlikely to clinch a spot in the top three.

A round two 17.75m gave any lingering doubts a bit more credibility, and after a foul in round three, the little voice in her head rose to a bellow.

Actually, it was Coach Smith’s voice this time.

According to Smith,  “the foul was sixty-three and a half feet. That  throw would have put her on the team! She nailed it. She watched it. She stepped out. So she got her rear end chewed for that.”

Meanwhile, Felisha Johnson bumped Raven to fourth place with a third round toss of 18.64m.

Maddeningly, NBC Gold went offline for a few minutes as the the top eight were re-ordered for the final three rounds.

At that point the top three were Carter (19.25m), Bunch (19.18m), and Johnson (18.64m).

I recall Charles Barkley once making fun of fans who listened to NBA games on the radio. Imagine what he’d think of us throws geeks reduced to staring at the live results page on the NCAA site in order to keep up with what was happening in the shot while NBC Gold went to break and, upon returning to the air, took us on a guided tour of downtown Sacramento. Loved that vid of the steamboat, though!

In round four, Raven hit 18.58m, which did not move her up in the standings.

Carter went 19.28m, but the top three remained unchanged.

All those marks were well within Raven’s reach if she could just find her rhythm.

According to Smith,  she was in shape to launch a big one.

“Two days before  the  competition, she threw sixty-five feet with an eight-pound shot, full reverse staying in the ring, so I knew she was ready. In a meet Raven can always match or throw a foot farther than what she does in practice with the eight.”

So, he was confident as Raven stepped in for a fifth throw that she was perfectly capable of moving into the top three.

Instead, she fouled again.

As a throws coach, I often imagine being in a similar situation and saying just the right thing to my athlete who then heads back into the ring and blasts out the throw of his life.  Usually, it’s something along the lines of “You got this! Keep your chest up going  to the middle and you’ll be fine!”

John Smith, however, operates in the real world where emotions run hot especially during a long afternoon in the searing California sun with a spot on the national team in the balance.

So what did he say to Raven after her fifth round foul?

“You’d better get your ass moving, because they’re writing your obituary right now!”

Moments later, Dani Bunch dropped a fifth-round 19.64m, for a new PR and the lead.

Moments after that,  Monique Riddick stepped in and killed her final throw of the day. It measured 18.89m and knocked Raven down to fifth.

Now, I’m no fan of zombie movies, but my friends who are tell me that it is possible for someone to look really dead but still not be dead.

That turned out to be the case here, and Coach Smith used an analogy from another movie genre to describe the moment:

“After Riddick hit that throw, Raven spit on the ground like Clint Eastwood would do in the movies before he got ready to kill someone. Connie {Price Smith, former Olympian and current head coach at Ole’ Miss} said that when she saw Raven spit on the ground, she knew Raven was going to hit that last throw.”

Hit it she did.

According to Coach Smith, “It wasn’t a pretty throw, but it was evil. It was an evil throw. It had no height on it, and she  was a little bit over-rotated.  But it was nasty.”

Nineteen meters and seventy-six centimeters worth of nasty, to be exact.

A PR.

A national title.

A world lead.

A redemption from the embarrassment of the NCAA meet.

And, definitive proof that at the international level the  glide shot technique is dead?

Certainly, Michelle Carter might quibble with that suggestion, but in Smith’s view, “On  the women’s side, we are the best shot putting nation in the world because we made the leap to the spin.”  

He argues that in order to be a world class glider, an athlete must have a huge stand throw. A glider striving to throw twenty meters would have to stand mid-eighteen meters to have a chance.

Smith believes that the rotational technique makes it possible for a less powerful but more athletic thrower to reach world class distances.

Watching the progress of Jill Camarena-Williams (the now-retired bronze medalist at the 2011 Worlds) convinced him of this.

“Jill was a fifty-nine-foot glider, then she became a sixty-six-foot spinner and I always felt like Connie was a better athlete than Jill. I always wanted Connie to spin when she was throwing, but she never wanted to do it. Back then, [the 1980’s-1990’s] you only did the spin because you couldn’t glide.”

As he became more and more devoted to the rotational method, Smith developed a practice progression for refining his throwers’ technique.

