Category Archives: Interviews

An inside look at the German club system

Are you the type of person who strikes up conversations with folks at airports or on subways or in line for a bagel?

My wife is. You sit next to her on an airplane, and she will know your life story by the time you reach your destination.

I ‘m usually not like that, but while I was waiting in line at the airport in Berlin about to begin my journey home from the 2018 European Championships last August, I couldn’t help myself.

The guy standing behind me had a credential from the meet hanging around his neck, and I guess I was still buzzing from the endorphins I’d accumulated while watching some of the best throwers in the world compete in front of 60,000 joyous fans at the Berlin Olympiastadion because next thing I knew I was talking to him about the meet.

It turns out that he was a German club coach from Wiesbaden in town to attend the Euros, and more specifically to watch the throwing events.

His name is Zlatko Zigric, and after  we spoke for a few minutes I told him about Mcthrows and asked if I could do an interview with him regarding the German club system which has helped to produce so many outstanding throwers.

It’s funny, Germans have a reputation for reticence, which I sometimes think is well-earned. They will not, for example, acknowledge you when you pass them on the street. Nor will their dogs. German dogs are so well-trained that their owners can take them anywhere (the park, the tram, restaurants) secure in the knowledge that their dog will not embarrass them by sniffing butts or stealing liver wurst.  Here, for example, is a picture I took of a dog patiently waiting in line at a post office in Berlin:

Looks like he’s waiting to mail a letter, doesn’t he?

Luckily for me, German throws coaches are not at all standoffish when it comes to talking about their craft. Zlatko was the fourth German coach I’d had the opportunity to chat with in Berlin, and each was exceedingly generous in sharing information and doing so in English. He even supplied the photos of his club facilities that are contained in this post.

If, like me, you are familiar with the American method of developing track and field athletes, I think you’ll be intrigued by the advantages and disadvantages of our school-based approach compared with the German club-based system.

Clearly, we in America benefit from the affiliation of sports programs with schools. At my high school in the suburbs of Chicago, for example, we had 250 boys and girls on our track team last year. Our crosstown rival had almost as many, so in a single American city of 50,000 people, nearly 500 teenagers competed in track and field. Throw in another 200 or so pre-teens competing at our middle schools, and that is a lot of potential talent entering the pipeline. That level of participation would not be possible, though, without our public school system paying coaches and providing facilities.

German schools do not do that.

Nor do they have university programs that provide financial aid and world-class coaching as the best athletes take the next steps in their development.

The German club system does, however, provide a support system for athletes for the duration of their careers, thus eliminating a big hurdle faced by American post-collegiates: how to stay in the sport long enough to reach their ultimate potential.

The German federation also provides club coaches with access to a comprehensive training program to enhance their ability to develop young athletes.

But, enough from me. Let’s hear about this from Zlatko.

Can you tell me about your background? Where did you grow up?

I was born 1963 in Zagreb (former Yugoslavia, today’s Croatia). When I was four years old, my parents migrated to Germany where my father’s ancestors originally came from. From elementary school to my graduation in electronics in the university I was educated in Germany.

What were your athletic experiences?

When I was twelve years old, I became part of my school’s track and field team where I threw the 200-gram ball in a competition between different schools of my hometown Wiesbaden (near Frankfurt/Main). A school friend who also was a team member invited me to join him in the track and field club where he was a member because no one in the club could throw the ball as far as I did. At that time, I would have rather liked to train martial arts but my parents did not allow this. So I joined my school friend in his track and field club. There I found a friendly group of peers who were instructed by an experienced coach.

Quickly, I was integrated in this clique and we had a lot of engagements even outside our sports activities. This experience strongly influenced my attitude to sports and to track and field in particular. Track and field athletes are often considered to be strong individualists and for that reason will not perform any team sport. This may be true for some of them, but it is true for some guys who perform team sports as well. Actually, performing the same sport in the same club or in the same sports ground brings people together anyway.

Training track and field disciplines was great fun for me. I worked out three times a week. If my coach would have offered, I would have worked out every day. I found it boring to only just run, throw or jump, so I found my way to decathlon. When I was fourteen years old I tried to throw discus for the first time. By chance, I had a good feeling for this discipline and a month after my first throw I reached a distance of 47,58 m with the 1 kg discus. The throwing disciplines stayed my favorites among the disciplines of the decathlon or heptathlon.

Unfortunately, my training group was dissolved when I was sixteen years old. I still kept on training somehow about three times a week and attended some competitions until I got drafted in the basic military service, but the results were moderate as it was to be expected with the lack of coaching instructions. Anyway, at that time I reached ranks somewhere around the first five in the provincial level of the German Federal State of Hessen in the throwing disciplines and in Decathlon.

How did you become a coach?

After I finished the basic military service, which was obligatory in Germany at that time, I turned to old habits and started to work out regularly on the well known sports ground. There I met some old friends who had the same idea. We became a training group. After some training sessions where each time we first had to discuss what to train together I got the idea to ask a former coach of our club to help and instruct me to build up a training plan. Because I took the initiative, I became the administrator of the training plan and suddenly I was “the coach.” Also, I started reading literature and articles about track and field training methods, techniques for the disciplines and about athletic training in general. Then I started developing new plans and instructing my athletes autonomously.

Soon, younger athletes joined my training group and the generations changed with the time. After my friends who were my first athletes as a coach stopped training regularly because of their jobs and families, I coached young people from fourteen to twenty years of age.

Besides studying (and later besides my job) I found no time to obtain a coaching license. I made up for this eight years ago when I changed my job from an IT manager to a teacher at a vocational school. This year, I plan to obtain the  coaching license in the A-level to gain further knowledge and to learn to know other coaches to exchange views.

 

What will you have to do to obtain your A-level coaching certificate?

The German Athletics Association’s (Deutscher Leichtathletik Verband DLV) licensing model for coaches for competitive sport provides three successive and interrelated levels:

Level C is intended for the basic track and field training of children in the age of eleven to fourteen years. The education of the coaches includes one week of gaining general basic knowledge in sport science in a first part focusing on topics like:  

– impact of sporting activities on muscles, tendons, bones, vessels, nerves and the cardiovascular system

– general training structure

– good and bad general sporting exercises, etc.

The second part of the education usually takes place on weekends and includes practical and theoretical training in the specific track and field disciplines (techniques, exercises, training structure). Usually the education ends with a theoretical and a practical test. All together it takes a time of at least 120 learning units (45 min each) to obtain the track and field C license.

Level B is intended for those training young athletes in the age of fifteen to nineteen years. The scope of this license is focused on one of the specific track and field discipline blocks: sprints, long distance running, jumping, throwing and combined athletics. The education covers topics like:

– long-term planning and controlling of track and field training

– biological development and physiological principles of performance of adolescents

– technique models and teaching them to athletes with different skill levels

– social, pedagogical and psychological competences etc.

Usually the education ends with a test covering the development of a training plan for a specific period and an analysis of an athlete’s technique with proposals for exercises to improve the detected deficiencies. To obtain the B license at least 60 learning units are required.

Level A is intended for athletes in the age from 19 years. This coaching level is intended for top-level sports and focuses on one of the specific track and field discipline blocks: sprinting, long distance running, jumping, throwing and combined athletics. The education covers topics like:

– training strategies for young athletes and top-level sport

– short-, middle- and long-term planning, documentation and evaluation

– physiological and biological basics of performance

– psychological controlling during training and competitions

– talent scouting and promotion etc.

This education consists of three parts:

  1. Five days course with theoretical and practical instructions.
  2. Work shadowing training and competitions with a DLV (German Athletics Association) coach.
  3. Three days exam course.

Additionally to the exam, a homework needs to be developed in which the coach plans the training process of his own group of athletes, documents the realization and the controlling and finally analyzes and evaluates the process. To obtain the A license, at least 90 learning units are required.

As I mentioned above, the licenses are successive. To obtain the A license you first need to obtain the C and the B license  and you need to be active as a B-license coach at least for three years. To keep the license, a coach needs to periodically attend courses.

 

What kinds of athletes are you currently training? How old are they and what are your typical practices like?

I currently train young athletes in the age of fifteen up to nineteen years of age.  Four guys train and compete in decathlon, and one of the guys has specialized in discus and shotput. Additionally, two athletes who do not compete and do not work out five-to-six times a week join our training group. Most likely a few new young athletes will join the group soon because their old training group was dissolved. This year, my athletes reached the highest ranks in our federal state and rank among the first thirty in the federal level of Germany.

I suppose that my typical practices are very common. A usual training session consists of warming up, short stretching, coordination exercises, discipline training and finally a chill out run and/ or stretching. Mostly we train two disciplines in one training session, but this depends on the season. In the development phase, which will start very soon, we have a lot of training sessions without any specific discipline training. Instead, the athletes do more weight lifting, specific gymnastics, explosive power training, etc.. In my training plan I orient myself on the proposals of the DLV’s (German Athletics Association) outline training plan.

 

Here in the US, when an athlete finishes high school (usually at the age of eighteen) if they wish someday to be a professional thrower they enroll at a university and train and compete there for four or five years. In your case, if you have a promising athlete would they continue to train at your club as they reach the age of eighteen or nineteen or would they join a training group run by a full time coach? And how is that decision made?

Track and field sport in Germany is mainly performed in small clubs, which are operated by volunteers. But there are a few bigger clubs which are sponsored by companies. These clubs can afford to engage coaches and administrative staff who do their jobs professionally. The athletics associations of the federal states of Germany and the German Athletic Association engage full time coaches and volunteers to coach the squads. The German talent development program plans that young talents are spotted already in the age from thirteen years. The young talents stay with their clubs, but they will be promoted with additional training sessions which are given from the coaches of the athletic federation of the related federal state. The association’s coaches are supposed to advise and to coordinate the training schedules with the home coaches. The talent promotion is built up in squads from E to A. Squads E to D cover young talents from twelve to approximately nineteen years. These are coordinated by the federal states associations. The German athletic association covers squads C to A. Squad C covers young athletes from sixteen to twenty-two years. Squads B and A are intended for grown-up top athletes. The call for an athlete to a specific squad depends on the performance of a particular athlete who is spotted by the coaches of the associations.

A good promotion for German top class athletes is granted when they start a police career or a career in the German Armed Forces. The athletes obtain a complete professional education, a paid workplace and time for the necessary training to be a top athlete.

Some sports funding exists in Germany like e.g. “Stiftung Deutsche Sporthilfe“. This way top athletes can obtain some financial support. Some athletic clubs are able to organize a sponsoring for their top athletes. And here I come to the probably most important trigger for decisions of athletes why and when to change their club. When an athlete decides to get professional with his or her sport, he or she needs to be financed.

The school system in Germany in general is not intended to promote sport talents. At best, the teachers recommend a young athlete to join a sports club if they can see a talent. A few schools cooperate with sports clubs in order to promote talents in the way that training sessions get coordinated and home work and tests are scheduled on dates which are the least inconvenient e.g. to perform on competitions on weekends.

If young athletes reach higher performance levels, they usually change their club for one or two reasons: they expect better training options and/or they expect a better financial support. Because the bigger clubs have better options to cater for these expectations, young athletes often change from a smaller club to a bigger club when they reach a higher performance level.

