Category Archives: Interviews

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

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

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

Coach, what were the accommodations like in Rio?

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

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

Did you lift at the naval base?

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

What was it like getting around?

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

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

Did the streets feel safe?

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

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

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

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

Are you planning on adjusting her  diet?

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

How would the push jerks specifically help her?

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

How did Gwen look leading up to the Games?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So you were positioned to manage that potentially difficult situation.

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

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

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

That was quite a day!

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

Will Gwen keep throwing?

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

Then, a funny thing happened in round five.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How strong is Whitney right now?

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

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

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

So, the throw is set up differently?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How long will you be in Rio?

Two and half weeks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Whitney like during competition?

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

So you guys have a nice system.

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

Now she is very comfortable with that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

The Mental Toughness of DeAnna Price

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Discus Technique of NCAA Champion Kelsey Card

 

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

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

Here’s Dave:

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And here is our conversation:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

A Q&A with Eric Werskey

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This fall, Cal State University Northridge appointed the fine American shot putter Eric Werskey as assistant track coach in charge of the throws.

Recently, Eric was kind enough to answer a few questions regarding his coaching mentors and the CSUN program.  We also touched on his inside knowledge of the German throwing community courtesy of his relationship with the outstanding hammer thrower Kathrin Klaas, and a very timely video he appeared in this summer alongside Klaas, Robert Harting, and Julia Fischer.

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Congrats on your new job at CSUN! First of all, can you tell me how this came about? Did you have a master plan of transitioning into coaching or did this opportunity sort of pop up?

 Coaching at the collegiate level has been a career goal of mine once I saw myself “retiring” from sport.  When training for the 2012 Olympic Trials in my hometown, I would volunteer coach at local high schools.  With the development I had under Jerry Clayton at Auburn University plus my volunteer experiences, I knew I wanted to develop student-athletes at the collegiate level.  However, after the USA Trials, Art Venegas reached out to me about training at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California. It was a no-brainer decision to pack my bags and move to Chula Vista.  I spent three years learning Art’s system as well as training among some of the best throwers in the USA and world (Joe Kovacs, Whitney Ashley, Tia Brooks, Jessica Cosby, and many others).  I learned an invaluable amount training among these athletes and wanted to begin to share my experiences and develop athletes myself.  After the 2015 season’s completion, I discussed several options with Jerry and Art and we all decided it was best to pursue my coaching career.

I knew a head coach would be taking a risk on me considering I had no collegiate coaching experience.  With that said, I want to thank California State University Northridge head coach Avery Anderson and his staff for bringing me on board! I am very excited and looking forward to the opportunities here. Cal State Northridge has a tradition of throws dating back to the late 1970’s and our goal is to bring the throws program back into the light again.

Are you going to continue training and competing?

Currently, my focus is on the kids and getting the program heading in the right direction.  I still lift and do some drills with the kids, yet my focus is on the student-athletes.

Can you give me one thing that you learned from Art and one thing from Jerry that you have applied to your coaching so far?

It is very hard to pick one thing specifically that Coach Clayton and Art left me with as they both taught me an invaluable amount. Coach Clayton laid the foundation and helped spark my interest in becoming a coach. He would have a systematic approach to each event and taught us to really take ownership of our training and pay attention to our bodies. Art helped further my interest in coaching. He advocated believing in the system you are in and taught me to seek the finest details that ultimately build the bigger picture.

Can you tell me something about CSUN? What is it about the place that would be attractive to a prospective recruit?

CSUN is definitely a great place to be. The school itself is very modern with solid facilities. Plus, us being in Southern California and suburban Los Angeles, we are able to train year round. For a “smaller school” (though CSUN has over 35 thousand students) we are not shy when it comes to our competitive schedule. In the past the team would travel to the NYC Armory, Texas Relays, and the UCSD Triton Invite to name a few. We believe to contend for championships we have to give our student-athletes the best opportunities to compete among the best in the country on a regular basis.  Also, for throwing training, we actually have our own field designated for throws only. It’s a great set up and allows us to get great training in with minimal distractions.

Have your experiences in Germany and knowledge of the German system influenced your ideas about coaching?

Absolutely! I have been fortunate enough to spend the last two summers in Germany. I have learned a lot from my girlfriend, Kathrin Klaas,..

