A chat with shot putter Bobby Grace

 

Bobby Grace raised a few eyebrows (mine included) when he bombed a 20.51m toss out of the first flight of the US Championship men’s shot on Sunday.

As soon as the competition ended (Bobby’s throw held up for 8th place) I set about tracking him down. It turns out that Bobby, a graduate of Youngstown State,  is both a fine shot putter and a very articulate young man. The following is an interview I conducted with him yesterday via email.

Thanks for agreeing to an interview. Let’s jump in. As someone who coaches throwers, I want to personally thank you for providing a left-handed role model! I’ve been coaching for 25 years, and I can tell you that excellent lefty throwers are a rare commodity. Do you ever feel self-conscious being the only left-handed thrower at meets? And was learning technique from (I assume) right-handed coaches while watching film of right-handed throwers difficult?

Thanks Dan, I appreciate that. No, I’m never self-conscious going to meets being a left-handed thrower. To be honest, until the end of my collegiate career I didn’t realize that I was the only lefty in finals most of the time. As far as coaching goes, I’ve always been coached exactly as a right-handed thrower. My coach in high school would give me technical advice as a righty; and I had to learn to translate that to lefty. So now I just hear everything right-handed and it processes lefty. As far as video I’m the same way. I actually prefer to watch right handed throwers and break down technique. It feels more natural at this point to translate righty to lefty.

The German discus coach Torsten Schmidt told me that it is important to have your throwers take regular left-handed throws because they have to really think about what they are doing, and this helps ingrain their technique. I wonder if the process of translating everything righty to lefty has had a beneficial effect on your technique?

I would agree with that most definitely. I think that all of the constant translation from right to left has given me a good mental picture of what my technique should feel like. I also think that has helped me to self-diagnose technical issues on a day-to-day basis so that I can keep focusing on big picture issues that I am trying to work on.

I am a throws obsessive, but to be honest when I saw your 20.51m pop up on the flash results page, my first thought was “Who in the bleep is that?”  Can you tell us a bit about where you came from, how you got into the sport, how you ended up at Youngstown?

I’m assuming most people thought the same thing you did. I’m originally from Cleveland, Ohio and I started throwing in 8th grade. I was very much a late bloomer physically and finished with a best of 57ft in high school. I had a few smaller schools recruiting me out of high school but I knew I wanted to compete against the best. I chose Youngstown State which was my biggest offer at that point. I lucked into getting three great coaches (Brian Sklenar, Willie Danzer for all of my programming and Brent Shelby for all of my technical work).

Can you tell us about your progression while at Youngstown?

Freshman: 15.85 (52 ft)

Sophomore: 16.90 (55 ft)

Junior: 18.84 (62)

Redshirt: 19.31 (63 5)

Senior: 19.90 (65 5)

So senior year rolls along, and 19.90m is a great throw. But in this country, you’ve got to get to 21.00m to have any hope of making the National team for a Worlds or Olympics. What was it that convinced you to stay in the sport and take your shot? (sorry for the lousy pun)

The decision to stick with throwing after I graduated was relatively easy for me. Aside from figuring out obvious money/living situations, I knew I was going to throw. I’ve always known that my progression would be a long-term process. I just need to keep working hard and that takes time. I also have an extremely supportive family and coaches that encourage me to chase my dream.

Can you describe your current situation? Where you live, how you support yourself, where and with whom you train?

I currently still train at YSU. I work part time at a consulting company to help pay some of my living expenses. I typically throw by myself or with a few of the collegiate guys and work with my coach Brian Sklenar on an everyday basis. Periodically I will go to Ashland and throw with Kurt Roberts which has been a huge help this year as well.

Can you tell me about the cues you use for your entry? For example, when do you want your left foot to leave the ground? Some would say “as soon as possible.” Others try to leave it down to create a stretch in the groin/hip area. What is your approach? (Note: Bobby graciously agreed to send me a recent vid of one of his throws. The following pics are stills from that vid.)

photo (53)
I usually don’t have to think of much out of the back.  That is easily the most natural part of the throw for me.  Occasionally if my legs are tired and I am moving somewhat sluggish I may think about activating my left foot toward the middle more.  But to answer your question about any cues I use for entry, most of my issues out of the back are upper body.  I think about keeping my right arm passive out of the back and keeping my shoulders level through the entire throw. 