In my club, we try to promote a few athletes who reached the top class and who are close to it. But there is an everlasting discussion about the main goals of the club: Are we able to handle the development of young talents plus the promotion of top athletes, or do we neglect many interested young athletes because we focus on a few top athletes?

By the way, not all top athlete coaches are full time coaches. For instance Günther Eisinger,  who was the coach of the former very successful high jumper Ariane Friedrich, earned his living as a teacher before he became a pensioner. He was just “crazy” enough to spend all the rest of his time to coach and manage top class athletes besides his job.

Dear Readers: Let me know if you have questions for Zlatko and I’ll bug him about a follow-up interview.

 

Sandra Perkovic is not here for funny

 

A few nights ago, I visited a beer garden in Berlin with some friends, one of whom absentmindedly walked past the bouncer whose job it was to examine people’s bags. The bouncer was German, but he could tell we were not so he switched to English to chastise us.

”Listen,” he scolded. “I ‘m not here for funny!”

There’s poetry in that declaration, and  it captures perfectly the attitude that Sandra Perkovic, two-time Olympic champion, two-time World champion, and winner of forty-two Diamond League meetings, brings to each and every competition.

I was present for the first of those Diamond League wins, at the Adidas Grand Prix in New York in 2010, and it was apparent right away  that the nineteen-year-old Perkovic was something special. On that humid morning when the dead air seemed to suck the life out of the rest of the field, Sandra competed with a passion that demanded attention.

A couple of years later, I saw her throw at the Adidas meeting again, this time in a driving rain with temperatures in the forties. On that day, I stood near Sandra’s coach, Edis Elkasević, both of us freezing the buns off, and watched as he and Sandra conferred between throws. At one point during the competition, an official decided (in spite of the fact that the running events did not even begin for another hour) to block Sandra as she crossed the track to speak with Edis. She did not even break stride.  “You, shut up, you!” she commanded. And he did.

Her adrenaline pumping, Sandra launched her next attempt sixty-eight meters.

So, she is not one to mess around, this Sandra Perkovic.  No less an expert than René Sack, coach of the highly decorated Nadine Müller, told me that Sandra’s ferocity might be the quality that separates her from the other top-notch women’s disc throwers. “She is a nice person,” he said, “but during the competition, she wants to kill you.”

And, at the risk of some throws fans wanting to kill me, can I just get this out of the way right now and state that Sandra is very close to establishing herself as the greatest discus thrower of all time?

I know, I know. No one will ever match Al Oerter’s four Olympic golds, or his remarkable comeback when, as a forty-three-year-old geezer, he finished fourth in the 1980 Olympic Trials. I mean this as no dis to Al. He is deservedly a legend.

So is Virgilius Alekna, with his two Olympic golds and two World titles.

So is Robert Harting, who a few days prior to the women’s disc final, made his last appearance as a member of the German national team. Robert will retire at the end of this season with one Olympic and three World Championship golds.

The one thrower whose list of achievements may still outshine Sandra’s is Lars Reidel, winner of one Olympics and an incredible five World Championships.

Keep in mind that though the Olympics are special and attract a tremendous amount of interest, the World Championships are, for track and field athletes, the same thing minus the synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics. Winning a World Championship gold means surviving a qualification day then defeating the very best in your event inside a huge, often raucous stadium. It is just as difficult as winning an Olympics.

If we can agree that World and Olympic golds are equal in value, then we can say that Al won four major titles, as did Alekna and Harting. That leaves Lars on the top of the heap with six.

As mentioned above, Sandra has two Olympic and two World titles to her credit, so she’s short of Lars in that department. But, consider her forty-two Diamond League wins. Since 2010, she has competed against and defeated her main rivals five times a year at Diamond League venues all over the world. That’s a level of consistency that no other thrower in  history can match.

If Sandra can maintain that level for the next two years, pick up another World title in Qatar, another Olympic title in Tokyo, push her total number of DL wins into the fifties…to me that would make her the best there ever was.

I imagine that Sandra came to Berlin last week quite conscious of the opportunity these Championships offered to further burnish her legacy. A win in Berlin would be her fifth consecutive Euro title, a feat that no athlete in any event had accomplished.

And with a season’s best throw of 71.38m, seven meters farther than anyone else in the field, her odds of winning that fifth title seemed more than deece.

Thursday morning’s qualification round exposed no chinks in Sandra’s armor. She settled matters quickly with a first attempt of 64.54m to lead all qualifiers.

It seemed likely that the battle for silver and bronze would come down to the three German entries,  Shanice Craft…

…who reached 61.13m in qualification…

…Claudine Vita…

….who hit 59.18m, and Nadine Müller…

…who produced the second best throw of the prelims, 60.64m.

Another intriguing qualifier was Italy’s Daisy Osakue, the US Division II collegiate champion for Angelo State University in Texas.

Coming nearly three months after the end of a long collegiate season, Daisy’s qualifying throw of 58.73m was impressive. Making her achievement all the more remarkable was the fact that two weeks earlier, while training in Turin, Italy, she had suffered a scratched cornea when struck in the eye by an egg thrown from a speeding car. The incident put Daisy squarely in the middle of a recent controversy over the anti-immigrant stance of the newly elected Italian government led by Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte. It has been suggested, much to Conte’s chagrin, that the assault on Daisy was inspired by his government’s inflammatory and often racist rhetoric.

Either way, it was a traumatic and extremely ill-timed experience for Daisy and made it seem unlikely that she’d make an appearance in Berlin, let alone advance to Saturday night’s final.

But advance she did.

A storm that rolled through just after the men’s javelin final on Thursday left pleasant weather in its wake and helped to create absolutely lovely conditions on Saturday.  Here are Coach Sack and Nadine Müller enjoying the cool evening air at the warmup ring outside the stadium…

…as Edis Elkasević and Sandra Perkovic plotted their assault on that fifth straight Euro title.

Eventually, the athletes were loaded aboard carts and transported inside…

…where they were greeted by 60,000 spectators ready to support a solid lineup of German athletes including medal contenders in the men’s high jump, women’s long jump, and of course the disc.

And for a while, Germans held the lead in all three of those events.

I know nothing about the high jump or long jump, so I can’t say whether or not things played out as expected there, but you can count me as very surprised when Nadine Müller entered the fifth round with a three-meter edge over Sandra in the disc.

Here’s how it came about.

Nadine entered the meet with a season’s best of 62.73m (a bit subpar for her as she has surpassed the 65.00m mark every year since 2009) and in round two, she bumped that season’s best to 63.00m.

It’s hard to imagine Sandra being rattled by Nadine’s throw, but for the first four rounds, she clearly was not her normal butt-kicking self.

This was odd, as Sandra seemed in excellent shape at the warm-up track. Here she is smashing a pre-meet power position throw:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=1Tyh3SX6nec

She caged her first attempt of the competition, though, then went 59.09m in the second round on a throw that looked like it might have gotten a piece of the cage as well. She followed that up with a round-three 59.97m.

I’m not gonna lie, it was weird. The crowd was understandably pro-Deutschland, and they were going nuts the whole time over the high and long jumps and over their discus trio, but those folks appreciate great throwing and they clearly wanted to see Sandra go 70.00m. They  gave her plenty of love each time she entered the ring, and she was the only non-German thrower afforded the honor of having a quick burst of rock music blasted through the PA system before each of her throws to signal folks to stop watching the jumps for a second and pay attention to the discus.

Sandra usually thrives on that stuff, but on this night, she looked lost.

Meanwhile, Claudine Vita put herself in second place going into the reordering with a third-round toss of 61.23m, while Daisy (58.09m) and Shanice (59.73m) each earned the full six throws with their second-round efforts.

As the fourth round began, the place was going absolutely bonkers. The German high jumper, Mateusz Przybylko, was locked in a duel for the gold medal and his every attempt inspired huge cheers from the fans. At the same time,  German long jumper Malaika Mihambo, was contending for gold as well, so there were lots of reasons for folks to make noise.

I kept wondering how the throwers dealt with all the distractions they faced in a competition like this. For sure, noise and excitement must be preferable to throwing in front of the docile and comparitively sparse crowd that showed up for the morning qualification rounds, But on this night it was not unusual for a discus thrower to be midway through their windup only to have 60,000 people erupt over a high jump clearance. And the masterful way that the Germans managed the proceedings on this night, using the large video screens and the PA system to cue the fans when a big moment was unfolding, caused frequent delays at the discus cage. Whenever a race was about to start, or even when the runners were being introduced, all throwing stopped.

So I can see why some athletes, especially those who had not experienced this type of atmoshphere before, might struggle to maintain  focus.

But Perkovic? There is nothing she hasn’t seen and contended with throughout her long career.  Bad weather. Bad officiating. Huge crowds. No crowds. At the Rio Olympics, she opened with two fouls in the qualification round and in the finals and still came away with the gold medal. And clearly, someone with forty-two Diamond League wins knows how to squeeze out an excellent throw even when feeling “off” on a given day.

So I knew for sure that Sandra would regain her composure during the reordering  and set everything straight on her fourth throw.

Which she proceeded to whang into the cage.

I’m sure Nadine would have loved to take advantage of Sandra’s mysterious loss of rhythm and put a little more distance between them, but in round four she managed only 61.99m. Daisy, seemingly oblivious to any and all distractions, nailed a near-PB of 59.32m in round five to move into fifth place, while Claudine and Shanice each fouled their fourth and fifth attempts.

The swallows returning to Capistrano. My mother-in-law ringing the doorbell while I am taking a nap. Some things in life are inevitable.

And so it was with Perkovic. She finally found her rhythm on her fifth throw, a toss of 67.62m, which secured the gold medal and restored natural order to the throwing universe.

Both Sandra and Nadine fouled in round six, but Shanice Craft drilled a 62.46m which jumped her past Vita into third place.

Here are the happy medalists:

Daisy ended up fifth, and the experience left her utterly stoked.

”This year has been so wonderful!” she exclaimed after the competition. “I did my PR (59.72m) at the Angelo State Relays in April, then I won the DII nationals, then I came to Italy, went to the Diamond League meeting in Rome, won the U23 Mediterranean Championships, came her and got fifth. So, like…wow!”

“My first goal was to make it to the finals, so I got to the finals and I was like ‘Wow, what did I just do?’ Then I tried my best to get in the first eight so I could get three more throws, and I don’t know, I just ended up fifth! I ‘m super overwhelmed, so I think I ‘m talking too fast. It is something crazy! I would never have expected it, fifth place in Euro from nowhere?”

And what was it like throwing in front of 60,000 fans?

“I loved it! The cheering! It’s a big stadium, so I was scared that I wouldn’t react to it the right way, but I think I got the right thing!”

I was curious how she managed to stay sharp over the course of a very long season, and Daisy gave equal credit to Nathan Janusey, her throws coach at San Angelo State, and Maria Marello, her coach in Italy.

“They talked a lot and coordinated everything.  And our head coach Thomas Delbert helped me a lot. He knows that I am a transfer student from Italy. He says ‘Don’t worry. Just do this, this, this for San Angelo, then you can do this, this, this for Italy.’ So it worked out great.”