“The drill work is non-reverse stands, non-reverse half turns, then something called non-reverse ‘giant steps,’ where you start in the back, step to the center, pause, then do a half turn and throw non- reverse. Then we do ‘walking fulls,’ where you turn, step, turn and throw kind of in slow motion. From there we do non-reverse fulls and then reverse fulls.”

“With Raven, practice is a non-reverse full into a net followed by a  non-reverse throw into the field.  [Note: Coach Smith has a net set up at the outdoor throwing facility at Ole Miss] She starts with a sixteen-pound shot, then moves to a twelve, then an eight, and finally a three-kilogram. Then we start over with the sixteen.” 

“Some days, Raven might take seventy to eighty throws.  We keep going until the numbers die off so much that practice is over. She might repeat that progression three or four times and she might start out with ten to fifteen throws into the net (stands, half tuns, giant steps) before she even does fulls.”

She will continue with some variation of that system for the next six weeks then travel to  London where she and Dani Bunch will try to prove to the world that the glide is dead, with Michelle Carter along to make the counter argument.

And, while there are many amazing tourist attractions in that city that are suitable to dress up a broadcast, please NBC Gold, this time stay with the women’s shot from start to finish! Based on what happened in Sacramento, it will be worth it.

 

What I Learned from Talking with Gwen Berry

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

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

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

The woman can handle adversity.

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

She got to keep none of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, Gwen is not like that.

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

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

Indeed.

 

Gwen Berry and Morgan Spurlock have something in common.

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

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

Gwen can relate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She is confident she can make it work.

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

 

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

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

Gwen is made of sterner stuff.

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

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

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

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

 

College kids these days are really soft.

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

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

Let her explain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Michigan to open throws palace in 2018

 

michigan field house

 

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

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

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

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

Four years ago, Michigan hired this man…

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

• 2 World champions

• 2 Olympic Medalists (Silver, Bronze)

• 16 individual NCAA Champions

• 80+ All-Americans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The finished product will look something like this…

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

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

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

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

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

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

…these outdoor throwing fields.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe they should call it the Palace of Miracles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

Coach, what were the accommodations like in Rio?

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

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

Did you lift at the naval base?

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

What was it like getting around?

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

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

Did the streets feel safe?

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

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

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

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

Are you planning on adjusting her  diet?

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

How would the push jerks specifically help her?

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

How did Gwen look leading up to the Games?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So you were positioned to manage that potentially difficult situation.

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

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

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

That was quite a day!

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

Will Gwen keep throwing?

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

 

 

Art Venegas talks about Whitney Ashley and the fine art of fixed feet discus throwing

whitney

In June of 2012, my colleague Pat Trofimuk and I drove to Drake University in Des Moines to cover the NCAA Championships for the now-defunct Long and Strong Throwers Journal.The five-hour drive across the cornfields of Illinois and Iowa gave us the opportunity to examine the lineups for the various throwing events and to predict which would be the most hotly contested. One event that we agreed would offer very little in the way of drama was the women’s discus. Arizona State’s Anna Jelmini was the clear favorite, the only thrower in the field who had consistently thrown in the 58-60 meter range all season and certainly the only one likely to reach that distance under the pressure of an NCAA Championship final.

True, Anna had also been considered the favorite going into the previous year’s NCAA meet only to be denied when Northwestern Louisiana’s Tracey Rew nailed a three-meter PR to claim the title, but the odds of that kind of ridiculousness happening again seemed remote.

Once the competition began late on a humid Iowa afternoon, Anna did her part by hitting a 58.79m opener that, as far as I could tell, assured her of the win.

Then, a funny thing happened in round five.

As the evening progressed and the humidity dropped and a gentle breeze floated in, a young lady from San Diego State with two first names, a violent fixed-feet finish and the rather odd habit of carrying the discus next to her right hip as she turned out of the back of the ring stepped into the cage and deposited a throw just short of the 60-meter line.

The exact measurement was 59.99m,  a four-meter PR.

That young lady’s name was Whitney Ashley,and that throw made her the NCAA champion. It also began a series of events that led to her qualifying for Rio by winning the Olympic Trials last weekend.

Whitney trains at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, and to get some insight into her improbable rise to the top of her sport, I spoke with her coach, Art Venegas. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

Coach, the first time I ever noticed Whitney was when she won the NCAA title in Des Moines in 2012. When did you first start working with her?