How about here? Can you tell us about your left leg sweep? And at what point do you try to get your right foot out of the back? Sorry to press you on all these details, but the people who read these interviews like to know how the sausage is made. 

photo (54)

No problem at all. So this part of the throw is one of the bigger issues I concentrate on.  As you can see in the picture, my left foot is somewhat high off of the ground. I am constantly working on trying to keep both of my feet as close to the ground as possible so that I can get that left foot down in the middle and start turning through the ball.  My hip level usually goes hand in hand with how high my feet are off the ground. Basically, when I get tall through the throw good things don’t happen.  When I can keep my hip level down and work my feet the throw lines up.  

As far as thinking about getting my right foot out of the back, I never think of both getting the right foot out and the left foot sweeping at the same time.  Depending on how a particular day is going I will think of one or the other, for me that is just too many things/issues to try and work on during one throw. 

Absolutely. But is there a cue that you use, like…there is that big yellow house out beyond your landing area. Do you ever think something like, “I want my right foot off the ground while my chest is facing the yellow house”?

No I don’t really have any cues that work off of landmarks.  Mostly all by feel so that I can self correct and feel what I am doing through the throw. Typically, I find that if my right leg is hanging in the back too long, it is a result of my left leg not being active enough from the start. So, my cue for getting my right leg out of the back would then work backwards and become “OK, I need to be more active with my left leg” and I would work through that particular issue that way. 

Almost done! Looks like you are in great shape here. Your feet are down and you are wrapped. What’s next?

photo (56)

So here I would like to be a little more upright in the shoulders and also give myself a bit wider of a base with my feet. The finish is the area of the throw where I feel I have the most to work on. I still have a pretty big pull away with my right shoulder and my block could get substantially longer.  If I can consistently correct those issues at the finish and stay longer on the ball, I will be a much more consistent 20.50+m thrower. 

So you feel like you have pulled away a little prematurely here?  And you anticipated one of my final questions. What do you have to do to get to the level that Jordan Clarke just reached? Also, what does the rest of the summer look like?

 

photo (57)
Yes, this throw is one of my better ones with the pull-away but could definitely keep getting better, and is very visible in the picture. 

One of the major things I need to do to reach that 21+m level is get bigger. I’m currently about 265 lbs and need to get that closer to 285-295 lb range, which will help a lot of things. As far as technique goes, I am planning to concentrate on all of the key points I told you about so far, along with getting more throws under my belt. The more special strength I can accumulate, the better. I am not sure what the rest of the summer holds for me. As of now I believe I am an alternate for NACAC and Pan Ams. Currently, nothing is set in stone in terms of scheduling.

You can find the vid of Bobby’s training throw here:

 

A Question for Bolt

With the Adidas Grand Prix Diamond League Meeting in New York taking place on Saturday, June 13, Friday the 12th was a day for last minute arrivals and for loosening up at Icahn Stadium on Randall’s Island.

The morning began with a press conference that featured some fine, engaging  athletes (the great vaulterJenn Suhr, the 800-meter world-record holder David Rudisha) but no throwers.

I still attended, however, because the final athlete scheduled to make an appearance was none other than Usain Bolt.

He seemed tired as he ambled his way across the room and up to the podium…

bolt

…but I’m not gonna lie, it was exciting to be in the same room as him.

When I lived in New York in the 1980’s, Al Pacino appeared in a play on Broadway. I went to see it, and I still remember how jacked I was when he walked on stage. I kept thinking, “That’s Al Pacino up there! Al Pacino. Right there!”

It was the same way with Bolt.

The British guy that they brought in to announce the meet ran the press conference, and he started by asking Bolt a bunch of questions. I had a hard time listening because I knew at some point they would open it up for others to ask questions, and I was trying like heck to come up with a decent one.

I know nothing about sprinting. I’m a throws guy, so to me sprinters  are just a bunch of skinny people who love drama.

A few years ago, I was covering the USA Championships in Des Moines, and I happened to be in the mixed area when one of the marquis sprint races ended and they brought the winner in to be interviewed. “Get me a chair!” he commanded. “I’m not talking without a chair.”