I was also curious how a thrower from Italy ended up attending a university located in San Angelo, Texas.

“They chose me! I got a message from Coach Janusey on Facebook ‘Would you like to come to San Angelo?’ I was like, ‘Uh, I don’t know.’ Then I talked  to my parents and my coach, and they said ‘It will be a great experience, so you have to try it.’”

“It was hard adjusting at first, but we have athletes from all over the world. After a month, I got friends. This is thanks to my biggest problem—my parents say that I can talk to walls, that I can talk to any living thing or not living thing!”

Like Daisy, Shanice Craft was positively giddy over her performance.

She moved to Berlin a year ago to join the training group of Robert and Julia Harting under the direction of Coach Marko Badura, and she was very happy with her new situation.

“I love it! Before, I was in Mannheim and I didn’t have a training group. Now I have two very good teammates. We have a lot of fun, and we push each other. It gives me so much motivation to see them work!”

I asked her if it was difficult to maintain focus that night with all the delays interrupting the flow of the competition.

“I should be able to block that out, but today I had big problems. There were so many breaks from the competition that it was very hard for me to stay focused, and I just felt like I couldn’t do anything in the ring.”

“Lots of my friends and my family were here, and after the fifth attempt I thought, ‘No, I can’t do that to them.’  The last attempt, I wanted something big. I came here to get a medal, and I thought ‘No, it’s not possible that I will get fourth place.’  For my last attempt I thought of Robert Harting’s last throw at the World Championships in 2009. I was here at the stadium that night! Before my final throw, I was watching that competition in my head. I had it in front of my eyes.  I wanted to do the same thing that Robert did that night!”

I reminded Shanice that after winning the gold in 2009, Robert had picked up Berlino—the large, cuddly bear mascot—and romped around with him on his back.

“I have to go to the gym more so I can do that next time!”

I spoke with Nadine Müller next, and it turns out that her less than stellar season up to that point had been due to a back injury she sustained in April which cost her several weeks of training.

“In April, before we were to fly to a training camp, during the final training I injured my back so I could not fly. I missed a lot of throws, I could not throw for three weeks.”

“I have lost so many throws this season,” she lamented. “I hope the rest of this season I can be fine and the next competition throw past 63.00m.”

As with the other throwers, Nadine loved the level of excitement in the stadium, but did not appreciate all the delays.

“I think it’s okay when they start a race to have us break, but there were so many other breaks where they made us wait two or three minutes,  But it is the same always in major competitions.”

Nadine would know, having competed in two Olympics and five World Championships. She won silver in Daegu in 2011 and bronze in Beijing in 2015. I asked if over the years she had been able to develop a method for handling the interruptions.

“Yes,” she laughed. “I‘m the old lady who has so many finals! I think by now it is easier for me. I ‘m a cool down girl, so I can stay focused better than the young ones,”

Just then, the  queen of focus happened by, carrying a large stuffed animal and reveling in another moment of triumph.

She attributed her struggles on this night to an uncharacteristic bout of overconfidence, “Because I was in really good shape, and in the first or second round I was thinking ‘If my discus just go out of the net, I will be European champion.” Maybe I was thinking is going to be easy job for me.”

“Then in the third round  I messed up again, and I said to myself, ‘Oh my god, what is going on? You cannot be yourself?’ Then I also had a nice try in the fourth round, which also went into the net. Then, before the fifth round I started saying ‘Oh my god, your training! Your goals! You have four European gold, and this is your chance for a fifth one like nobody did. You want to miss it?'”

“I told myself before my fifth throw, ‘You want to wait for the sixth attempt in front of a German crowd?’ And then I saw it fly, and I know it is 65.00m plus, minimum. Then I saw 67.62m,

‘All the girls know they need to wait for me and in one round I will get it. I’m used to throws like last year in London, where it was like 69.00m then 70.00m then 70.00m again then 69.00m again. It was an easy peasy competition for me, but this time was strange.”

I asked if she noticed that the crowd was on her side.

“Yes,” she said. “I was fighting against the Germans but they support me! But I didn’t have good, positive vibes around me. It wasn’t the other girls or the crowd.  I was confused, and I never felt that before.”

“The last few days, I had some problems. A bee stung me in training! And one day I was was working and I flipped my ankle. Maybe these things distracted me.”

Having seen how much she relies on Edis during competitions, I wondered if Sondra worried that the stress he must feel on nights like this was might be shortening his life span.

“No, he is a very strong person! After the third round, he really woke me up. He was like, ‘You want the crowd to enjoy this moment or not? Will you waste all your training or will you win a fifth gold like nobody has before?'”

“He knows that if you start talking shit to me, I’ll be like, ‘Are you serious? Now you’re gonna see!”

I ran into Edis a few minutes later. He was slowly making his way through the stands with a friend at his side. He looked drained.

“Come on,” I teased him. “You knew she’d come through.”

His friend spoke up.

“That’s right! We did. It was her fifth European title, so she waited for the fifth throw to win. It all makes sense!”

With that they strode off in search of Sandra.

This was my final night in Berlin, so  I made one last leisurely lap around the stadium then headed for the subway.

Thanks, Berlin, for the most amazing track and field experience  of my life.

Thanks to all the coaches, shop owners, concession stand workers, ushers and and everyone else I ran across on my trip, including my favorite bouncer. Without fail, they did their best to make up for my ignorance of their language by communicating with me in English.  I will never forget their kindness.

And thanks to all the athletes who took the time to chat. I was at the bottom of the media food chain at the Euros, so by the time they got to me in the sweltering mixed zone some had been answering questions non-stop for an hour. I’m sure all they wanted to do was to get the heck of there to celebrate or commiserate with their friends and family, and they were under no obligation to talk to me.  But they were so friendly and so polite, it makes a guy think that maybe he fell in love with just the right sport.

 

 

 

 

A sweaty and glorious night in Berlin

Have you ever watched the video of the men’s shot competition at the 1988 Olympics? The one where Randy Barnes throws 22.39m on round six to take the lead,  then Ulf Timmerman answers with 22.47m to grab the gold. That throw of Ulf’s is famous (at least among throws nerds) because he raises his fist in triumph even before he sees where the throw lands.

There is one other memorable aspect of that video. The stands are almost completely deserted. The average Saturday morning freshman football game in the US  attracts more spectators than showed up at the stadium in Seoul that day to witness maybe the greatest shot competition ever.

Last night, at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, the situation was a bit different.

One reason was that the gentleman pictured above, the incomparable Robert Harting, was making his final appearance as a member of the German national team. He has a couple more competitions on his schedule before he hangs up his throwing shoes, but this was his last night representing the Fatherland, and it meant a lot to him and it meant a lot to the fans packed into that end of the stadium.

Here’s a video I took when Robert was introduced last night. The quality is not so good, but the sound is what matters. Take a listen.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ftI7Q-g9Kg

Compare that to the sound of crickets that probably greeted Ulf’s winning throw in Seoul, and you’ll understand why every single thrower I ‘ve spoken with at these European Championships loves competing in Germany.

And if Robert’s fairwell appearance wasn’t enough to get folks fired up, just a few meters away in that same end of the stadium, the 2015 women’s shot World Champion Christina Schwanitz was competing as well.

As much as the Germans love Robert, I doubt many considered him a candidate to win the men’s discus title last night. After four years spent battling knee injuries, a bronze medal finish was probably the best that Dee Harting could hope for.

Not so with Schwanitz. After taking off the 2017 season while giving birth to twins (Dear God, please let her move to the US so that I can coach those children some day), Christina has returned to twenty-meter form, and in the absence of Hungarian rival Anita Marton, appeared to be a lock to win the gold.

And if that still wasn’t enough to get everyone excited, there were Germans in contention in the men’s long jump and decathlon, which took place concurrently with the throws.

Hence the noise. Hence the madness.

Surprisingly, Schwanitz was unable to feed off the  energy of the crowd to produce a big throw. She tossed right around 19.00m in warmups, opened with 19.19m and never improved.

But, for most of the competition, none of her competitors appeared capable of surpassing her. Poland’s Paulina Guba opened with 18.77m but did not add to that over the first five rounds.

Aliyona Dubitskaya of  Belarus pounded away at the high 18.00m range the entire competition, eventually settling for a best of 18.81m in round five.

The oppressive heat that has settled over much of Europe this summer seemed to take the life out of most of the putters. They had, after all, been through qualification in that same heat the day before. And on this night, they had taken their early warmups under a blazing sun at the throwing area outside the stadium.

Maybe they were all exhausted, and Christina would walk away unhappy with a subpar performance but happy to have won in front of an adoring crowd.

Then, things got a little nutty.

The Polish mojo that has been wreaking havoc in the men’s throws (so far, Poles have taken first and second in the men’s shot and hammer) appeared and lifted Klaudia Kardasz to an U23 national record of 18.48m.

Guba must have gotten a whiff of it as well. She stepped in as the final competitor with a chance to unseat Schwanitz and promptly…well…unseated her with a throw of 19.33m.

Here is a vid of Christina’s final throw. Again, the quality is pretty awful but it will give you an idea of the noise level in that stadium.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Qa8P6RIlFEs

Schwanitz could manage only 18.98m on her final attempt, and as Guba celebrated another triumph for the Polish throws crew…

…a disappointed crowd turned its full attention to the men’s disc.

Humid air. No wind. Enclosed stadium.

These are not the conditions which generally produce big discus throws. And for the first couple of rounds, it looked like anyone who could somehow reach 66.00m would have a good chance at winning.

Apostolos Parellus of Cyprus must love him some dead air, as he opened with a PB of 63.62m. No one else was close to their best.

Daniel Stahl, second at the 2017 Worlds opened with a foul. Andrius Gudzius, the defending World Champion started with, for him, a pedestrian 65.75m.

Gerd Kanter, who had hit the automatic qualifying mark of 64.00m on his first throw the day before, could manage only 59.30m in round one.

Robert, meanwhile, hit 61.09m, a distance that was not likely to buy him the full six throws.

In round two, Gudzius fell to 62.89m but maintained his lead when Stahl fouled a big one—at least 67.00m.

Robert pleased the crowd if not himself with a 63.45m toss, which at least prevented him making an early exit from the competition.

Stahl, facing an early exit himself, went 64.20m in round three. Gudzius answered with 67.19m, an impressive display of horsepower in these conditions.

For a moment in round four, it looked like Robert might be able through sheer toughness and force of will to seize a medal. His 64.33m put him into second place.

The moment did not last.

Stahl, exhibiting his own reserves of grit, blasted one 68.23m to take the lead and knock Robert into third. Gudzius replied to Stahl with another big toss, this one 67.66m.

Then, in round five, Lucas Weisshaidinger of Austria, who had struggled mightily in the qualifying, came through with a toss of 65.14m to oust Robert once and for all from medal contention.

A final round 64.55m from Sweden’s Simon Pettersson and a 64.34m by Kanter pushed Robert further back in the standings.

Here is Robert’s final throw as a member of the German national team.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Hj2VksB-yJs

Meanwhile, Stahl and Gudzius still had to settle the matter of who would go home with the gold.