I was at Chula Vista while Whitney was at San Diego State, and her head coach had just hired a new throwing coach, the shot putter Dorian Scott, and she knew that Dorian had a lot of shot put background but needed help with the discus so she sent them over to me to get information and then Dorian worked with her off the stuff we were doing together. Her average was in the 180’s, and I was very interested in having her go to the training center, but the people in Indianapolis said unless she throws within two percent of the “B” standard–which was in the mid-190’s– she could not come no matter what you say. Interestingly enough, it was that one throw in Des Moines that got her over the “B” standard. Her next best throw was way under what she would have needed, so that throw in Des Moines had more implications than just “wow what a great moment!”

She started at the training center in the fall of 2012 and she immediately had a breakout year. In the spring of 2013 she was able to get second at the USA’s and make her first international team, She went to Russia for the Worlds and had foul issues there, but she trained extremely well while in Russia which told me there were some good possibilities here.  She didn’t cave in. She was throwing good enough to make the final if she did not foul out. She had to get used to keeping her focus that deep into the season. Then, by 2015 the goal was to make the finals at the World Championships, which she did, and now the minimum goal is to get six throws in Rio, to be in the top eight.

She is one of the few fixed feet throwers that you’ve coached. Can you talk about that?

Well, more and more now people in the US are doing it. Dave Astrauskas, the coach from Wisconsin, came over to the training center and I told him everything about how I teach it, and he said he was going to give it a go and now Kelsey Card is doing great with it.

The belief used to be that fixed feet throwing was best for someone with super long levers like Franz Kruger,

You’re talking about the two-kilo, and with the men it is still true. You rarely see a guy 6’1 or 6’0 be successful throwing fixed feet. It’s still nice to have long levers with the 1k, but the one-kilo discus changes the whole equation. I’ve always said that women are like two-thirds the power of men, but their disc is one half the weight. Even in the bench, there are not many guys benching 600, but there are quite a few girls benching 300,

How strong is Whitney right now?

She is just getting strong. Her future is completely out ahead of her. We’ve got to keep growing the engine and keep the athleticism, but her bench is around the 260-270 range, and her best power clean is around 105-110k. Her jerk is 110k, and her squat is about 175k with a nice deep squat,

For the women how do you decide who should stay fixed feet and who should reverse?

It depends on who the coach is and how much they know about each technique. In the reverse in most cases, you work the ground early and are loaded up over the right more. In the fixed feet you are more upright and you barely stay on the right leg before you transfer to the left leg. But, the big thing that I want to emphasize is that fixed feet throwing is a complete sequence that is different in every way than just a regular throw without a reverse.

So, the throw is set up differently?

It is so simple for a young coach to say, “look, we do traditional technique like Wolfgang Schmidt and now I’m going to have my people throw non-reverse.” But that is not the true fixed feet technique.

Who would you say is a great example of a pure, fixed-feet technique?

Most everybody who does it in Europe. There’s only one woman who does a traditional pivoting action and does the fixed feet finish–and does it very well by the way–and that is Melina Robert-Michon. She lands early, turns her foot on the ball of her foot, and then transitions out. But, if you look at all the top German men and women, you look at Imrich Bugar, you look at Whitney, they turn in mid-air and they turn their hip around at least to twelve-o’clock and then they quickly transition out to the left leg–you don’t want to spend too much time on the right leg

It’s a more exaggerated hip and foot turn in the air?

Yes. Get pre-turned in the air and then transfer quickly to the left leg. And there are a lot of other things involved. The whole thing I’m telling you is that you have to have a whole sequence that takes you there.

Do you feel like fixed feet throwers have to be a little more patient?

No. It’s actually a little more violent. What it comes down to is that they have to have a good feel for the different factors that make the form work. One thing we find is that if you transfer quickly onto the front leg you don’t need a high and low orbit like you do with the other technique. The discus can stay pretty much flat the whole way around because of the counter movement. When the hip gets ahead, you throw your arm opposite–you wrap it around,

What’s  the plan for Whitney between now and the Olympics?

We need to get back into a good training phase. She will go to London to compete and will be pretty beat up in London from our training, so don’t expect big marks. Then, after that we will start tapering down. We will take off for Rio, the whole training group together and come back from Rio together so we can train together for the Diamond League final.

