When I was in high school during the 1970’s, Oak Lawn (in the south suburbs of Chicago) had a powerhouse throwing program under Coach George Dunn.
I’ve never forgotten my first look at the Oak Lawn throwers. It came during an indoor meet my freshman year. I was six feet tall and weighed 150 pounds. Approximately ten of that was hair.
My PR was in the neighborhood of twenty-four feet. I wanted desperately to hit thirty feet one day, but at the time that seemed like a long way to throw a twelve-pound shot put.
Imagine my astonishment, then, when one of the Oak Lawn varsity kids (I believe his name was John Marks) bombed one out past the sixty-foot line.
That was the beginning of a long run of great putters at Oak Lawn, and also the beginning of my fascination with the German approach to throwing.
You see, Coach Dunn had somehow struck up a friendship with an East German throwing coach whose name was…Peter Tscheine. I think.
Aided by his German friend, Coach Dunn taught his putters a German-style short/long glide. I remember that one of the Oak Lawn throwers, Mike Lehmann, looked in terms of throwing technique exactly like the East German Hartmut Briesenick. Mike, by the way, ended up competing internationally and throwing over twenty-one meters.
Anyway, this German connection intrigued me and when I became a throwing coach in the early 1990’s, I tried to learn as much as possible about the German style of throwing.
Unfortunately, my sources of information were quite limited.
My first year of coaching, I brought several of my guys to Oak Lawn to have Coach Dunn take a look at them, but shortly thereafter he retired to Florida, partly I suspect because he was tired of me bombarding him with questions.
In the mid-1990’s, I met current Southern Illinois University throws coach John Smith at a big coaches clinic put on by Marty Schnorf at Eastern Illinois University. Coach Smith helped me toward what I think is a pretty good understanding of the German short/long glide, and has been a helpful advisor ever since.
Around that same time, a colleague of mine in the English department at Wheaton North High School hosted a visitor from Germany–a sixteen-year-old girl who competed in the shot and disc for her local track club.
She practiced with us for the couple of weeks that she was in town, and it was really interesting to study her glide technique–a superfast fixed feet short/long.
I didn’t learn much about the discus from her though, as she was struggling with her technique to the point where she caged most of her throws. I did, however, pick up a few German cuss words.
Also around this time, I did the smartest thing I’ve ever done and married my wife.
Before I met her, I had no one to make me laugh all the time or to rub my hair while I fell asleep on the couch at 7:30 each night.
Nor had I ever been to Europe.
But that changed quickly, as Alice (my wife) had and has a brother who lives in southern Germany and a sister who lives in Berlin. The brother, Larry, lives very close to the site of a throwers only meet called Weltklasse am Rhein that used to be held each summer near the Swiss/German border.
The final edition of this meet was held in 2001, and I attended it along with my friends and fellow throws coaches Shawn Schleizer and Jim Aikens.
At that meet, we enjoyed a nice conversation with the fine South African discus thrower Franz Kruger and his coach. The coach (his name escapes me) told us that he used a German technical model when training Franz, and gave us his email address in case we wanted to ask him more questions.
I sure as heck did, but for whatever reason we could not get in touch with him after we had returned home, so my search for a German discus mentor continued.
Meanwhile, the Germans dominated international competition.
…gave way to Lars Riedel…
…who gave way to Robert Harting.
By my count, the German men and women discus throwers have won 27 medals at Olympic Games and World Championships since 1987.
Americans have won 3.
I know, I know. There are a lot of reasons for this. For one, there is no NFL in Germany so 6’6″ guys who run like deer are more likely to take up discus throwing as a career.
But there is no NFL for women, and…27-3? Doesn’t that make you wonder?
It sure made me wonder.
Finally, two years ago my sister-in-law Gay (the one who lives in Berlin) found Jurgen Schult’s email address for me. I had met him briefly at the Weltklasse am Rhein, and he seemed like a friendly guy so I figured I’d see if I could strike up an acquaintance with him and maybe get some insight into German throwing.
It turns out he is a very nice guy, and he replied right away to my email. Unfortunately, he said that he didn’t think there was such a thing as a “German” discus technique. Every thrower has to find their own style.
(It is hard to argue with that, but…27-3?)
Even more unfortunately, Jurgen said that it was not possible to have an intelligent conversation about technique via email, especially with the language barrier. He grew up in the East, and before the wall came down they did not hear much English.
So, that was that.
My lovely wife and I hopped across the pond last August to visit Larry, and I got a chance to attend the European Championships in Zurich.
In a previous post I described my stalking of Harting’s coach at the German hotel in Zurich. Due to my panther-like quickness, he could not avoid me.
His name is Torsten Schmidt…
…and he competed for Germany in the Athens Olympics.
He is 39 years old and grew up in the DDR.
At the age of twelve, Torsten and his schoolmates were tested for athletic potential and because he was tall and explosive he was sent to a sports school in Rostock.
His career lasted until 2007, and in 2009 he became a coach in the German national system.
He has worked with young German standouts such as 2013 World Youth shot put champion Patrick Muller, and the Prufer brothers, Henning and Clemens.
Currently, Torsten trains Robert Harting, Cristoph Harting, and Julia Fischer in Berlin.
And that is where I sat down with him last Wednesday for a chat about German discus throwing.