Daniel fouled his final attempt, so Gudzuis entered the ring needing to surpass 68.23m.

Gudzius is a large man, and he is remarkably fast for his size. Sometimes, he seems a bit out of control, and this may be why he struggled in qualifying. He did not hit the auto mark until his third toss on Tuesday.

But when he hits one right, he generates an astonishing level of power. It took that kind of power to launch a 68.46m final throw for the win.

Afterwards, the competitors were exhausted, drenched in sweat, and very grateful to have experienced a competition in this environment.

Alin Alexandru Firfirica, a twenty-three-year-old Romanian who finished seventh was totally spent.

This European Championships was his first major international meeting at the senior level (he was European U23 champion in 2015) and the experience was a bit overwhelming.

”The stadium is great,” he said.  “And I am in good shape, but today I was tired. It is hot! I start with fifty-eight meters! Every time they stop us when a race starts. It was disturbing. I try to ignore because I don’t have anything else to do. My next meet will be throws only meet here in Germany. It will be fantastic! I hope there to throw sixty-six meters again. Here was hard because we don’t have wind; with wind is possible to throw sixty-seven meters.”

Alin recently wrapped up his studies, and is excited about his future as a thrower.

What did he study?

”Sports, of course!”

Simon Pettersson, who entered the meet with a PB of 65.84m and finished fourth with is sixth round 64.55m effort, said that he loved the energy in the stadium.

“It was very fun. The atmosphere was unbelievable, kind of like Worlds last year. I even like when they run the 200 and everybody is like ‘whoa!’It gives me energy. Sometimes I get too hyped!”

That was apparent tonight, as Simon fouled four of six throws, once literally falling down out of the front of the ring. But, his ability to regain his composure and drill a near PB in the final round bodes well for his future in meets of this caliber.

Daniel Stahl, the Swedish giant, was exhausted, proud, and defiant after the competition.

I asked him how he was able to keep his cool sitting on two fouls going into round three.

“It was mental strength.  I’m really happy. It was great conditions, and I’m very happy. I was focused all six throws. My goal was to win, but I’m really proud of 68.23m. This was great atmoshpere. Germany is really good to track and field. It was a great audience, great people. I really Like Germany. Now, I prepare to win in Doha.”

Unknown to me, these European Championships will also be the final international competition for Gerd Kanter, one of the true gentlemen of the sport.

Though the attention of the crowd was understandably focused on Robert, Gerd was happy to have made his farewell in this stadium.

”As expected, the environment was very good, I remember from 2009, and today everybody focused on the discus. When I was planning my retirement I wanted to have it here. Next year at Doha, I don’t think will be very exciting. This was where I wanted to have my last Championships.”

I told Gerd that the first time I ‘d seen him throw was in Zurich in 2005, and asked him if he remembered being overtaken by Virgilius Aleena in the final round there.

“Yes, but he fouled it! The winner got a nice watch, and he got it. He still owes me that watch.”

“We had just came from Helsinki, the World Championships. I was leading until last round there, too, and he threw a championship record to beat me!”

As long as we were on the subject of the ones that got away, I asked him about the 2012 Olympic Games where he came within one discus length of taking a second consecutive gold medal.

“It was reallyemotional,” he recalled. “But it wasn’t like losing a gold medal, it was like winning a bronze medal. Compared  to Beijing, I was not the favorite. And it was first time I set my season best at a major championships, so I am very proud of that bronze medal.”

The last sweaty giant I spoke with was Lukas Weisshaidinger, who was about as happy as a man on the verge of heat exhaustion can be.

 

“It was my first time at European Championships, so to come home with a medal, I’m extremely happy,” he told me. “My whole family is here, so this is an awesome moment.”

Lukas had struggled in the qualifying rounds, going Foul, 59.48m, and then finally 62.26m which got him in the final. I asked him how he had been able to get his act together after almost failing to qualify.

“This was a new day. And also, I know that Alekna once placed eleventh in qualification and ended up with gold medal, so I knew I could make a medal today.”

Lukas also credited the atmosphere in the stadium for elevating his performance.

“It was awesome! They clap for everyone, not just the Germans. And there  were a lot of Austrian fans. That gave me power!”

I couldn’t resist asking Lucas how he had developed his rather unique setup at the start of his throw. If you’ve never seen it, he has his left foot back like Tom Walsh in the shot, and he winds the disc very high before beginning his entry.

“I’m not the biggest guy,” he explained. “Or the tallest guy, so I have to make something different, so we try this.”

Is his setup an attempt to increase the path of acceleration? Does it have something to do with creating a certain orbit of the disc?

“That I cannot tell you. It is top secret.”

Not wanting to offend a man that beefy, especially at the happiest moment of his life, I changed the subject and inquired about the future. Was he thinking ahead to Doha?

“It is really hard with the World Championships in October, then followed by the Olympic Games. It is really hard to make a perfect plan for those two competitions.”

I have asked a few coaches recently how they plan to handle their training schedule next year with the Worlds coming so late. But talking to Lucas, I realized that it wasn’t just next year, but the following year as well (when everyone will want to peak for the Olympics) that will be thrown off by the odd schedule.

Torsten Lönnfors, coach of Chris Harting, told me that Chris will be in an exceptionally difficult situation as he is required to put in four weeks of police training at the end of each season. So, if he competes in the 2019 Worlds in October then takes a break then has to do his four weeks with the police, that makes for a very late start for his Olympic preparation.

But those are matters for people much smarter than me to figure out.

This was a night to celebrate giant, sweaty men who devote their lives to throwing things far.

Speaking of which, after all was quiet I stood with a group of journalists waiting for a final word with Robert Harting. But the hour was late, and I had a long train ride ahead of me, so after a while I gave up and began the long walk up the stadium steps towards the exit.

And there he was. Signing autographs, Surrounded by fans. Happy and sad and probably wishing that this long, humid Berlin night would never end.

It’s not so simple, this qualification business

 

Tuesday morning at the European Athletics Championships featured an embarrassment of riches for throws fans. Two rings full of women shot putters vying for the automatic qualification mark of 17.20m that would advance them to Wednesday’s final. And, running concurrently with the women’s shot, two rounds of men’s discus featuring some of the best throwers in the world, among them 2016 Olympic Champion Chris Harting and 2017 World Champion Andrius Gudzius. The qualification line for the men’s disc was 64.00m, which many of these athletes had thrown in previous competitions. But, as it soon became apparent, 64.00m can seem awfully far if something knocks you off your rhythm. The early hour. The unusually hot conditions (Germany, like much of the rest of Europe, is in the middle of an historic heat wave). An unusually fast or slow throwing surface.

Some made qualification look easy.

Christina Schwanitz, much to the delight of the crowd (as she is German and the favorite to snag the gold here) went 18.83m on her first attempt. Thank you, and good day.

Daniel Stahl, the silver medalist at last year’s World Championships in London,  also launched his first throw well past the qualification line (it turned out to be 67.07m) raised his arms in triumph and headed off to rest for Wednesday’s final.

On his way out, I asked Daniel if he generally takes something off a first round throw in order to avoid fouling.

“No,” he replied. “Always 100 percent.”

This approach seems to suit the big man’s personality. Stahl is the kind of guy who, if you were a kid, would be your favorite uncle. Large. Easy going. Always smiling.  Not the kind of person whose confidence would be ruined by a first round foul.

For some, though, it was not so simple.

Poland’s 2015 World Champion Piotr Malachowski would appear to be cut from the same mold as Stahl.  He comes across as very even-keeled, and has been through many, many qualification rounds at major competitions.

Somehow, though, after warming up at 65.00m, Piotr simply could not find his timing when the throws counted. He walked out on his first attempt (it looked to be about 57.00m), caged his second, and misfired badly on his third, ending up without a mark and without an invitation to the finals.

Afterwards, he seemed perplexed.

“My shape today was very good,” he said. “My practice throws were good, then…I don’t know. I don’t know what happened.”

Piotr seemed ready to shake off this experience though. When I asked if he planned to continue throwing through the Tokyo Games, he replied, “Of course. It is my dream. A gold medal!”

While Piotr was suffering his inexplicable meltdown on one end of the stadium, two young shot putters came away from their first ever qualifcation rounds at a senior international competition smiling and utterly delighted to have made the final.

One, British Champion Amelia Strickler, threw a PB of 17.31 on her second attempt.

”I ‘m so excited!” she said afterward. “It was amazing being out there because this is such a big venue, and that’s what you want. You want the big stage. Even though the stadium wasn’t quite full, you could still feel the atmosphere. I can’t wait for the final!”

Like Amelia, twenty-year-old Alina Kenzel surpassed the qualifying line on her second attempt.

Her throw of 17.46m was the seventh best among qualifiers.

She told me afterwards that she was “very excited because it was my first big international event. I was very nervous at the first attempt, but the second it was like ‘okay just do your thing just like training’ and it was the standard for the finals!”

“After my first throw, everybody was saying ‘Alina go on!’ I was like okay,okay, keep going, keep going. Then, it was like boom! I ‘m done, so now I can go to the hotel and have some rest and tomorrow the final.”

Another competitor who seemed just as excited by his success in qualification was the great veteran Gerd Kanter. He threw 64.18m on his first attempt and was positively giddy after.

”I’m old,” he joked. “So, in this heat I have to do it on the first throw. Out there, we were like chickens in ovens.”

After all the success he’s had, including winning the gold at the Beijing Olympics, Gerd still prepares conscientiously for qualification days.

“I would say the qualification procedure is most difficult at these competitions. If you are in the final, it is already like regular competition, but in qualification, you only get two warm-up throws, it is the early morning, it’s not comfortable. So, in training, we practice making a safety throw.”

“We call it a safety throw because you don’t need to go full out. You don’t need 67.00m or 68.00m. The line is 64.00m, so that’s what you need. So, in a safety throw you take less risks. You are not going to go as far back in your backswing, you just make it very simple to avoid errors. One part of training for a championships is we always make two or three throws where the coach says ‘Okay, you need to do a safety throw.’ So not a maximum effort, but you must throw maybe 63.00m.”

The most surprising moment of this qualification day came when defending Olympic champion Chris Harting failed to advance.

Chris showed that he was in good shape two weeks ago by winning the German Championships with a toss of 66.98m, and most observers would have considered him a candidate to challenge Stahl and Gudzius for the title here, in the city where he lives and trains.

But, one chink in Chris’s armor is that his natural release point often sends the discus down the right side of the sector, and depending on the type of the cage, he sometimes has trouble getting off an unimpeded throw.

His coach, Torsten Lönnfors, told me later that the type of cage used for this year’s  European Championships makes it difficult for Chris to throw in his natural slot because it is shorter than cages normally used in international competitions, with the front support standard jutting out in just the spot where Chris’s throws often travel. Notice the difference between the cage in the photo above at a different competition, and the one below in a photo from yesterday’s qualification round.

I highlighted the front standard to make it easier to see. Torsten told me that they had tried (and apparently succeeded) in practice to get Chris comfortable throwing with this type of cage, and in warmups he was able to throw a nice, clean 65.00m toss. But, Olympic champions are humans, too, and maybe once that first competition throw ricocheted off the cage…maybe all of a sudden throwing in your home town with all eyes on you and the music turned loud each time you entered the ring…maybe it just got to be too much.