How long will you be in Rio?

Two and half weeks.

There was a little of a controversy about the scheduling of the women’s discus in Rio with the finals the morning after the prelims.

It is a little bit of a controversy because it hasn’t been done before. We are fine with it.

Is that why they scheduled the women’s disc that way at the Trials?

Yes, we wanted to approximate it. The only reason its not the same is that the time zone is different, but by the time we are there a few days that won’t matter.  When they make the final they are flying on air anyway. They could throw at three in the morning and it won’t matter, they will be so happy

What advice are you going to give Whitney about the qualifying?

What I tell  my athletes all the way from Godina to Brenner–everybody–I tell them the same thing: treat the qualifier as if it were the final.  Do not go through thinking you are too good for it. Go in with fire. Try to get the auto and get home early, but do not float around. I won’t mention names, but I saw some Americans who were very good throwing very easy in the prelims at Beijing, and then they couldn’t find the intensity later. It is very important to approach the qualifying with high intensity. It is so different in the field events than say a 100-meter runner who knows they are in control and can relax going into the finish line. Percentage wise there is so little difference between being stuck in a dead-end 57-meter throw and a real high-end 66-meter throw and once you get stuck you hit it and you hit it and you think you are going hard, but your implement doesn’t go anywhere.

You have to be ready to hit it. And in the final, I have nothing to say. That’s the only goddamned reason you are throwing. If I have to say something, there is something really wrong. That’s where my coaching ends as far as mental preparation because the final is what it is about.

What is Whitney like during competition?

Very independent. She and I have learned to work a system. She likes very few cues, and she likes the cues she is comfortable with. We practice those cues before the meet, and let’s say I said something to her that we hadn’t practiced before the meet, that would not go well. She like the cues she is comfortable with.

So you guys have a nice system.

I had to learn a system. She likes to be in charge. I’m a married man, I get it. And I learned from my great women throwers at UCLA, You learn what their different personalities are and Whitney feels comfortable if we establish early how it is we are going to approach the meet.  And I have both men and women who are like that, and I have throwers who say “throw it at me and see what happens”–  more loosy-goosey types, The other thing is she is very independent. She doesn’t need a lot of babysitting to get ready to compete. Some athletes feel better if I’m around them the whole time to keep them calm. With Whitney, I just need to let her know where I’m going to be and what’s going to happen and she’ll sit on her own for an hour or two hours getting prepared. I’ll give her a whistle so she knows where I’m at in the stands. One thing she had to get used to with me is I like to get close enough during the competition to be able to say “that looked great” or give them one little cue that has to be worked on for the next throw.

Now she is very comfortable with that.

When do you find out which flight she will be in at the Olympics?

The day before. And that can sometimes be tough in the long throws if you are in the first flight because you have to get there so early in the morning, but we won’t have that problem in Rio because both groups in the women’s disc will throw in the late afternoon or early evening.

Aren’t the flights sometimes huge in the Olympics and World Championships?

They can be. It’s two flights no matter how many total throwers have qualified. At the Worlds in 1995, John Godina threw in a flight of twenty-five. It took an hour and seven minutes between throws.

What will it take for Whitney to make the final in Rio?

It depends on the conditions. The discus is pretty great up at the top, and I think 62 or 63 meters will do some damage, and over 60 will make the final.

Do you think a fixed foot thrower has an advantage in a big meet?

Yes, if the form is properly developed because that technique, if properly done, the consistency is better. And the fouls are less. If you see Whitney with a foul by her name it’s because she stepped out.

 

 

 

The Mental Toughness of DeAnna Price

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By any measure, DeAnna Price of Southern Illinois University had a great collegiate career. After winning the 2015 NCAA hammer title as a junior, she opened her senior season on March 19th with a 72.19m toss at the Alabama Relays and finished with an NCAA meet record 71.53m on June 9th in Eugene. In between, she broke the 70-meter barrier in nine of the ten meets in which she competed.

It was this ability to be consistently excellent under a variety of conditions that interested me most about DeAnna’s season, and her coach, J.C. Lambert was kind enough to answer my questions about her mental approach to competition.

First question. DeAnna was remarkably consistent this year. It seemed like she threw 70 meters every week. What was it about her personality and her preparation that allowed her to do that?