This was ridiculous behavior for two reasons. One, there were chairs all over the place and all he had to do was reach for one or to ask nicely and about twelve people would have offered him theirs. Two, he had just run a total of 200 meters. Or maybe 100, I can’t remember exactly which race it was. But seriously, he was that exhausted that he couldn’t stand up? I was in the media room again at that same meet when Ashton Eaton came in after competing in the decathlon for God’s sake and he stood there and happily answered about a thousand questions. But then again, for three tenths of each competition, Eaton is a thrower.

Jumpers, too, can get distracted by their own awesomeness. The New York press conference was meant to feature a very prominent jumper, but she arrived late and stood in the back of the room with her gaze focused firmly on her cell phone, acknowledging no one.

Like Eaton, though, Bolt has not a hint of the diva about him. He graciously answered the British guy’s questions, and laughed when asked what it was like to have to constantly pose for selfies. “Sometimes, they don’t even know how to take one!” he marveled. Reese Hoffa told me later that he had seen Bolt patiently oblige his fans, shaking hands and posing for pics long after his race had ended, not wanting anyone to leave disappointed.

When the moderator invited us to ask Bolt some questions, my hand shot up.

“Has your weight lifting routine changed at all as you’ve gotten older?”

It was the best I could do. Like I said, I know nothing about sprinting.

“Not really,” he replied. “I work a lot on my back and hamstrings.”

He answered tons more questions after that, and when the moderator finally cut everybody off we applauded politely if a bit perfunctorily.

Bolt leaned into the mic. “By the way, that was lame applause.”

Everybody laughed, delighted with his ability to make fun of his own celebrity.

And when he walked out of there, he left with at least one new fan.

 

More US Championships throws predictions

How about that final round in the women’s shot?

And who is Jessica Ramsey?

This person.

Ramsey

Who is this person, and how many of you had heard of her before she opened with 18.42m last night?

Turns out she is a Western Kentucky grad who now trains with John Smith in Carbondale. After the competition, John described her as “dynamite in a box.”

I guess.

And watch out for her in Saturday’s hammer competition. She threw 69.47m in May and she’s got the SIU mojo going for her.

Speaking of which, I’m a little embarrassed that I picked Raven Saunders to qualify in the shot and not Jeneva Stevens.  Raven is a sensational young thrower, but in hindsight I should have realized that it was going to take nearly 19 meters to make the top three and she is not quite ready for that yet.

Jeneva, on the other hand, had the physical maturity and the big meet experience to trade punches with that very, very formidable field of putters.

Ah well, live and learn.

And congrats to Jeneva, who may very well make the team in the hammer as well.

One more thought regarding the women’s shot.  The top two finishers were gliders: Michelle Carter and Tia Brooks. Jeneva, the third place finisher, is a spinner who used to be a glider and still glides on every other practice throw. Could it be that the key to succeeding in major shot competitions is either to glide or to make your spin as glider-like as possible?

More on that at another time.

Right now, here are our picks for the remaining throwing events.

Women’s Javelin (“A” standard = 61 meters)

No need to equivocate here. Two throwers will qualify for Beijing.

Kara Winger…

kara

…who made it quite clear earlier in the season that she had finally recovered from major knee surgery thank you very much by tossing 66.47m on May 2nd.

Kara will be joined by Brittany Borman…

bormann

…who hit a season best 64.75m, also in May.

To quote Forest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.”

Women’s Hammer (“A” standard = 70 meters)

The contenders:

Amber Campbell…

amber

…a two-time USATF champion who has the best throw by an American this year, 72.81m.

Amanda Bingson…

bingson

…the defending USATF champion who has thrown 70.94m this season.

The John Smith Crew…

DeAnna Price…

price

…the freshly crowned NCAA champion with a PR of 71.49m…

Jeneva Stevens…

js

…who qualified in the shot put last night and has hit 72.69m this season.

You can find an interview I did a couple of weeks ago with Jeneva here: https://throwholics.com/2015/06/q-a-with-jeneva-stevens-prior-the-usa-championships/

…and, the aforementioned Jessica Ramsey.

Another potential contender is Britney Henry…

britney henry

…a veteran who broke 71 meters this year (71.08m to be exact) for the first time since 2010.