After three throws off the cage resulted in three fouls and a humiliating exit from the competition, Chris had to face a very disappointed German media.

Afterwards, he graciously spoke with me for a few moments. Heartbroken, he struggled for words to describe how this had come to pass.

”It took less than 63 meters to qualify,” he said, shaking his head in amazement. “I can throw that from a stand.”

Just one of those days?

“Yes,” he replied. “That’s a good way to put it. Just one of those days.”

 

 

 

 

David Storl is ready to rumble

The pre-meet press conference for this year’s European Athletics Championship in Berlin was hosted at an old but quite spiffy-looking brick building called the Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur or, “Royal Porcelin Manufactory.” It is, apparently, the oldest business in Berlin, having been founded under the auspices of the great warrior-king Frederick the Great in 1763.

The press conference included some important folks such as Svein Arne Hansen, the president of European Athletics, and defending World Champion athletes Sandra Perkovic and  Kirsten Warholm.

But by far the biggest bull in this porcelin shop was the two-time World Champion in the shot put, David Storl.

David has been so good for so long (he won his first World title in 2011) that it is easy to think of him as a grizzled veteran even though he just turned twenty-nine years old. Adding to that impression are the struggles he has had with injuries over the past four years, struggles that have at times have made him look almost frail (I’m thinking of his difficulty staying balanced as he set up his glide at the back of the ring at the Rio Olympics) when compared to the almost savage power and explosiveness he displayed as the enfant terrible of the shot put world. Remember, this was a young man who, from 2011 to 2013, sandwiched an Olympic silver between two World Championship golds—while still in his early twenties.

But a knee injury first sustained during the 2014 outdoor season caused him to abandon his trademark violent reverse and become an almost exclusively fixed-feet thrower.

In spite of changing his technique and having to manage nagging pain in his knee, David produced some fine throws during his four seasons as a non-reverser, including a PR 22.20m in 2015.

But he clearly was not himself much of the time, and did not get near the podium at an Olympics or World Championship from the time of his injury until the recent Indoor Worlds in Birmingham where he took silver using what looked to me like his old, pre-injury technique.

In talking with David and his new coach Wilko Schaa today, I was curious to discover whether or not we might one day see a return of the old/young firebrand who, along with 2008 and 2012 Olympic champion Tomasz Majewski, managed to keep the glide relevant in an era dominated by rotational putters.

Below is a slightly edited version of my conversation with each of them.

McQ: David, you’ve gone back to your old technique with a full reverse at the finish. Does this mean you are finally over the knee problems that caused you to become a fixed-feet glider?

David:  Yes. That is the reason I was able to switch back. I changed coaches last year [from Sven Lang to Wilko Schaa] and we work a lot on the stability of the knees. It was a long way, but now we can train without any pain

McQ: It took four years to finally feel healthy, eh?

David:  Yes. It was a long way, but it was a decision of mine, and that’s the most important thing. If I didn’t change the coach I think I will have the old technique still.

McQ: Are you more confident using your old technique?

David: Yes.

McQ: Because it helps you stay in the ring at the finish of your throw?

David: No, that’s not the reason. It feels complete. If you do not jump, you have to stop the movement. Not a nice feeling.

McQ: Was it a strange experience to change coaches after working with Sven Lang for so long?

David: Yes, because we worked nearly ten years and was a long way and I had a lot of success with him. But now I go my own way.

McQ: How long have you known Wilko?

David: I know him since 2010.

McQ: Wilco, how did you end up coaching David?

Wilko: I worked nine years for the Institute of Applied Training Science in Leipzig, and I was a supporter of the German National team for throwing biomechanics and training science, and so I know David and all the people from the throwing team. That was the beginning. He asked me in October of 2017

McQ: Did you feel pressure over the prospect of taking over his training?

Wilko: A bit, yes. He is a big athlete. He has won twelve international medals. It is an honor for me to work with him. And now we work ten months together and I think we are in a good way. We won in Birmingham a silver medal, and it was a bit surprise. But now we are in a good way and I think we will take the gold medal [this week in Berlin].

McQ: David  says that he was able to go back to his old technique because his knee is finally feeling healthy.

Wilko: Yes, that was the first thing we had to do. A healthy knee then change to his old technique.

McQ: So that was the plan right away? See if you could fix his knee and then go back to his old technique?

Wilko: Yes, it was.

McQ: How did you do it? How  did you make his knee feel better after four years?

Wilko:  We changed the training system. We had good regeneration management. We trained static to build all the muscles around his hip and knee for stabilization so the knee can become healthy.

McQ: And it worked well?

Wilko: Fast! Very fast. I thought the first year would just be for health and getting in shape, but now we are in a good way.

McQ: How long did you train together before he was able to do his old technique?

Wilko: A month. From the beginning we tried to do this.

McQ: It must have been an exciting moment when he felt well enough to try reversing again.

Wilko: Yes, it was an experiment. It was trial and error, but we have a good relationship so I hear his feedback. He gives me a lot of feedback and I try to adjust the training. It is very individual. Very, very individual. He is the only athlete I coach. He is a great athlete and I think it is good for him.

McQ: Is he as strong as he was when he was World Champion?

Wilko: That is a good question. I think yes.

McQ: So he’s strong enough to throw twenty-two meters?

Wilko: Yes. I think he will have to throw twenty-two meters to beat Michael Haratyk or Tomáš Staněk. Konrad Bukowiecki can also be dangerous. He can be a big surprise. He is very strong.

McQ: And it will get even harder in Tokyo with Tom Walsh and Ryan Crouser.

Wilko: Yes, I think it will take 22.50m to 23.00m to beat those guys. The men’s shot put performance progression in the last years, I don’t think will stop between now and the Olympic Games. It will go on. But they are all good guys.  They are very funny, and we like them.

McQ: Does it feel strange to coach the only glider who seems capable of medaling in an international competition?

Wilko: He’s the last Mohican! We talked about the rotational shot put. We talked about the possibility to change the techique, but we agreed it is not good for him. Rotational shot putters are a different type of athlete. We tried it in training. When we warmed up he threw it. It was fun and provided variation. But, he’s a glider.

McQ: What is it about David as an athlete that makes him a glider?

Wilko: He is very tall. He has amazing power. And he is very stiff in his legs. When he comes from the glide, it is amazing how he can stop the whole center of mass of the body and transformate it into the release. I have never seen this. Maybe in the 1980’s with Ulf Timmerman, but in the 1990’s and 2000’s, nobody else was able to do this.

McQ: I love the glide, so I hope you medal in Tokyo.

Wilko: I love the glide too, but I think it will go out.

McQ: In America, it is pretty much gone.

Wilko: With athletes, there are different types, and that’s why I think the glide is still good. You can with the glide reach the same performance as the rotational, but you have to be the right type of person with the right abilities.

McQ: So you don’t believe that the rotational technique provides an advantage?

Wilko: No. You have to look which person is right for which technique. It is difficult.

McQ: It seems like most rotational shot putters are built differently than the best gliders.

Wilko: Yes. Rotational  shot putters look like this [ He outlines a refrigerator shape with his hands]. Gliders, like this [He raises his hand high to demonstrate tallness].

Note: I want to thank Wilko and David and pretty much every other German I have spoken with for being gracious enough to speak in English to me. I feel spoiled that I can come to their country without being able to speak a word of their native language and have them go out of their way to use my language—which is not easy when you are not used to discussing throwing technique in a foreign tongue. I would also like to thank the German school system for emphasizing English.

The men’s shot put prelims will take place Monday evening at a temporary venue set up in downtown Berlin. Unfortunately, the men’s hammer prelims will be held at the same time inside the Olympic Stadium, so spectators will have to choose which one to attend. I’ll be at the shot, where I hope to witness the beginning of a glide renaissance.

 

 

 

A chat with British shot put champ Amelia Strickler

There is no NFL-style draft for graduating collegiate throwers, no carnival of excess where the most promising among them are paraded in front of television cameras and offered multi-million dollar deals to join the professional ranks.

For a college thrower, going pro often means going without–without regular coaching, without regular treatment for injuries, sometimes without regular meals.

The challenge is to find a way to stay in the sport long enough to reach your athletic prime. In a recent interview, 2004 Olympic shot put champion Adam Nelson reminisced about living in a closet under a stairwell Harry Potter style during his first year as a pro. Curtis Jensen, currently in his fourth year as a professional, broke twenty-one meters for the first time ever this season while working two and sometimes three jobs to support himself. Gwen Berry and Jessica Ramsey, two of the best young throwers in the US, have paid the bills at times by working for a company that bakes and delivers fresh cookies to college students at all hours of the night.

So, if it is a glamorous lifestyle you seek, put down that metal ball and start working on your mid-range jumper.

I know that other countries have different systems for developing their athletes. In Germany, for example, the best throwers are offered a chance to enlist in the army or the police force where they receive a salary while training full time for much of the year.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with the 2018 British shot put champion Amelia Strickler, and I was curious to find out what life is like for a professional thrower in that country.

It’s funny talking to Amelia because she sounds as American as apple pie. Not once during our conversation did she refer to cookies as “biscuits” or the bathroom as the “loo.”

That’s because Amelia grew up on Ohio, and is a 2017 graduate of  Miami of Ohio University.

She feels, however, a deep connection with her adopted country. According to Amelia, her mother, a British citizen, “raised me very British. We celebrated all the British holidays in my house growing up, and we visited my family there all the time. When I started having success in college, I knew I wanted to represent Britain some day.”

Amelia graduated from high school with a shot put PR of 42’2”. During her freshman year, she upped that to 48’7”. As a junior, she broke the school record with a toss of 55’5 ¾” and finished twelfth at the NCAA Outdoor Championships. A promising senior season was derailed by stress fractures in three different leg bones during the winter of 2015/2016. Amelia ended up taking a medical redshirt, but that summer she competed in the British Championships for the first time.

She remained healthy during the 2016/2017 season, her final year at Miami, and managed a PR of 56” (17.12m) but a lousy performance at regionals kept her out of the NCAA finals.

With her mother and sister planning a move to England, Amelia jumped the pond for good that summer. She quickly became the second ranked putter in the country and qualified to compete in the European Team Championships.

Talking to Amelia, it became obvious that post-collegiate putters in the UK have one significant advantage over their counterparts in the US: the club system.

As is commonly the case in European countries, sports in the UK are not affiliated with schools. Rather, various communities sponsor clubs.

Amelia explained that the clubs are organized in different tiers, “kind of like NCAA division I, II, or III. I went with a club, Thames Valley, that was really competitive. We won the  premier division last year.”

Though the clubs do not support the athletes financially, they provide something that can be hard to come by in the US: meets. Lots of meets.

For post-collegiates in the US, opportunities to compete are not hard to come by during the college season when there are lots of invitationals that allow open entries. But once mid-May rolls around, the NCAA regionals begin the invites end and those not yet accomplished enough to snag spots in Diamond League meets are out of luck for a good chunk of the summer. And forgive me for stating the obvious, but it is awfully hard to get better at your event if you can’t compete regularly.