She’s a tiger when she competes, she will go after throws no matter the situation. The one thing we’ve been working on a lot this year is making sure her first throw makes finals and she gets a 70m+ throw within her first three throws.

Have you two worked at all on any sort of pre-meet ritual? Are there a certain number or types of warm-up throws that she likes to take?

As far as a pre-meet ritual, she does a light lift, she likes to eat either Olive Garden pasta or half a chicken with a baked potato the night before. Breakfast the morning of, she likes to have one pancake with syrup, no butter, some eggs and meat along with coffee.

For warm up throws, she likes to start with turns with a two ball system. That’s one thing we’ve used this year to help her turns and with pushing the hammer. After that, she usually goes to a left arm throw and 1-2 80% throws and then is ready to go.

What do you mean by a “left arm” throw?

With a left arm throw, it’s a drill we use a times to warm up. You just take the hammer with your left arm, wind it like a regular throw, turn and throw.

Here is something that gives me endless amounts of trouble as a high school coach. Over the course of a season, my guys will, like DeAnna, develop their own routine for warming up. But, there are times when that routine gets disrupted. Rain delays. Officials who for some reason decide to limit the warm-up period. This year, at our state meet, the guy in charge decided to move the shot competition indoors due to predictions of dire weather. So, after eight weeks of competing outside with an iron shot, the competitors were moved into the field house and made to share four indoor shots, three of which were egg-shaped. There went their routine. That’s an extreme example, but I’ve heard stories about having flights of 25 at the World Championships, or of Reese Hoffa getting a single warm-up throw at the Athens Olympics. Have you worked with DeAnna on staying focused even when her routine is disrupted?

Deanna does pretty good in tough situations. When it gets down to the bigger meets, your athlete should be ready to go no matter the situation as long as long as the preparation leading up to the meet is done right. I learned as a athlete a long time ago that there will never be a perfect meet, something(s) will always try to get in your way. You must learn to adapt and adjust. You have to go with the flow. Deanna understands this and has done a great job so far with her mental preparation.

If you have a lump of coal you think has the potential to be a diamond, you must put that lump of coal under extreme and intense pressure. If it survives, you have a diamond. If it breaks apart and crumbles, then you just have coal. Not all lumps of coal are meant to be diamonds just like all athletes aren’t meant to be world class competitors. During practice, you must put your athletes under various situations that may pop up at a meet. Some athletes can learn and adapt quick, some have to be guided and talked through, others can just never seems to get past the little things that get in their way.

Can you give me an example of something you might do in practice to help get your throwers ready to handle a pressure situation?

For handling competition- At any time of the practice, I will bring up a meet time situation that they may be faced with. For example, Deanna might be at the middle or near the end of her practice and I will bring up a situation to where I will have her imagine that she is currently 4th place at the Olympic Trials, just been jumped by someone. I will say she has 1 or 2 more rounds to beat her best mark to make the Olympic team.

What is your role during competitions? At the NCAA meet, were you in a position where you could talk with DeAnna between throws? If so, can you characterize your interactions? Dave Dumble once told me that between attempts he tried to give his throwers a compliment on something they were doing well, then give them a suggestion on what to improve, then finish with some encouraging words. Can you tell me about your approach?

During competitions, most times I am at a place where I am able to talk to her. Leading up to big meets, I try to keep my coaching towards her simple in practice. That way if she messes up, I can use a simple cue that she’s very familiar with and it clicks in her head fast. That means less thinking and more competing. I also will let her know what she’s doing great during her throw and then will follow it up with something simple to fix. I try to be confident, aggressive, and excited when I say explain something to her. She really feeds off attitude and excitement.

Which competition this year presented the biggest challenge mentally, and how did you two deal with it?  Will the challenge at the Olympic Trials be to treat it like it is any other big meet and not get overwhelmed by its significance? If so, how will you manage that?

The biggest meet of the year for Deanna will be Olympic Trials. At a lot of the meets this year, Deanna has been trying to throw for a mark (college record). When she tried to throw for a certain mark, she actually tries way too hard and thinks too much about it, compared to when she competes against someone.