Leichtathletik-WM 2011 in Daegu

…and how she structures her training and what  cues she feels and looks for her in her throwing. I’ve been able to discuss many ideas with her and adopt some of her drills and cues into my own training plan. I have been lucky enough to watch her prepare for the 2014 European Championships and World Championships at their federal training center in Kienbaum as well. In Kienbaum, I was able to watch the best German throwing athletes train and gather some good ideas. Also, I spent many days discussing training ideas with German Federal hammer and javelin Coach Helge Zöllkau. I was given some incredible insight into his program and how he approaches training with his club athletes and elite level athletes.

 One last topic. You made a vid this summer with Kathrin, German discus champion Julia Fischer, and Robert Harting. That vid seems pretty timely after the release of the recent  WADA report. Can you describe how that vid came about and share your thoughts about the current situation with the IAAF?

The video was created when the first articles were released over the summer stating the IAAF had been sweeping positive tests under the rug and accepting bribes from GOBs to protect certain athletes. Not only is it ethically wrong, but the integrity of our sport to the highest level has come in question. The video is to show that athletes are tired of battling the cheaters of our sport and, now, the governing body.

The video came about actually during a training camp in Kienbaum. The leaked articles were being discussed during breakfast and Robert and Julia asked Kathrin and I if we would be in support of and be part of making this video. We spent the next two days between training times creating the video and reaching out to people who had been affected by doping. We created the hashtag #HITIAAF (honesty, integrity and transparency) to help create awareness about how we as a whole are not only battling cheaters in our events, but also the IAAF. The video went on YouTube on a Sunday afternoon and by Tuesday we had over 80 thousand views, I believe. If you have not seen it yet, here is the link:

In light of the new findings of bribery and doping scandals, this video definitely drives home what we we stand for… Honesty, Integrity and Transparency #HITIAAF.

 

Werskey takes over at Cal State Northridge

 

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Determined to develop a top-notch throwing program, Cal State Northridge recently announced the hiring of former Auburn shot put all-American Eric Werskey as their new throws coach.

In hiring Werskey, Matador head coach Avery Anderson acted on the advice of two of the most highly regarded throws coaches in the United States–Jerry Clayton and Art Venegas.

 

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Clayton (pictured above) currently the head man at the University of Michigan, coached Eric at Auburn, where young Werskey first exhibited coach-like tendencies.

 

Clayton explained that, “When throwers get to their junior and senior years I try to get them to help coach the younger athletes because teaching technique helps them to have a better understanding of it themselves. Eric was always good at explaining things to the younger throwers.”

After Werskey graduated from Auburn, Clayton encouraged him to take up residency at the Chula Vista Training Center so he could work with Art Venegas and “be exposed to a different coaching philosophy.”

That turned out to be a great move for Eric. Though he struggled with injuries during his two years at Chula Vista (notice the bandaged calf in the photo below) …

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…he received what amounted to an intense seminar in the art of coaching like Art.

That would be Art Venegas, the man who in the 1980’s and 1990’s built UCLA into the dominant throwing program in the nation.

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Don’t let that smile fool you, folks. Art is an extremely intense, passionate man. A reliable source told me that when shot put World Champion Joe Kovacs (like Eric a resident of the training center and pupil of Venegas the past two years) had trouble finding his timing while warming up at the Triton Invitational last summer, Art’s sage advice to him was. “Relax, mother——!!”

Let it be noted that Kovacs responded by launching a 24-meter warm-up throw.

Anyway, if you want to gain Art’s respect you’d better work your butt off and show your own passion and respect for the sport of throwing, and that is exactly what Eric did upon arrival in Chula Vista.

“I knew,” explained Venegas, “right from the first year he was here that some day he would make a great coach. I spotted that potential in him right off the bat.”

That’s a meaningful statement coming from the man who readied Dave Dumble, Brian Blutreich, Don Babbitt and John Frazier to join the coaching ranks.

“If any of my athletes asks, I will tell them straight up if they are meant to be a coach. When Don Babbitt was throwing the javelin for me, I told him ‘you are wasting your time as a thrower! You were born to be a coach!'”