According to Amelia, the league that her club is part of, the UK Women’s Athletic League, holds one meet per month in June, July, and August, “but there are also Southern League matches around London that I can do as well.”

The club meets are held in venues that remind Amelia of the home facility at Miami of Ohio. She says they are well attended. “The sport is much more popular over here. Football takes the cake, obviously, but  there is a much bigger following for track and field.”

This, too, is likely a byproduct of the club system.

“It’s just so easy for people to get involved with the sport here.There are quite a few tracks around, and it is easy for people to join a club. This system encourages kids to get involved in athletics at a much younger age. A lot of them will do it with all their friends.”

So finding competitions is no problem for post-collegiates in the UK, but like their counterparts in the US, they still face daunting challenges in trying to extend their career. Though Amelia is the current British shot put champion, a 17.26m PR and a promising future have not been enough to secure financial support from the British Athletics Federation. She currently lives with her mother, works mornings in a local shop, and commutes two hours by rail every day to a practice facility that she pays to use.

She is also on her own in trying to secure top-flight coaching. When she first arrived in the UK, Amelia tried to rely on Steve Manz, her coach at Miami. She regularly sent him practice videos and solicited his advice, but that was clearly not an ideal arrangement. At the 2017 European Team Championships she met former British discus champion Zane Duquemin, who was trying to finance his own throwing career by coaching on the side. She heard good things about Duquemin, who also coaches current British discus champs Jade Lally and Brett Morse, and so began making the two-hour trek to the town of Loughborough to train with him.  

The results have been promising.

In spite of a torn calf muscle that interrupted her training this winter, Amelia has had a solid outdoor season. She hit that PR of 17.26m on June 9th, won the British shot title later that month, and represented Britain at the recent World Athletics Cup in London where she greatly enjoyed her first experience competing in a large stadium.

“It was amazing, to be honest.  I’ve never thrown in a big stadium quite like that before, and to have that big a home crowd as well was awesome. At the NCAA championships in Eugene, there was a big crowd, but they don’t really bother with you if you’re not from University of Oregon. At the Cup, people were waving flags, and I heard someone yell ‘Go, Amelia!’ when I walked into the ring. And it wasn’t my coach’s voice, either!”

Next up for Amelia are the English Championships followed by the European Championships this August in Berlin.

Getting sponsored by the British Federation would make life easier going forward. She’d have free access to Federation facilities and physiotherapists. To obtain that sponsorship, though, she is likely to have to break the 18-meter barrier.

“That’s been my goal for a long time,” she said. “Things haven’t gone my way the past two or three years with injuries. It’s nice being a professional now and able to choose the meets I compete in. Looking back on the NCAA season where you have a meet every single weekend, I can see how the injuries might have occurred. Now I try to be selective, be prepared, and make the meets count. I think 18 meters is doable this year.”

A perfect end to the season would be an 18-meter throw in Berlin followed by an invitation to the Birmingham Diamond League meeting followed by a sponsorship offer from her Federation.

That’s a lot to have riding on these next couple of meets, and I wondered if that would make it difficult to stay focused on the task at hand as she stepped into the ring.

“For me, I’m still new to being a professional, and I just try to put that stuff out of my mind, For example, at the British Championships this year I knew if I won I’d get selected for the Athletics Cup, and that was something that I really wanted to do. My attitude was ‘I’m going to throw far today.’  At meets, I just try to worry about myself and not let those outside pressures bother me. I love the atmosphere of a big stadium and a big crowd,”

She will get all the atmosphere she can handle in Berlin, as one of the more charming aspects of German culture is their passion for the throws. They will show up in force to cheer on 2015 shot put World Champion Christina Schwanitz who, after two injury-plagued years, is back in 20-meter form.  

Oh, and running concurrently with the women’s shot, both prelims and finals, will be the men’s discus where one Robert Harting will be making his final appearance…ever. Think that stadium will be rocking?

Maybe Amelia will be able to tap into that energy, blast out an 18-meter throw and take a big step forward as a pro. Either way, she’ll be back at the grind this off-season, hopping aboard that Loughborough train day in and day out hoping it will eventually take her to the big time.

Jessica Ramsey intends to contend

Remember that moment in Rocky when out of nowhere he decks Apollo Creed in the first round?  Nobody in the place thinks he’ll so much as lay a glove on Creed,, and then…Bam!…he lands a haymaker. In the end,  Rocky did not win the that fight, but that punch and his ability to hang tough for fifteen rounds against overwhelming odds gave him credibility as an athlete and changed the course of his career and his life.

Okay, I know Rocky is a movie. Don’t mistake me for those Game of Thrones fans who can’t wait for time travel to be invented so they can go back and get a look at a dragon.

But I witnessed a very Rocky-like moment in real life recently. It occurred, ironically enough, during the first round of the women’s shot at the USATF Championships in Des Moines.

As I sat down on that perfect Sunday afternoon to watch flight two warm-up, I anticipated a hard-fought battle between the current NCAA shot put champion Maggie Ewen and the defending USATF champion Raven Saunders.

I’d also hoped that Rio Olympic champ Michelle Carter would push the youngsters and make it a three-way contest, but it became clear during warm-ups that she was not in shape to do that. (Afterwards, Michelle revealed that that she was still recovering from off-season knee surgery.)

No other thrower seemed likely to break 18 meters, and since Ewen and Saunders were reliable 19-meter throwers, this was clearly going to be a two-person race.

It turned out, however, that I’d missed something during warm-ups, a clear sign that a third contestant might just upset the form chart.

Twenty-six-year-old Jessica Ramsey, who had finished fifth in the hammer competition a day earlier and who came to Des Moines with a lifetime best in the shot of 18.42m, had warmed up with several non-reverse throws, each of which had traveled around 17 meters.

As signs go, this was admittedly a subtle one.

According to the Bible, signs foreshadowing an earth shaking event may include “distress of nations in perplexity…the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding.”

Nothing in there about fixed-feet fulls.

But to two people present in Drake Stadium that day, Ramsey and her coach John Smith, those warm-up throws portended a cosmic shift in the women’s shot.

 Ramsey recalled later that those warm-up tosses “told me I was going to get it.”

Smith recalls seeing them and thinking, “Okay, here it comes.”

And come, it did.

Ramsey strode into the ring on her first throw and absolutely killed one.

“After warm-ups,” she recalled later, “I  prayed and did my little meditation. Then, on that first throw when I hit the middle and  I stayed in, I felt like it was a good one.”

It was. The throw measured 19.23m.

It was a three-foot PR and the seventh best throw in the world this year. In the space of a couple of seconds, Ramsey had gone from an anonymous member of a large group of better-than-average American female shot putters to one of the best in the world at her event.

Actually, it took a little longer than a couple of seconds.

Ramsey graduated from Western Kentucky University in 2014 having put together a fine college career (seven-time conference champion, all-American in the shot) under a fine college coach (Ashley Muffet, now at Ohio State). Her PRs though (53.84m in the disc, 61.44m in the hammer, and 17.49m in the shot) were not necessarily those of a future world-class thrower.  Ewen, by comparison, just graduated from Arizona State having thrown 62.47m in the disc, 74.56m in the hammer, and 19.46m in the shot.

In spite of this, Ramsey was determined to pursue a career in the professional ranks, so she packed her belongings and relocated to Carbondale, Illinois, to train with Smith, at that time the throws coach at Southern Illinois University.

Two months after her arrival, Ramsey’s determination received its first test when Coach Smith and his wife Connie Price Smith accepted an offer to take over the track program at Ole Miss. Ramsey describes that moment as “very hard for me. I had just moved to Carbondale! I’d packed up everything and spent all my money to move there, and a couple of months later I had to pack up again.”

After settling in Oxford, Mississippi, Ramsey had to figure out how to support herself while also leaving time to train.

“When I first came to Mississippi, I worked at a senior care facility, a daycare facility, and a company called Insomnia Cookies. That kind of hindered my practicing.”

“Later, I got a raise at Insomnia, so I dropped the senior care job. After that, I  got hired at Dicks Sporting Goods, so I dropped the daycare job. That’s where I’m at now. Most of the time, I work seven days a week just to pay the bills.”

In spite of this, under Smith’s tutelage Ramsey kept improving in the hammer and the shot.

As a glide shot putter, Ramsey could not have found a better, more experienced coach than Smith. Many years ago, Smith developed a reputation as the best glide shot coach in the United States. He honed his skills at teaching the glide while guiding Connie to a long and remarkably successful career that began in the 1980’s when winning international medals meant beating the Commies, and lasted until the early 2000’s by which time the fall of the Eastern Bloc and the advent of stricter drug testing protocols had significantly altered the nature of the sport.

Throughout most of Connie’s career, all evidence indicated that the glide technique was the most reliable path for a female shot putter to win a medal at a major championship.  

It was not until Jill Camarena-Williams nabbed bronze at the 2011 Worlds that a rotational shot putter broke through. Prior to that, every World and Olympic medal awarded in the women’s shot had been won by a glider.

But the increasing success of the rotational technique among the men (including a sweep of  shot medals at the 2000 Olympics) caused Smith to believe that women could benefit from adopting the rotational technique as well.

In March of 2014, shortly before Ramsey joined his training group, Smith posted an article in which he made a compelling case that it was time for female putters to abandon the glide. 

So Ramsey was in for a bit of a surprise when she arrived in Oxford. Smith wanted to convert her to the spin.

She did not give in easily.

“The first year,” Smith told me a couple of days after the USATF meet, “she fought me on it. If the spin wasn’t working for her in practice, she’d go back to the glide.”

Ramsey has similar memories of that period. “I didn’t want to change because I was consistently throwing  58-59 feet with the glide, and when we tried the spin it was so hard! Some days I’d be like, ‘I got this!’ Then other days, I’d be slipping in the middle, fouling, dropping my elbow, and I’d think, ‘I’m going back to the glide!’ The thing about the spin is, if you miss one thing then the whole throw is messed up! That’s what’s frustrating about it. Even at meets, I’d sometimes start with the spin and then switch to the glide.”

Complicating matters was the fact that over her first two seasons with Smith, Ramsey pushed her glide PR into the 18-meter range. But Smith still felt that she was wasting her potential.

“She’s 5’6”, which is too small to be more than a sixty-foot glider. She’s explosive as hell, but her top end in the glide will never be what it is in the spin.”

Matters came to a head at the 2016 Olympic Trials.

“She didn’t throw worth a crap at the Trials,“ Smith recalled, “and a couple of days later at practice right there in Eugene, I said, ‘You need to change to the spin. I know for a fact from training people over the years that the spin is nine to nine-and-a-half percent better than the glide. If you add that on to your glide, you’re a sixty-six-footer!’”

Finally, a year ago, Ramsey committed fully to the rotational technique. Job one was to master the art of using the ground or, as Smith calls it, “working the Earth.”

Over many years of careful observation, Smith came to believe that gliders and non-reverse discus throwers shared a quality that was often missing from the technique of rotational putters: a strong connection with the ground. As he saw it, discus throwers and rotational putters who focused too much on getting air time–whether during the non-support phase or as they launched the implement from the power position–were sacrificing distance and reliability.