Who goes to Beijing?

Campbell: In what will likely be a very close competition, experience will see her through.

Bingson:  American record holder. Two time defending national champion. She has not thrown any bombs this year. Actually, she has not thrown much this year at all. Our guess is that, like Michelle Carter in the shot, she is picking her spots.

Stevens: After that performance in the shot, how can we bet against her?

 

Women’s Disc (“A” standard = 61 meters)

There are four legit contenders for three spots here.

Whitney Ashley…

whitney ashley

…who has thrown 64.80m this year. That throw came in Claremont, California, but over the years she has shown that she can consistently break 60 meters in stadiums.

Shelbi Vaughan…

shelbi

…the NCAA champion with a PB of 64.52m.

Liz Podominick…

liz 2

…who hit 63.87m earlier this year (although again at Claremont) and has finished in the top 3 at the last two US Championships.

You can read a recent interview I did with Liz here: https://throwholics.com/2015/06/q-a-with-liz-podominick-at-new-york-diamond-league-meeting/

Gia Lewis-Smallwood…

gia 2

…one of the most successful American discus throwers ever. She has thrown 69 meters and defeated Sandra Perkovic twice in the past two years.

Who goes to Beijing?

Gia: She has struggled this season. An infection in the index finger of her throwing hand has held her back. But, like Michelle Carter, she  is the dominant American in her event until proven otherwise.

Ashley: She will very likely throw 60 meters in this meet, and that will be enough. Also, Trofimuk and I saw her come out of nowhere to win the NCAA title in Des Moines. And we…have not…forgotten.

Vaughan: Has dominated at the collegiate and junior level. Last year, she threw 63.60m in Lexington, Kentucky. This year, she threw 64.52m in Starkville, Mississippi.  We are not saying that they don’t have wind in those places, but it is refreshing to see an American whose PR was not set in California.

 

Men’s Shot (“A” standard = 20.45m…but really, who cares? You will have to go nearly a meter beyond that to make the US team)

All the contenders should take turns treating Reese Hoffa to dinner, because by winning last year’s Diamond League shot title he earned an automatic spot in Beijing, thus opening a place for three additional US putters.

The Contenders:

Too many to talk about.

Who (besides Reese) goes to Beijing?

Joe Kovacs…

joe

…who, for the first time since Adam Nelson in 2000, has  made 22-meter throws look pedestrian.

Jordan Clarke…

clarke

…who has thrown 21 meters in each of his two Diamond League appearances. Great under pressure. Coach Dave Dumble once described him as “having it between the ears.” Translation: he does not choke. Plus, Trofimuk and I saw him win two NCAA titles in Des Moines, so we are big fans.

You can read an interview I recently conducted with Jordan here: https://throwholics.com/2015/06/q-a-with-jordan-clarke-at-new-york-diamond-league-meeting/

Ryan Whiting…

whiting

…who, by his standards, is not having a great year. However, his standards are too high for most mere mortals. He will throw 21 meters and make the team.

Here’s hoping for an action-packed weekend of throws!

 

Predictions for the USA Championships

Coach Trofimuk and I finally had a chance to sit down and ponder on this day before the USA Championships begin. Day One features several throwing events. Let’s get at it.

Men’s Javelin (“A” standard = 82 meters)

The contenders:

Tim Glover (the dude on the left)

DSC_0086

He has the best throw by an American this year: 84.09m.

He and Sean Furey…

furey

…are the only two throwers who have hit the standard. Sean has thrown 82.59m.

However, Riley Dolezal (the dude on the right)

DSC_0086

 

…may be the most consistent American jav thrower at the moment. At the New York Diamond League meet, he threw 80 meters on four of six throws in a stadium with a less than ideal javelin wind.

Oregon’s Sam Crouser…

 

 

sam 2

 

…just won the NCAA title in his home stadium (where the USA Championships will be contested) with a respectable toss of 79.19m.

Who is going to Beijing?

Glover: He already has the A standard.

Furey: He also has the A standard.

Dolezal: He has the hot hand. We predict that he will win and achieve the A standard in the process.