Art’s responsibilities sometimes keep him away from the training center for several days at a time, and he says that he came to rely on Eric as an unofficial assistant. Eric did so well and became so passionate about coaching that Art occasionally felt like telling him, “Stop coaching, dammit! You’re still a thrower!” But, before long  he decided that “I wanted him to coach with me here when his throwing career ended, but there was no position available.”

Art began his own coaching career at Cal State Northridge back in the 1970’s  (making the whopping sum of $800 per year) and when they called him this spring to ask his advice on hiring a throws coach, he did not hesitate in recommending Werskey.

According to Art, “Eric is a great match for Northridge. He is extremely dedicated and reliable, and Cal State is the ideal place for him to develop as a coach. He will deal with a lot of different levels of athletes there. They have great facilities. And California is a great place to recruit. He could have a long career there.”

When asked what advice he gave Eric as he prepared to take on the CSUN job, Venegas said that he told Werskey to “treat everyone equally and bring everyone into the program. I challenged him that if there is a kid who is reluctant to buy in, to reach out to him and get him on board. And once you develop those kind of relationships with the kids, recruiting will be easy because the athletes will sell your program.”

It is rare for someone with no formal coaching experience to be given a shot (pun intended) at a place like Northridge, but it is hard to fault Coach Anderson for taking a shot (sorry, could not resist) on Eric. A fine thrower. A fine man. A fine pedigree.

And if Coach Anderson should, at some point this winter, wake up in the middle of the night wondering if he made the right decision…well, I know what Art Venegas would tell him.

“Relax, mother——!! The kid is going to do great!”

Next up: a Q & A with Eric.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A smooth transition at SIU

One complicating factor for any athlete trying to choose a college is the question of whether or not the coaches who recruit him or her will remain at that school for the ensuing four years.

In football, that is extremely unlikely.  A typical DI player will have two or three position coaches during  their career. Many endure the upheaval that comes with a head coaching change.

The funny thing about football is that many players don’t mind losing their coach (the recent upheaval at the University of Illinois is a prime example)  as the greed and thuggishness which permeate DI football tend to prevent players from bonding with  staff.

It is different in track, though.  I’ve spoken to many DI track coaches over the years, and they all seem to have entered the profession for the same reasons as us high school coaches: love of the sport and love of the kids.

Ironically, the nature of the sport and the deep bonds that often form between coaches and athletes can make a coaching change in track and field all the more traumatic.

Take the recent decision by John Smith, the throws coach at Southern Illinois University, and his wife Connie, the head coach at SIU, to accept similar positions at Ole Miss.

For John, that meant facing the idea of leaving behind NCAA shot champion Raven Saunders, NCAA Hammer champion DeAnna Price, and NCAA 4thplace finisher in the shot Josh Freeman. (It turned out that Saunders was able to follow the Smiths to Ole Miss, but SEC rules prohibited Price and Freeman from transferring as they are down to their final year of eligibitliy.)

Luckily for all parties involved, the Smiths (both SIU alums) were determined not to leave the program in a shambles.

I spoke with John this summer, and he emphasized that while the Ole Miss offer came out of the blue, he had for some time been preparing his former All-American hammer and weight thrower JC Lambert to take over as SIU throws meister.

According to Smith, “JC has, for the last three years, been serving his apprenticeship. There have been times that he has been mad at me because I made him write his own workouts (note: Since graduating from SIU in 2013, Lambert has continued to train with Smith) but now he understands. I have full confidence in him.”

I contacted JC after he was officially named to succeed Smith, and he concurred with John’s description of his apprenticeship.

Via email, Lambert stated that “Coach Smith has been sculpting me for this moment for a long time.  After having a very good freshman year (2008-2009), I become very interested in how his program worked. I always asked questions about his training and why he did certain things. Coach would make a prediction on what would happen in my training down the road, and was always right about it. Whenever it did happen, I was very shocked and impressed by how accurate his predictions were. The one prediction he made that I will never forget: He told me after my first week of training that my best event was going to be the shot put. For those who don’t know, I threw the 12lb shot a whopping 46 feet in high school. After he made that comment, I thought ‘this old man is nuts.’But, after six months of training, I threw the 16lb over 50 feet and eventually 52 feet at the end of my freshman year. The next year I progressed to 58’10” and had a foul at 61 feet. But an unfortunate wrist injury took me out of the event to where I couldn’t train it at all. I really believe I would’ve been a 20.50m guy. After realizing the accuracy of the comment he made, I began to understand why he was one of the best coaches in the country.”