He discussed his theory in this article first posted in 2003. (Note: Check out Smith’s vision of the kind of rotational putter who might eventually threaten the men’s world record. It calls to mind a certain Sasquatch-sized Olympic record holder who was eleven years old at the time Smith wrote the article.)

Long story short, Smith made Ramsey take a whole lotta fixed-feet throws over the past year.

It all finally came together in Des Moines. After her huge throw, Ramsey felt the emotions welling but tried to hold them back. “I had to compose myself because I didn’t want it to look like I didn’t know I had a throw like that in me.”

She didn’t come close to 19 meters again (her series went 19.23m, 17.65m, 17.61m, F, 18.24m, F), and she didn’t win (Ewen passed her in round five with a toss of 19.29m) but that one throw was enough to get her an invitation to her first Diamond League meeting (in Rabat on July 13th) and perhaps usher in further life changes that will make staying in the upper echelon of putters a bit easier than getting there in the first place.

A strong showing in Rabat could get her invited to the Diamond League meeting in Monaco on July 19th. She is also scheduled to compete at the NACAC Championships in Toronto in early August.

If she finishes the year with a top-ten world ranking, Ramsey will likely qualify for the USATF tier system, which will allow her to  have health insurance for the first time since leaving college.

Additionally, Ramsey hopes to soon be sponsored by the New York Athletic Club. Should that happen, she would be able to cut down to working only one job and have more time to recover from her daily training sessions.

Owing to the brutal financial calculus of the sport of track and field, Ramsey’s performance in this next handful of meets may determine whether or not her days of averaging five hours of sleep, of trying to get by on $300-$400 dollars worth of food per month, or praying that she doesn’t sustain an injury for which she cannot afford treatment, are over.

Either way, Ramsey is committed to continuing her journey.

“Confidence is the biggest thing in this track industry, and I’ve got it. I believe I am going to throw great in Rabat and that will open more doors for me.”

Not a bad attitude for a young athlete who wants nothing more out of life than a little extra free time that she can devote to mastering the fine art of  “working the Earth.”

(You can find additional coverage of the USATF women’s shot competition including videotaped interviews with Jessica, Michelle, and Maggie here.)

 

 

JC Lambert talks about DeAnna Price’s big day at Nationals

The women’s hammer throw at the recent USATF Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, shaped up as a battle between two Southern Illinois University alums. Gwen Berry entered the 2018 outdoor season as the American record holder with a 2017 toss of 76.77m. DeAnna Price took over the record in early June of this year, hitting 77.65m at the Iron Wood Classic. Gwen took it back six days later, dropping a 77.78m bomb at a meet in Chorzow, Poland.

So the hammer fans who gathered on the grass berm overlooking the cage outside of Drake Stadium had reason to expect a titanic battle between the two Salukis on a sun-kissed day three of the championships.

Unfortunately, Gwen opened with a foul and could never quite find her rhythm. She finished with a best of 72.99m, good enough for second place. You can find a post-competition interview I did with Gwen here: http://mcthrows.com/?p=2152

DeAnna also took some time to find a groove, but her opener of 73.81m guaranteed a spot in the final where she went 76.35m in round four, 78.12m for a new American record in round five, and 77.01m in round six.

Recently, DeAnna’s coach and fiancé JC Lambert was kind enough to give me some insight into DeAnna’s performance at USAs and her plans for the future.

So in Des Moines, DeAnna opened up with 73.81m, which as it turned out would have been enough to win, but it seemed to take her a while to really find her rhythm.

One of the big things we’ve been working on is making sure that your opening throw can make the final no matter where you’re at, a small meet, the US Championships or even the World Championships or Olympics. So I was very happy about her first throw. Her next throw was actually building up to be a nice throw, it just got by her and she wasn’t ready for it. It ended up being a very nice throw outside the left sector.

I couldn’t see where it landed from where I was sitting.

I checked afterwards, and I found the mark at the top of the hill. I’m not going to go into specifics, but it was considerably farther than her best throw.

It must be exciting to know she’s got a throw like that in her.

Absolutely. After that, on her third round throw, because the last one blew by her, she was a little timid, got a little messed up, so she went ahead and fouled it. Between prelims and finals she did a couple of warm-ups to get back on track and then opened back up with a 76-meter throw that looked nice and easy. From there, she was tuned up and ready to go.

Was there anything technique-wise that stood out about her American Record throw?

She just finally got locked into the entry. Got down a lot better on one. She stayed grounded and worked through three. She didn’t work all the way through four, and she kind of locked up the release. If she’d have gotten through the release a little more, it would have been interesting where it would have went.

And then she followed that up with a 77-meter throw where she completely missed four and locked up her release again, so to throw that far and not get the whole pie, if you will, was pretty exciting.

She clearly knew when she released her 78.12m that it was a big throw.

Yeah, she was kind of punching the air, which she doesn’t usually do. She told me after that it was because she was pissed that it took her so long to get going.

I’m interested in the idea you mentioned of developing the skill of getting a good enough first throw so that no matter where you are you make the final. How did you go about working on that?

Practice. We do mock competitions. Plus when you go to smaller meets, that’s practice too. During her senior year at SIU, her first meet of the year was at Alabama. She was in good shape to throw far, but her first two attempts went right into the cage. And then she had to just get a decent throw out there in the third round to just make the finals, so it took her forever to get comfortable.

And then the next meet, she fouled her opener again, and after that we decided we had to change things. We can’t be having that. From there, just practicing it at meets. I tell all my athletes, the first one’s for me and the rest are for you.  

So we kept working on it, and back then, three years ago, she got to be consistent with throwing 66-69 meters on her first throw. Now that she’s a better thrower and athlete, her openers have been getting better and better. Now that she can open with an easy throw of 73 meters and change, she can be pretty confident in a World Championship qualifying round. She won’t have to stress too much, just do what you do and call it a day.

Is the art of it to throw easy but not too easy?

For each person you have to figure out what is their easy throw. It’s like a passive aggressive throw. You have to relax but still be aggressive with it. If you warm up normal, but then your first throw of the meet you take too much off, it’s not going to be a good throw. Your timing is going to be off, then all of a sudden you’re completely off.

So, there’s definitely an art to it. The athlete has to develop a feel for what an “easy” throw is for them.

I was at the European Championships in 2014, and Betty Heidler did not throw well. Her coach told me afterwards that she finished her warm-ups in good shape, so he told her to do on her opener exactly what she’d done on her final warm-up throw, but that she didn’t. She took too much off of that first throw and then she never found her rhythm during the competition.

That’s what happens.

Going back to last winter, did you see signs that she might throw 78 meters this year?

I’ve seen signs the past few years of something big coming down the road. It takes time to get to this level, though. Sometimes you think you see something developing but it takes a few more reps before it comes out in a meet.

Earlier this season the big thing we were working on was trying to connect, trying to push. The simple stuff, just trying to make it second nature. And just chipping away at her entry. And it started looking better.

And with the weight throw indoors, we took maybe nine total practices and we didn’t even throw much during those practices, maybe eighteen throws. And she competed in three meets. I didn’t really care how far she threw in the first two meets, then she went to USAs and we didn’t even peak for it. And she ended up going over 80 feet (24.51m) for the first time and got the win.

Was it surprising that she threw so far?

Yes, in the sense that we didn’t train it that much, but no in that she had a pretty good practice the week before and the week of. It would have been interesting to see what she could have done if we had peaked, but our goals this year all focused on the hammer.

The last two years leading up to the Olympics and London she was throwing really well, but there is a lot of pressure there and the results we got weren’t an indication of what we’d seen in practice.

This year I wanted to see if we could get her best throws in the biggest meets, and so far things have worked out just as we’d hoped.

Now we have two confirmed teams we are part of, the Athletics Cup in London and then the NACAC in Toronto, and then we have to see if she gets selected for the Continental Cup.

Deanna and I have been talking about what to do for meets and training right now, and it’s kind of damned if you do/damned if you don’t. There’s a World Challenge meet coming up in Budapest, but we’d have to hurry to get ready for it, so I think we’ll focus on preparing for the Athletics Cup. There are going to be some great throwers there, so we want to be ready for it.

The ultimate goal is to win a medal at the World Championships and the Olympics, so we need to practice being at our best against the best rather than running around trying to collect money.

This is a new realm that I’m a little green at. I’m lucky to have John Smith as a mentor, so if I have any questions about international travel and competitions, he can definitely help me out. But I look forward to figuring out the puzzle of international travel, how the body works, dealing with jet lag and so on.

Speaking of complicated, have you thought about dealing with the odd schedule next year with the World Championships in October?

I try not to think too far into the future, but we will definitely have to adjust for that. For any athlete, I look at what their ultimate goal is, when they will need to peak, and then I start to work backwards. That determines how we start. As far as indoors goes next year, if we do throw the weight it might be one or two meets like this year and maybe the US Championships, Then we’ll have to figure out how to push back the season. The thing that sucks is that we have to rely on college meets for competition, but those meets are over in May, so what do you do from there? One thing I’m thinking about is putting on a summer meet or two so post-collegiates have some place to compete.

We’ll see. That might get us through to the US Championships in late July, then you have three months until Worlds. First you have to make the team, obviously, but I would hope that maybe the IAAF could help out the athletes by pushing some of their higher-end meets back a little bit. I don’t know if that will happen or not, but no matter what, we’ll find a way.

To see video of the USATF women’s hammer competition check out https://www.macthrowvideo.com/

 

 

2018 USATF Championships Day 4: Some words, some videos, some slight regrets

I’ve seen a hundreds of throws competitions in my time, both live and on video. I’ve traveled all over the United States and Europe to see the best throwers,  I’ve watched the replay of the 2009 World Championships men’s discus so many times that my wife can perform a spot-on imitation of the BBC announcers describing Robert Harting’s victory celebration.

“He’s shredded his vest, exposing his massive torso!”

You kind of have to hear her do it.

My point, though, is that I’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge about the throws, and that came in handy on the final day of the USATF Championships when I was forced to decide between watching the men’s discus or women’s shot on a beautiful afternoon in Des Moines.

The shot was scheduled to begin inside the stadium at 2:10, the disc outside the stadium at 2:20, so there was no way to watch both simultaneously.

I chose the women’s shot. 

The way I figured it, Mason Finley would for sure win the men’s disc. He’s got confidence.  He’s got experience. He’s got a World Championship medal. Plus, he’s a giant and remarkably agile man, so no contest there.

The outcome of the shot, though, appeared less certain. The mercurial, eminently watchable Raven Saunders was a definite contender.

Every time she enters the ring it seems as if she might either smash a 20-meter throw or misfire completely and smash some inanimate objects. Either way, smashing appeared likely.

Going head-to-head with Raven was NCAA champ and record-holder Maggie Ewen.

Do you remember the first Shrek movie where Princess Fiona possessed secret  butt-kicking abilities that belied her appearance?  Maggie is the same way.  She looks like a pole vaulter but somehow throws things really far.  

Plus, guess whose NCAA shot record she broke this year? I’ll give you a clue. Her first name begins with the letter “R” as in “Revenge.”