 

Men’s Hammer (“A” standard = 76 meters)

The contenders:

Michael Lihrman…

lihrman

…who is coming off a heart-breaking performance at the NCAA meet in which he fouled his first two throws and then did not make the final. Lihrman has yet to reach the A standard.

Kibwe Johnson…

kibwe

…who is currently two centimeters under the A standard.

AG Kruger…

kruger

…who has been national champion about a billion times and has the A standard.

Conor McCullough…

mccullough

…who has thrown in excess of 75 meters two meets in a row and has the A standard. He threw 76.91m at the NCAA championships and has recently transitioned from Irish to American.

Who is going to Beijing?

McCullough: He has the standard and is on fi-yah! Plus, he has the natural awesomeness of the Irish on his side.

Kruger: He is very, very old, but he has the standard, and in this competition that will mean a lot.  Plus, the hammer will be held early enough in the day that he won’t have to DVR that night’s Matlock rerun. This eliminates a major potential distraction.

Men’s Discus (“A” standard = 65 meters)

Three throwers currently have the standard.

Jared Schuurmans…

jared

…who is currently the US leader (66.10m) but that throw came at Claremont College in California, a notoriously friendly place to throw.

Chase Madison…

chase

…who hit 65.42m in a meet at Augustana College which featured an epic discus wind. His next best throw was 61.58m May 2nd at the University of Iowa.

And Rodney Brown…

rodney

 

…who was my pick to win the NCAA title and made me look really, really bad by finishing 9th.

Who is going to Beijing?

Honest answer? ZZzzzzzzz.

It is quite possible that Schuurmans, Madison, and Brown will all make the team because no one else will hit the standard. But what does that say about the status of the men’s discus in this country right now?

Women’s Shot (“A” standard = 17.75m)

This will be a war. There are currently thirteen American women over the standard, so if you want to make the team you will have to strap it up and  finish in the top three.

Here are the contenders:

Michelle Carter…

carter

…the American record holder who has tons of big meet experience. Also, she is a large, powerful glider and if you don’t recognize what an advantage that is in a tough shot put competition, you have not been paying attention.

Tia Brooks…

tia

…another veteran powerhouse glider.

 

Felisha Johnson…

felicia

…also powerful, also a glider…

Jill Camarena-Williams…

jill cam

…a former World Championship medalist making a comeback from time off to have a child…

Brittany Smith…

smith.

…who threw 19.01m indoors and has been accruing valuable international experience during the outdoor season…

And Raven Saunders…

raven

 

…the precocious NCAA champion and Junior Record holder.

And don’t forget about Jeneva Stevens, Tori Bliss, Dani Winters and  Dani Bunch.

Enough equivocating, here are our picks:

Carter (a consistent dominator, and we saw her throw the American record in Des Moines so we love her)

Smith ( has been throwing well on the DL circuit, and was Trof’s college teammate so we love her)

(We could not agree on the third spot, and since I would likely lose any sort of fist fight, tickle fight or wrestling match, we have made separate choices)

Trof:

Camarena-Williams (she is a veteran and Trof loves the spin)

McQ:

Saunders (I know, I know. She’s very young, but if you had John Smith–the Dark Master of Peaking–on your side I’d pick you too)

 

 

Two of my favorite women

The night before the night before the Adidas Grand Prix meet in New York I got to spend some time shooting the breeze with two of my favorite women.

One was my wife Alice.

Alice is the kind of person who, about eight years ago, decided she wanted to publish a book. Many of us pointed out that one does not just “decide to publish a book.” The book-publishing industry generally has something to say about whose books get published and whose don’t, and that industry had already entered the precipitous decline that continues to this day.

Alice chose to ignore our sage advice, and within two years of declaring her intention, Simon and Schuster commissioned her to write a book. Which they then published.

And her adventures with magical thinking continue. Today, Father’s Day, she ran out to the store ostensibly to purchase a grill (a good, manly Father’s Day gift if there ever was one) and instead returned home with a magenta-colored bicycle. For herself.

photo (52)

She figured that it would make me happy to see her happily pedaling around on that bike, and once again she was correct.

The other person I got to shoot the breeze with was the fine American discus thrower Gia Lewis-Smallwood.

2011 IAAF World Outdoor Championships

Gia is as friendly a person as you will ever meet, and like my wife an ardent practitioner of magical thinking.