“By my Junior year, he would quiz me on training. He would ask me what I would do if I was in his position and why. I began to answer questions correctly and he was impressed. He began to have enough trust in me to write my own training. I would write it up and show him. He would examine it and express his opinion on what he would do different.”

“Also during my Junior year, Coach Smith had enough confidence in me that he allowed me to start helping out with coaching the younger athletes. This is the point where I started to really like and understand coaching.”

“My senior and redshirt senior year was when I gained the most knowledge. I finally learned how to put together a complete program. Not just for myself, but for others. Coach Smith came up to me and asked me to help put together the lifting and throwing for the 2013 outdoor season. We sat down and began to put the training together. He asked me how I would start the season and I began to explain what I would do for the weight room and the throwing. He kept writing down everything I would say and I would continue to explain up until it was peak week for Conference. He looked at the finished product and said ‘Looks like a winner.'”

“And we had a great result at our conference meet. We scored a total of 71 points in the 3 throwing events on the men’s side and 47 points with a young group of female throwers in a tough conference. I learned a lot from that experience and will always be thankful that coach had enough confidence to allow me to help put that together.”

“My two years as a post collegiate athlete, he allowed to design my training and experiment with different ideas I had. This is the point where I learned how to be creative and not so afraid to think outside of the box with training.”

“Being a volunteer assistant coach, he gave me several responsibilities. He allowed me to coach the hammer/weight throwers at practice and some meets. I also got to run several lifting sessions and throwing practices if Coach was either sick or out of town.”

After all that preparation, Smith has high expectations for his successor.

“I watched JC coach every day and he is better than 95% of all coaches right now. In the end, he will be a better coach than me. Since he is young, he has the advantage of being able to get in a ring and show kids and be in the weight room with them. That’s what I did at Ohio State with Dan Taylor. When you are older, you have to beat people with experience and treachery because I can’t jump in the ring and show people any more like I used to.”

“But honestly, he has done most of the work with Deanna, and he has done a lot of work with a lot of our kids.  When he threw in practice, I’d watch him and coach him, and when he was done throwing he coached  the hammer and I coached the other events.”

“After we accepted the Ole Miss offer, the first thing Connie and I told the SIU administration was they have to keep JC if they wanted to keep the throwing program strong. He is the only one who knows how to do what I do. When I was in Canada this summer (coaching DeAnna at the Pan Am Games) he ran my throwing camp, and I had parents email me telling me how great the camp was and I wasn’t even there.”

“Deanna should repeat as NCAA champion next year, and has a chance to break the NCAA record. If not, I will hold JC responsible.”

Lambert seems energized by the challenge, and agrees that DeAnna could have a monster year.

“I want to build off of her spectacular Junior year, where she only had 5-6 months of hammer training due to a bad knee injury. She just has an outdoor season, so we will have the privilege to focus more towards hammer. She will throw the weight indoors at a few competitions. We use the weight as an indicator for her hammer.  But we will be building up her specific strength with heavy throwing and hammer related core work. We will continue to slowly fix her technique and keep working on what she learned last year. In the weight room, I want to bring her power up another level and make that level consistent. She’s already one of the strongest females in the nation, but continuing to grow her power while having her learn to transition it to more hammer strength will be another step towards getting a female hammer thrower on the podium at an international event. My ultimate goal for her this year is to have a repeat win at NCAA’s, break the overall NCAA record, go to the Olympic trials and finish top 3, and go to the Olympics and make the finals. I also for see her having a good year in shot put. This past year she had a few fouls at the end of the season that were over 17m. I would like for her to throw at least 18m in shot put and have a great finish at NCAA nationals.”

Not to be forgotten is Josh Freeman, who had a huge PR on his final throw at this year’s NCAA outdoor meet.