Add Michelle Carter, the defending Olympic champion, to the mix…

and we had what promised to be a compelling shot put battle.

So, there I was at 2:00, perched in an upper row of Drake Stadium gazing down on women’s shot warm-ups.

My friend Roger Einbecker had chosen to view the men’s disc, so he headed over there after promising to keep me posted via text messages. 

Raven and Maggie each had one pretty far-looking throw during warm-ups, and it seemed like it would be a two-person battle as Michelle struggled to find her timing.

Then the competition began and a funny thing happened. Jessica Ramsey…

throwing unattached and cloaked in anonymity, stepped up for her first throw and banged out a 19.23m.

I couldn’t believe it.

Two of the guys I was with didn’t even see see the throw because, well, they weren’t paying attention. And frankly, who was? If you were sitting at home thinking, “I’ll bet Ramsey might win this thing,” please let me know and I’ll invest in your psychic hotline startup.

Raven, looking fast through the ring, opened at 18.74m. Maggie went 17.94m, so both would have the full six throws to try to catch Ramsey, who came back to Earth with a 17.65m in round two, while Raven began what would become a string of three straight fouls. Maggie put herself on the podium with a round two 19.09m, then gave us spectators a jolt in round three with a foot-foul that landed at the 20-meter line.

Michelle managed a best of only 17.87m in the prelims, but at the break for the reordering, I still felt good about my decision to stick with the shot.

It was fun seeing Ramsey break out, and it still seemed quite possible that either Raven or Maggie would bust one near 20-meters.

Just then, I got the first text from Einbecker.

“Mattis 65.45m.”

That was in reference to the first-round throw of Sam Mattis.

“Okay,” I thought. “That’s fine. Sam will give Mason a push and the folks over at the discus will see a decent competition.” I did not begrudge them that.

Back at the shot, the finalists had been determined and the ring opened for some additional warm-ups. Maggie and Raven each took a handful, tinkering, fine-tuning, like safe crackers trying to get all the notches to line up.

With round four about to begin, another text popped up on my phone… “Finley 65.27m”…followed shortly thereafter by another… “Mattis 66.32m.”

It sounded like an interesting duel was playing out over there, but I was still comfortable with my choice to view the shot.

Then my phone buzzed again.

“Jagers 66.92m.”

Now it was clear that something very strange was going on at the discus ring. After three rounds, three different throwers (Sam, Mason, and Reggie) had surpassed 65 meters. And we were not in California.

Or Hawaii.

I’m not gonna lie, I was a little rattled by these texts. My friend Sean Denard, the fine throws coach at Grand Valley State, came and stood by me to watch the shot final and we gazed in bewilderment from our perch in the stadium out towards the long throws area. What was the wind doing? We couldn’t tell. It seemed like the strings of pennant flags marking the discus boundaries were blowing in different directions at once.

We eyed each other uneasily.

When the shot resumed, Michelle put 17.26m, Raven fouled, Maggie hit 18.58m, and Ramsey fouled.

In round five, Michelle went 17.65m, Raven 18.13m, and Maggie finally popped one. Between throws she had stepped to the side and snapped off some imitations, and the seamlessness she demonstrated there finally carried over to the ring.

It wasn’t 20 meters, but her 19.29m toss was good enough to take the lead.

In the final round, both Michelle and Janeah Stewart broke 18 meters. (Fun fact: four of the top seven finishers in the women’s shot –Janeah, Ramsey, Raven, and Jeneva Stevens–all train with John Smith at Ole Miss.)

Raven closed with a foul, as did Ramsey, and Maggie had a national shot title to add to her already jam-packed trophy case.

The discus, however, was not yet finished. My phone buzzed again… “Finley 65.77m”…and again… ”Mattis 66.00m”.

Denard bolted over there to catch the end of it, but I wanted to get interviews with some of the putters, so I headed downstairs to the mixed zone, still content that I’d made the correct decision.

It was fun seeing Ramsey hit what may turn out to be a career-changing throw. It was fun seeing Raven blast through the ring even if she didn’t quite catch one. It was fun seeing the defending Olympic champion compete. It was fun seeing Maggie display what may be the smoothest rotational technique that I’ve ever seen.

But, as I stepped into the chaos of the mixed zone, there went my phone again.

“Finley 67.06m.”

“Nice,” I thought, “Mason gets the win.”

Ah, but the madness continued.

“Jagers 68.61m.”

Reggie’s throw was a facility record, the best toss ever by a left-hander, and…I missed it.

Had I the time, I may well have punched myself in the face. Fortunately,  the putters chose that moment to start filing into the room.

I’ve interviewed Michelle Carter before, and she has always been super nice. This time was no different as she spoke about the reason she is in less-than-top form, her optimism regarding next season,  and her upcoming marriage. You can view that interview here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6Jfww4ryA4

This was the first time I’ve spoken with Jessica Ramsey, but not, I suspect, the last. Here are her thoughts on a breakthrough performance:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q4zNAWBFDCo

This was my second interview of the weekend with Maggie, and my ipad mini locked up during both due to a lack of storage. So, good job me. She is as articulate as she is talented, though, so I think you’ll enjoy the portion of the interview that I was able to record.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kRSf1AY-6EY

The discus throwers came through the room next,  and I grabbed Mason. I’d last spoken to him when he was a college senior, and a lot has happened in the intervening years. Here are his thoughts on a hellacious discus competition and his recent ascent to the top ranks of the event:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OgwOP8OxvLo

Getting an interview with Reggie was not so simple. I missed him in the mixed zone, so I caught up with him out on the infield. He was happy to talk, but that’s when I realized my mini (not a euphemism)  had locked up. Long story short, I ended up using Reggie’s phone to tape an interview with him.

Throughout the weekend, my traveling companions had taken turns helping me overcome my ineptness with technology, so I began referring to them as my “tech team.” I am proud to report that the 2018 USATF champion, the man with the farthest left-handed discus throw in history, is now a member of that team.

Reggie, thanks for your patience and welcome aboard.

You can watch that interview here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iWPOK4MeZa8

 

Interviews from Day 3 of the 2018 USATF Championships

Day three of the USATF Championships featured three throwing events…running concurrently.

Men’s javelin began at 2:10, women’s hammer at 2:20, and men’s shot at 2:45.

The setup at Drake allows for a great simultaneous view of the hammer and javelin, but the men’s shot was inside the stadium and out of view from the long throws area.

So what was a fella to do?

I planted myself in a great spot overlooking the javelin runway and the hammer cage, and kept nervously looking at my phone for shot updates.

When Ryan Crouser, Joe Kovacs, and Darrell Hill are throwing the shot, the  possibilities are…well….distracting if you are trying to concentrate on what promised to be (and turned out to be) an epic women’s hammer competition while also trying to puzzle out who would rise to the top in a javelin field lacking a clear favorite.

A jarring note occurred during hammer warm-ups when Amanda Bingson bounced a throw off the cage and appeared to try to catch the implement as it ricocheted back at her. The ball ended up smacking her on the toe and knocking her out of the competition.

Those who remained (American record holder Deanna Price, previous American record holder Gwen Berry, outstanding collegiates Janeah Stewart and Brooke Andersen among them) struggled to find their rhythm over the first three rounds in spite of superb weather courtesy of Mother Nature and  superb running commentary provided by javelin champ Kara Winger.

This was not my first rodeo, so I knew that great throwers sometimes take a few rounds to find their mojo.  In 2014, I left after round four of the women’s discus at the European Championships. Sandra Perkovic was safely in the lead with a 69-meter throw and I was worried about missing a train.

Imagine my chagrin when I checked my phone on the bus ride to the train station and saw that Sandra had just broken the 70-meter barrier for the first time.

I knew something like that might happen in the finals of the women’s hammer, but…Crouser….Kovacs…Hill?

You can guess the rest of the story. I was in the stadium watching a really odd men’s shot competition when I got the text from my friend Roger Einbecker who stayed back to watch the women’s hammer final that Deanna had thrown 78.12m to set a new American record.

Here  is Deanna sharing some thoughts afterwards:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuhNwR5VxPY

I also had a really nice talk with Gwen Berry, who was not at all discouraged by what had to be a disappointing day (she finished second with 72.99m, well below her PR). Gwen has recently made an adjustment to her technique and is very confident that she’s ready for some more big throws this summer. Here is my chat with Gwen:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LS_dmJy-UkY

It was chaotic in the interview room with several events ending within minutes of each other, but I made sure to grab Joe Kovacs, one because he’s a great guy and fun to talk with, and two because he seems to have struggled to find his best form this year and I wanted to find out what was up with that.  I think you’ll find his comments insightful.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wI93Vf_MZhA

I’ve known Curtis Jensen for several years. He was a teammate of one of my former throwers (I’m a high school coach) at Illinois State University, and it was obvious way back then that he was a very gifted young man. It’s tough to break into the top three in the shot in this country, even tougher when trying to figure out how to squeeze training into a schedule that already includes one full time and one part time job. But Curt has endured and plugged away over the years. He’s absorbed some blows, but like Rocky Balboa he just keeps answering the bell and his 20.87m effort in round six yesterday put him on the podium for the first time at a national meet. Curt is always a great interview. See for yourself:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8swvFi2w3o

Darrell Hill, the 2018 USATF shot put champion, is a mountain of a man and not easy to miss in an interview room, but I still managed to do it. Like I said, it was pretty crazy in there.

Anyway, congrats to Darrell and I hope to catch up with him soon.

I did not miss defending Olympic Champion Ryan Crouser.

The press release  put out prior to Saturday’s events strongly implied that when Ryan entered the ring the crowd should get ready to maybe see a world record. It referred to a recent foul measured at 75’5 1/2″.

I’m not gonna lie, in the days leading up to this meet I was thinking the same thing. That’s why I was unable to stick it out at the women’s hammer.  How many years of therapy would I have had to undergo had Ryan dropped a big one and I missed it?

But he really, really struggled on this day, finishing second with a 20.99m mark on his only measured throw.

I give Ryan a lot of credit for talking to me and a couple of other writers in that media room afterwards. He was very discouraged by his performance, and I think probably embarrassed after failing to live up to the standard he set where 22-meters has become a pedestrian distance for him.

I did not film Ryan’s comments, because it felt like it would have been rude to stick a camera in his face when he was hurting like that.

But he answered all my questions. No, he’s not injured. His hand is a bit sore, but not unusually so. He’s just in a rut that he fell into a couple of weeks ago when he lost the feel of his technique, and the experience has him feeling a little lost. He compared the adjustments he’s made to his technique to plugging holes in a leaky dam. You get one hole plugged and a leak pops up somewhere else.

He is going to try to take a week off before heading to Europe for some Diamond League meets.

It  is not  uncommon in this sport to have moments where you inexplicably lose your feel and can’t find a way to get it back, and that can be a frustrating and sometimes frightening experience. Hopefully, young throwers can find comfort in the knowledge that even the very best, the Olympic record holder, the man with more 22-meter throws than anyone in history, can go through the same thing.

Thanks again, Ryan, for talking when I know all you wanted to do was get the heck out of there.

Women’s shot and men’s disc today, once again run concurrently. I’ll do my best to manage the chaos and get some interesting interviews.