As evidence, I will offer up Gia’s year-by-year progression as listed on her IAAF profile page.

Gia graduated from the University of Illinois in 2001 with a PB of 57.76m.

Eight years and three coaches later, she finally broke 60 meters for the first time.

Compare that with Sandra Perkovic who became Olympic champion (with a throw of 69.11m at the London Games) a few weeks after her twenty-second birthday.

By the age of 33, Gia had bumped her PB up to a respectable 63.97m, but that throw came in Hawaii and hardly served as an indicator that she was ready to compete with the big gals in the big stadiums in Europe–which is what you have to do to be considered a legit world-class thrower.

Bottom line, approaching her mid-thirties, Gia had no concrete evidence that delaying entry into the “real world” in order to continue as a full-time thrower was in any way a good idea.

But continue she did, and in September of 2013 she threw 66.29m to hand Perkovic her only defeat of the season.

By July of 2014, Gia had thrown over 65 meters in European stadiums on four occasions, a feat that prompted me to post an article arguing that she was the greatest American female discus thrower ever. Here is that post:

http://mcthrows.com/?p=530

Then, last August, Gia made me look like I sort of knew what I was talking about when she obliterated the American record not on the wind-swept coasts of California or Hawaii, but in a stadium in France. Her throw of 69.17m established her as a legitimate threat to medal in Beijing and Rio.

Take that, oh ye of little faith!

Anyway, it was fun to get my two favorite magical thinkers together, and we talked about all kinds of things. Rome (Gia had just competed there and found it to be awfully crowded and dirty, my wife had visited during college and remembered having to hold hands with another woman to discourage men from harassing them on the streets)…step-parenting (Gia has a 23-year-old stepson, my wife had two boys when we got married)…farming (Gia lives on a farm in western Illinois, my wife’s mother owns a farm in Nebraska)…finances (my wife’s book was about managing money, Gia talked about the challenge of managing  money as a professional athlete.)

Every once in a while I snuck in a question about throwing. Gia’s best performance of the year so far was a 62.99m toss in Rome, and she explained that an infection in the index finger of her right hand (a very important appendage to a right-handed discus thrower) had limited her training earlier in the season, but that the finger was feeling much better and she was confident that she would soon regain her top form.

My wife actually asked an interesting question regarding throwing. Which thrower did Gia most admire?

It terms of straight up awesomeness, the answer was Virgilius Alekna, the two-time Olympic gold medalist from Lithuania.

But Gia also has great affection for the Estonian thrower Gerd Kanter, the gold medalist at the Beijing games. Kanter, it turns out, is a humble guy and very generous in sharing the many lessons he has learned over his long career.

A piece of advice that stuck with Gia was that the prelim rounds in major competitions can be harder than the finals, and that she shouldn’t lose confidence if she doesn’t get off a big throw in the prelims. Just get through the qualification rounds and you’ll be able to relax in the finals.

That is advice that Gia hopes to put to good use this August in Beijing.

photo (51)

That’s Gia on the left. I think the guy might be Brad Pitt.

 

Behind every great woman…

edis and sandra

 

There is a large man handling the baggage. Literally and figuratively.

After a pleasant chat with Moscow discus silver medalist Melina Robert-Michon in the lobby of the Hyatt Grand Central, I turned around and ran into the gold medalist from that meet and from the London Olympics, Sandra Perkovic.

There is not a more dominant athlete on the planet right now than Sandra. Unlike the elite sprinters who for some reason get all the attention in track and field, she will show up anywhere, anytime, take on anybody, and more often than not  smash them.

One thing I’ve noticed in talking to a couple of the dominant throwers of the past few years, and in observing Usain Bolt over the weekend in New York (more on that later) is that the effort required to stay on top can be exhausting.

The first time I spoke to Valeri Adams was at the New York Diamond League meet in 2010 when she was twenty-five years old, and the strain of the incessant travel and competition was already apparent. Granted, Val was going through some personal and professional upheavals at the time, but it sure didn’t seem like she was enjoying being the greatest shot putter in the world.