“For Josh, we’ve been working on some technical issues in shot. So far, it has paid off with great results especially while in base training. We will keep working and attacking the heavy implements, but really trying to learn to stretch out the light shots. Learning how to throw far, with mid-to-light shots, in base training is very important in my opinion. It gives you a look into how the future will play out. Everyone can throw far when you feel good, but learning how to throw far when your body is slow and sore will pay off big when it comes time to peak. Especially as an experienced athlete. In the weight room, his squats have become more powerful, which has resulted in more explosive legs. His bench has been climbing up, as well as his cleans. Ultimately, I want to get him to 21m this next season and to win 2 national titles. Also, I want to have him ready to make the finals at the Olympic trials and see how well he can fight for a spot against the professionals.”

For his part, Smith is excited about what lies ahead at Ole Miss.

“We had certain training demands, and they granted all of them. For example, I run the weight room workouts and they will give me one or two strength coaches to assist me. I had a long talk with the strength coach and he is fine with it. When I am training kids, what they are doing on the throwing field dictates what we do in the weight room. I often adjust their lifting based on how they throw in practice. A strength coach doesn’t see that, and one of the biggest reasons why we have done a good job peaking is that I control all aspects of training.”

“Also, it is the SEC. Connie will have a lot more help, including a director of operations. They are building a new track which will be done next May. They have a temporary throwing field four or five miles away. But all I need is a piece of concrete until they get the other facility done. At SIU, we felt like we had done about everything we could do. Connie was looking for a new challenge and I go where she goes.”

“And there is no hostility there between us and SIU. It was a good breakup. We built the program and want to make sure it stays intact.”

It sounds like anointing JC Lambert as his successor was a key step in ensuring that it does.

 

 

 

A quick chat with Art Venegas after Joe’s big win

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Art Venegas, coach of freshly-crowned shot put World Champion Joe Kovacs, graciously answered a few questions following Joe’s win.

How did you help Joe get ready for the epic scale of a meet like the World Championships?
It has been a gradual learning curve with the championships  always as the goal
How did you approach the qualifying round? Do you warm up the same as the final? Do you hold anything back? 
The Q round is the most important part of the meet. I have a series of preparatory phases during practice that simulate the arduous challenges World Championship qualification  presents that allows for a better chance to get to the final. We don’t hold back, but we try to not foul and keep our technical model in mind
Could you share what you were thinking during the final? It took Joe a while to get rolling. What did you say to him when he came to the rail between throws?
The final is the end of a throwing Marathon that started at 6 AM and finished at 9 PM with intense waiting periods both on and off the track. My job is to determine where the athlete is at and ask some specific questions. If the answer matches my observations, I try to make simple adjustments with usually one cue to focus on. After that, I watch the activity  of the athlete on the apron between throws and see if they are in need of rest or some drills to prepare the next throw
 As you know, making the leap from fine college thrower to world champion is not easy. What allowed Joe to do it?

Joe is an exceptional student and a long-term thinker and planner, added to his great talent and drive. I have felt since I met him that he had greatness in his future, and having been blessed with some great throwers in the past I felt that he had the intangibles that help create champions

 

 

Team Sophia plays the Long Game

Last month, I had the pleasure of attending the USATF World Youth Trials in Lisle, Illinois and watching sixteen-year-old Sophia Rivera win the shot put and javelin competitions.

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Afterwards, I had a nice chat with Sophia. You can find a transcript of that interview here:

https://throwholics.com/2015/07/q-a-with-sophia-rivera-at-the-world-youth-trials-wvideo/

One thing that became clear as I spoke to Sophia was that her parents (Edwin Rivera and Michelle Hessemer) and her coach (Ron Eichaker) were taking a measured approach in developing Sophia’s athletic talents. They understood that Sophia was in the beginning phase of what will likely be a long career as a thrower, and they were determined not to sacrifice her long term potential in the interest of short-term gains.

In order to get a deeper understanding of the philosophy behind Sophia’s training, I contacted Ron Eichaker.

It turns out that Ron is a man of wide-ranging interests and experiences, many of which have contributed to his determination to play the Long Game with Sophia.

Ron grew up on north side of Chicago where he attended an Orthodox Jewish Day School in his early years.  When he graduated from Niles North High School in 1974, he held the school records in the shot put, discus and triple jump. In his spare time, he high jumped and ran the hurdles. His discus PB of 174’11” remains the school record.