If you watched her compete at NCAAs, you could see what I am talking about. Even though she had a big throw in her and had a big sector foul over the fence, she was “going for broke” for a big mark. So far this year, she’s only had one meet with some competition in it. During that meet, her opening throw was over 70m, she had 2 other 71m throws and her final toss at 72.49m. At that meet she was more focused on the competition and it helped produce a little PR at the time in heavy training.

We will treat the Olympic trials like any other big meet she’s gotten ready for in the past. She’s going to have other high class hammer throwers that she can chase down and they will push her as well. One challenge will be to keep her excitement and eagerness contained. Coach John Smith and Coach Connie Price-Smith refer to her as a tiger when she competes, so I came up with the term “keep the tiger caged and hungry”. But she’s learned over the past couple years how to relax and keep her self slightly distracted Leading up the competition. She has a very good “on and off switch”. During practice and the day of competition, the switch is on. Most other times it’s off. If it’s not, I will help by changing the subject of conversation.

The Discus Technique of NCAA Champion Kelsey Card

 

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Not a bad NCAA meet for Wisconsin’s Kelsey Card. After finishing fourth in the shot put on Wednesday, she marched into the discus ring on Saturday and hammered out three throws over 63 meters. Her fifth-round toss of 63.52m was two meters farther than anything the rest of the field could muster.

Afterwards, Badgers throws coach Dave Astrauskas kindly agreed to go through a frame-by-frame analysis of Kelsey’s big toss. 

Here’s Dave:

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And here is our conversation:

I just watched the video of the NCAA discus final and Kelsey was like a blonde assassin. Other throwers kept inching closer to her, and she just stepped into the ring three times and cool like a cucumber knocked out 63-meter throws. Was she always like that? Can you talk a bit about the arc of her career? What qualities did she show up on campus with four years ago and what has she developed over time?

I had a conversation with Kelsey prior to the discus competition which was basically about how Kelsey could not afford to be passive, but needed to be the aggressor in the competition. Her game plan was to go after the first throw, but at the same time make it look/feel as easy as possible to ensure six throws. After the first throw, the plan was for Kelsey to go after the remaining five with everything while staying within herself. In round one, we were shooting for high 57m ended up getting 59.50m. In between prelims and finals she went to the tent outside the stadium and we met and the plan was to again go after each of the remaining throws the right way – with the lower half.

Kelsey has not always been the aggressor in competition, but has always been a competitor while at Wisconsin. She historically has been one who generally starts off slow and builds throughout the competition. I cannot recall a competition where her first throw has been her best performance of the day. We continue to work on our round one efforts. Over the years I think the main thing she has learned is that big throws come from executing the proper technique, which as a result create the proper positions at which she can generate force.

When Kelsey showed up on campus five years ago, I noticed several traits. First, I saw right away that Kelsey knows how to deliver an implement whether it be a shot, discus, weight, hammer, discus tool, bowling pin, bat, etc. Second, she is one of the most coachable athletes that I have had. Over her time at Wisconsin she has worked with several of my throws volunteers and they’ve always indicated what a joy she is to work with. Third, I noticed her kinesthetic awareness. She has complete control of her body and extremities and can react to a cue and make an adjustment within 1-2 attempts. Lastly, she does not like to lose. I remember her first indoor meet at Wisconsin and she PR’d in the shot and placed 3rd, but was really angry with herself that she lost to two other girls on our team.

 

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Let’s talk some technique. Here is Kelsey’s wind on her 5th throw in Eugene. Compared to a lot of discus throwers, it is a pretty abbreviated movement. Can you comment on that?

I feel the wind in the discus is all about what feels good to each individual athlete similar to a windup of a baseball pitcher. I’ve had several discus throwers that wind back 270 degrees, but they uncoil the wind quite a bit before they start the lower body and sometimes have difficulty shifting the weight from right leg to left leg early. In Kelsey’s wind all we are trying to do is lock the discus back behind the right hip to set up an early shift to the left side.

 

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In these two photos we see Kelsey getting set up to run the ring. What do you emphasize in this phase of the throw?

First, try to keep the shoulders facing the back of the ring as long as possible. After loading the left, try to turn the left knee and left heel as early as possible. We talk about a feeling of high to low or turning downhill across the ring. Left arm is long, left, and loose. As the discus approaches zero (center back of the ring) we strive to get the right leg as far away from the discus as possible.