I interviewed  her in New York again last year, just after she had nailed down her 50th consecutive victory making her arguably the greatest putter ever. She was polite, as always, but there was no sense of celebration about the milestone she had just achieved.  On the brink of turning thirty and nursing a bad shoulder which would require off-season surgery, she seemed to look forward to a not-too-distant retirement.

When I talked with Robert Harting in New York last year, he too seemed to be looking forward to the end after several years of dominating his event. And that was before he injured his knee. I had a chance to watch him practice this past March, as he fought to regain his form following surgery on that knee and he literally seethed his way through the training session. He looked pissed off while stretching, while throwing, while retrieving his discs, while packing up his stuff.  I initially took up a spot along a fence that ran behind the cage, but I was so intimidated by him that I finally hopped the fence just to have some kind of barrier between us.

But I don’t blame him for being upset. It must suck to feel mortal when you are used to being…well, a hell of a lot better than mortal. When you’ve entered the ring needing a PR on your final throw at the World Championships and nailed that PR in front of 60,000 fans, when you’ve won the Olympics and another World Championship on days when you didn’t have your best stuff, when you’ve always been able to conjure up the strength, will, savvy or whatever you needed on a particular day to gain a victory…it has to be very disconcerting to think that you might not ever be able to do that again.

Sandra, queen of the women’s discus for the past four years, seems, in contrast, still to be enjoying her reign. And I think the main reason for that was standing a few feet away as she checked in at the Hyatt.

Wrangling a small mountain of luggage was her boyfriend/coach, former NCAA shot put champion Edis Elkasevic.

Edis is a very large, very good-natured man and, I think. the perfect buffer between Sandra and the demons that can beset an elite athlete. I’ve seen Sandra compete three times since Edis became her coach, and it is really fun to watch them interact.

John Smith has said that the job of a coach during a competition is to “keep the train from going off the rails.” Edis does this masterfully.

He and Sandra confer after every  throw, and though I do not speak Croatian, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen him goad her, encourage her, give her technical advice, whatever it takes.

Clearly, Sandra derives great comfort from Edis’ presence, and I suspect that it is largely due to their relationship that she has not yet been done in by the stress of travelling the world while taking on all comers.

I went over to say hello to Edis, and to inquire how Sandra was feeling coming into the New York meet. “Good! Good!” he replied in his usual jovial manner. “She had a small injury but now everything is good. Her timing is better. With the 1k disc, timing is everything!”

With that, he gathered up the baggage, excused himself, and joined Sandra for the walk across the large, chaotic lobby. Wherever they were headed, they’d go there together.

 

A Short Chat with Melina Robert-Michon at the Adidas Grand Prix meet 2015

This year’s New York stop on the Diamond League circuit featured the men’s javelin and shot put, along with the women’s discus. Accompanied by my wife Alice, a world class traveler and immensely patient woman, I headed to New York two days before the competition and took up residence in the lobby of the Hyatt Grand Central where the meet was headquartered.

My mission? Talk to some of the great throwers in town for the meet.

My method? Camp out in the hotel lounge overlooking the lobby and pounce on them like a panther from a tree when they least expected it.

My first victim…uh…new acquaintance? The fine French discus thrower Melina Robert -Michon, who made the mistake of lingering in the lobby after checking in.

melina rm

Melina was silver-medalist at the Moscow World Championships with a throw of 66.28m, which I believe is still her PB.

And she is really nice! I know in this country we love to disparage the French as a bunch of arrogant quiche-eaters, but Melina, in spite of having just gotten off a trans-Atlantic flight could not have been more gracious.

She talked about what a crazy week it had been with a competition June 4th in Rome where she threw 63.09m, another June 7th in Birmingham where she threw 63.23m, still another June 9th in France where she threw a season-best 65.04m, and now the New York meet on June 13.

For her to travel and compete that much in that short a time and still act happy to talk to some knucklehead reporter when she probably wanted nothing more than to head to her room and collapse…well…maybe all of us should start eating  quiche.

Melina lives and trains in Lyon, with the same coach she has had for fifteen years. She has a four-year-old daughter named Elyssa whom she misses terribly when traveling to competitions. She has a degree in sports management and hopes to compete for at least two more years. “I want to do Rio and maybe London because the 2012 Olympic games was my first competition after I was pregnant and there is another competition in London (the 2017 Worlds), so London to London…it would be nice.”