When not on the track, Ron pursued what would become another lifelong passion: music. He sang in and around the Chicago area in Jewish choirs and as a solo performer beginning at the age of seven.

Somehow, Ron also found time to master the javelin, an event that was not even contested in Illinois High Schools.

Ron first picked up the jav during the summer between his freshman and sophomore years after seeing a college thrower chucking it around. As Wikipedia (affectionately known to us English teachers as “Satan’s Site”) had not yet been invented, Ron researched the javelin in the World Book Encyclopedia and “saw its historic connection to early civilization and found that the sport tied in perfectly with my affinity with ancient history and religion. It didn’t hurt that I had a pretty above average throwing arm anyway. And I also had a dance background in childhood.”

While in high school, Ron joined the University of Chicago Track Club, then in its heyday, which availed him the opportunity to rub elbows with some pretty beefy dudes. Brian Oldfield, Rick Bilder, George Tyms, Jesse Stuart, Al Feuerbach and “many other pretty good throwers” all competed at UCTC at that time.  He also met Bill Skinner, who helped him learn to throw the jav well enough that he hit 227’9″ in the spring of his senior year and received a scholarship to Northern Illinois University, where he was likely the only member of the Music Education department ever to hit the Olympic qualifying standard in the javelin.  Ron made the NCAA meet in 1975 but, unfortunately “threw way beyond my physical capabilities, and got injured.”

After rehab, Ron came back to throw his senior year and finished second in the MAC Championships before heading off to New York City to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Following his ordination in 1982, Ron focused his considerable energies on his congregation (first in Milwaukee, and since 2000 as Cantor of the United Hebrew Congregation in Chesterfield, Missouri) and his family (he and his wife Heidi have raised two daughters).  During that time, Ron occasionally consulted with local college coaches, and even broke out the jav boots when administering motivational programs “for children and teens about how to realize goals and go after them.” But he never worked directly with athletes, and had to mothball the spear for good after rupturing his left Achilles tendon during a throwing exhibition in 1999. For a decade thereafter, Ron’s primary connection with the world of athletics came through helping his younger daughter, Lindsay, develop into a fine softball pitcher.

Meanwhile, a New Jersey fourth-grader named Sophia Rivera was raising eyebrows by throwing the mini-jav farther than most boys in her area. When the Rivera family relocated to Missouri as Sophia entered the sixth grade, they were eager to find a coach who could mentor their rocket-armed daughter. Luckily, Sophia’s mother Michelle Hassemer worked with a member of Ron’s congregation. That coworker knew of Ron’s secret past as a spearman and recommended that Michelle contact him.

Initially, Ron was reluctant to take on the responsibility of coaching Sophia. He was completely devoted to his 1,100 family congregation, and to his own family.  He agreed to meet with Michelle and Edwin however, and during a two-hour lunch at a local restaurant outlined the conditions under which he would consider mentoring Sophia.

As Ron remembers it, he told them that they needed to ” trust my vision as results will not happen for a few years.  Throwing and javelin in particular is to be developed over many years of training with progression determined by careful, incremental physical development, genetic predisposition, level of concern (mental maturity and training) and family support.”

Michelle recalls that first encounter with Ron this way:

“What I remember most about our first meeting with Ron was his passion/philosophy that excelling in sport is so much bigger than the podium.  He introduced us to a few concepts that resonated with our parenting style and approach but had never really been put into words.   These concepts have endured throughout the course of Sophia’s development.”

One of those concepts was that  “It’s not about being the best twelve or thirteen-year-old in the nation.”

Michelle explains:

“At first blush, this may seem contrary to the goals of a family whose child/children are involved in AAU or USATF summer/club track and field.  I mean, of course you want to get to Nationals and be on top of that podium, right?  Well if it happens then that’s great.  But what really matters is establishing a technical foundation in the chosen event/event family.  Being fanatic – and I mean OBSESSIVELY FANATIC about technique is fundamental.  For example, Sophia worked on perfecting the release for a year or more before starting the glide (shot put), spin (disc) or approach (javelin).    This also means not pushing a young athlete into an overly-rigorous strength training regimen too quickly.  The first step was to work on overall athleticism (hence the multiple sports–Sophia plays softball and basketball in addition to track) and core strength. Med Balls… lots of Med Ball work!  This helped Sophia create a solid core and develop specific strength for the throws.  And again – technique is the focus!  The goal is to really prepare the body for the rigors of throwing and training; particularly javelin throwing which is really hard on young backs, elbows, shoulders, hips and knees.”