What is your cue for getting the right foot off the ground? Some say to get it off as early as possible. Others recommend leaving it down until the left foot is turned almost to the direction of the throw. Where are you at with this?

I tell my athletes that the left side rotation will pull on the right adductor making your right foot leave the ground. Once the right foot comes off the ground we try to send it out over the back of the ring.

 

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Looks like Kelsey did a nice job of (as you said) sending her right foot out over the back of the ring. From here, do you want her driving at all with her left foot/leg? And how would you describe her right leg action as she runs to the middle?

The right leg whips around the left leg (axis) with a much radius as possible. I do not cue the left leg drive all that much. I feel if you whip the right leg around and reach to center you naturally end up driving off of the left. The other thing I think is important is to carry your toes under your right knee as early as possible to avoid a soccer style right leg.

 

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Here we see Kelsey sprinting to the center of the ring. Can you talk about her right foot action, the orbit of the disc, and anything else you emphasize  regarding this phase of the throw?

I’ve talked with Kelsey about pre-turning her right foot while keeping the left arm wrapped and she has gotten better over the years. I have not discussed orbit with Kelsey all that much. She does a good job keeping the discus back and shoulders level so I think her orbit is fairly natural for her technique. We have also stressed that her right leg needs to land loaded ready to move and not extended and rigid. The main thing that we have worked on all season you can see in these photos. We have been trying to keep the discus locked in over the left leg until contact. So, after left takeoff in the back of the ring Kelsey is trying to make sure that the discus is not getting too far ahead of the left leg. We want the discus to travel with the left leg to the front of the ring so that at double support (power position) the discus is over the left heel. I believe that this terminology has developed a longer pull

 

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She does an amazing job here of keeping her right leg loaded while driving her right knee and hip into the throw. How did you train her to do that?
 
This part of the throw is still a work in progress, but Kelsey continues to improve. Each day her warm-up primarily focuses on separation and moving the lower body and upper body independently. Kelsey has done thousands of reps of partial and full throws with light rubber balls, and dowel rods maximizing the right knee and right elbow separation. We often cue the power position with things like, “turn right knee into left knee so that the left heel is driven up,”  “face the throw before you throw,” and “turn your right heel out before you throw.” Kelsey has also became a bit more patient with the upper body in the power position this year due to understanding that the pull does not start violently but starts out smooth and long and increases velocity all the way to a very fast release. Since Kelsey’s shoulders have become more patient, her lower body rotation has improved
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Let’s talk about my favorite part of her technique: her fixed feet finish. I’m a big fan of fixed feet throwing. But tell me, how did a rotational shot putter end up with a German style non-reverse finish in the disc? 
There are a couple things that led to the fixed feet finish. First, when Kelsey arrived at Wisconsin she had what I called a jump-turn finish in the discus, meaning at left foot touchdown she would jump in the air and rotate to throw. I wanted to change this immediately so Kelsey went on a heavy diet of non-reverse throws. Generally at Wisconsin 60% of our throws in training are non-reverse efforts. Kelsey was closer to 90% in years one and two. Second, Kelsey came in as a glide shot putter and while we were switching to rotational shot her sophomore season almost all of our training throws in the shot were non-reverse throws because it just gave her a better feel for the throw. With the mass amounts of non-reverse efforts in both shot and discus the technique became second nature to her. Now, most of my women are developing into or have become non-reverse discus throwers.
I had a chance to speak with Robert Harting’s coach a couple of years ago, and he emphasized pushing the right knee/hip out then sweeping the disc out and around the hip. The left leg blocks with a slight bend in it to allow the thrower to keep his/her hand on the disc longer while chasing it out. Do you use similar cues? It looks to me like Kelsey would fit in quite well at the German Championships.
I teach the same as you mentioned. When the left foot touches down in the power position Kelsey is trying to push her lower half out to the left. I think this is an easier way to make sure the athlete is more patient with the upper body. If an athlete tries to turn to the right side to the sector (instead of pushing the knee left and the throwing arm left) then it usually ends up with an early or rushed delivery. In the photo you can see Kelsey’s head tilted slightly to the right sector line. This is something she does to ensure maximum radius through the delivery. As I mentioned earlier the pull starts out strong with the lower half and  increases velocity, concluding with all energy going into a violent release.