Another important concept articulated by Ron was “Don’t chase a number.”

Again, Michelle explains:

“During a competition the focus is on one or two technical areas.  Early on, Ron would tell us what one or two things Sophia should focus on during a competition. At first it was/ could be anything from foot position to a relaxed left arm.  Then it progressed to more of a discussion with Ron and Sophia, and her dad and I would remind her.  Now it’s a chat over breakfast or before she checks in and we ask her what she’s going to focus on.  By focusing on the technique and one or two items, she’s learned to make corrections on her own and sort of ‘self-coach’ her way through a competition.  This also means that achieving technical goals is more important than distance.  So a good meet isn’t measured by place on the podium or whether she throws a PR – but on whether she hit her technical goals.  Did she hit her marks in the discus circle?  Is that left leg staying low in the drive?  Was her javelin approach fluid and did she accelerate throughout?  If those technical goals are achieved the distances will take care of themselves.”

After agreeing to coach Sophia, Ron asked her parents to sign her up at a local training facility called HammerBodies. Ron met with the staff there and created a routine to “develop Sophia’s core and solidify her balance and stability in a non-resistive and natural fashion.”

Translation: Tons of medball throws, as Michelle mentioned earlier.

Only in the past year has Sophia been exposed to Olympic style weight lifting, and that only in the form of technique work with a 45-pound bar.

This fall, after five years of preparation, Sophia will begin adding weight to the bar.

In terms of teaching throwing technique, Ron describes himself as having “a Euro/Far Eastern philosophy…stressing the fine points of the throws from the release working backwards to the load phases of each throw. The Far Eastern approach employs ultra slow movements similar to tai chi, only using aspects of the throws to enhance an awareness of each muscle group firing in their proper sequence.”

Mentally,  Ron has sought to develop Sophia “like a young musician…a young artist who will grow with her art as her mind matures along with her techniques. My goal has been to help Sophia understand her body so that as her technique advances she is able to incorporate and advance her techniques in a balanced fashion. As a voice major at NIU, my professors told me that I should not be overdeveloped as my body and my voice were still maturing. I would not hit my vocal peak util my mid-thirties, so I should be patient and persistent and learn to absorb and adapt healthy additions to a solid vocal foundation to be able to develop in a time frame dictated by my body and not by either my mind or the perceptions of others. As this related to Sophia, the more technique at an early age the more to address as the body grows.  Every year she has been dealing with a new body and a new center of gravity.  More technical elements just means more to adjust and, unfortunately, many coaches adjust by just adding more technique.  Like a machine that is constantly upgraded with new components.  Pretty soon the original engine is indistinguishable, so when something breaks it becomes more difficult to identify the source of the breakage and then provide a remedy without causing an imbalance elsewhere, hence another break.  She fully understands and accepts that her maturity as a thrower will not occur until her mid to late 20’s and in order to maximize her potential, she will have to continue to lay micronic strata of layers to her already established base techniques.”

Thus far, Team Sophia’s emphasis on the Long Game has worked well. Earlier this week, she finished second in the shot and eighth in the javelin at the World Youth Championships. She has attracted much interest from college track programs.

More importantly, she has built a solid technical base from which to launch a long and productive career.

 

 

 

Chicagoland Throws Meet – Saturday Interviews

Here is Dan’s interview with Gia Lewis-Smallwood after throwing a season’s best 64.01M.

 

Here is Kaylee Antil, recent HS graduate who will be joining Dave Dumble’s throws squad at Arizona State in the Fall.

 

Here are the exceptional Davis brothers, Carlos and Khalil who are heading for Nebraska this Fall as football and track athletes.

 

Here is Michael Marsack, who came to be known as PR Mike by the meet announcer as he repeatedly set new PRs during the competition.

 

Here is Riley Dolezal who came into the meet looking for the “A” standard in the jav.

 

Here is Dani Bunch, a recent graduate of Purdue and converted from a glider to a rotational shot putter.