In terms of training, she does a lot of jumping, some squatting and snatching, and not a lot of bench pressing.How much can she snatch? “Not much. I don’t do a lot of exercises with a lot of weight. I do mostly exercises with low weights. Sometimes with squats I do 120 kilos, very slow going down and fast coming up.”

After a short chat, I wished Melina luck and of course requested a selfie, which came out blurry.

There must be something odd about the length of my arms because I suck at selfies. Here is an example of one I took a couple of days later, during the meet.

photo (50)

It was a perfectly sunny day! And yet, I am shrouded in shadow.

But, I digress. Meeting Melina was a great start to what turned out to be a fantastic weekend.

John Smith talks about SIU’s big day at the NCAA meet

Not a bad NCAA meet for the Southern Illinois throwers.

Josh Freeman, a junior, hit a PR of 20.15m on his final throw to jump from ninth place all the way to fourth.

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Another junior, hammer thrower DeAnna Price, surpassed the 70-meter line for the first time. Her winning throw of 71.49m set an NCAA Championship Meet record.

 

price 3

 

 

Freshman Raven Saunders nailed a PR on her final throw in the shot put. Her winning toss of 18.35m broke her own US Junior record in the event.

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I checked in with SIU throws coach John Smith a few days before the NCAA meet, and he assured me that his crew was ready to throw far.

How did he know?

It’s all in the numbers.

John uses overweight and underweight implements extensively when training his throwers, and he believes that there is a light “indicator ball” in the shot and hammer that, combined with their performance with a heavier implement and in the weight room, allows him to tell how far his athletes are physically ready to throw.

In the men’s shot, the indicator ball is the fifteen-pounder. A week before the NCAA’s, Josh Freeman threw the fifteen-pounder 67 feet in practice. His performance in Eugene:  66’1 ½”.

In the women’s hammer, the indicator ball weighs 3.5 kilos. Prior to her victory in Eugene, Deanna Price threw the 3.5k two-hundred and thirty-four feet.  Her 71.49m Championship record toss translates to 234’6”.

The indicator ball for women shot putters is the 8-pounder. Raven put that implement 61 feet in practice, then hit 60’2 ½” in Eugene.

John is the first to admit that there is a difference between being physically ready to throw a certain distance and then getting in the ring and actually throwing it at a big meet. “It’s like Mike Tyson said, everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face. Under pressure, the first thing that will go is technique. Strength is like a loyal dog. It’s always on your side. But technique is like a cat. Sometimes it will come when you call it, and sometimes it won’t.”

All three SIU throwers had a little trouble getting the cat to settle in their lap.

Freeman, for example, opened with 18.81m (which would not have qualified him for the final), pulled himself into medal contention with his next three efforts (19.30m, 19.42m, 19.46m), then fell back to 19.12m in round five before launching the big one.

“Josh was short-punching the ball, at first,” recalled Smith. “I kept yelling at him to get over the board.”

Price opened with 63.72m, which pretty much assured her a spot in the final, but struggled to relax even as she nailed a 67.33m toss in round 3. According to Smith, Price was “falling back into the ring on the 67.33m throw. I finally got her to laugh between the trials and finals. Then, when she got in there for her last throw with the world off her shoulders knowing she had won, she was able to relax and show what she had been doing in practice all week.”

Saunders, the NCAA Indoor champion who has made 18-meter throws look fairly routine, could manage no better than 17.39m going into the sixth round.  Smith: “Raven went back to her high school technique. She had a 16-meter warm-up throw with the 5k, then out of nowhere she started yanking her head.”

And how did he snap her out of it? “Connie told her to keep her damn head stil!”

“Connie,” is, of course, Connie Price Smith the SIU head coach and many time US shot put champion.

Next week, the SIU trio will head back to Eugene for the USA Championships. How will they fare?

According to Coach Smith, the numbers so far are looking pretty good.

Expect Big Throws this Weekend at the Adidas Grand Prix

While the kids are battling it out this weekend in Eugene, some of the best professional throwers in the world will be competing at the Adidas Grand Prix Diamond League Meet in New York.

Here is a preview of what promises to be a fantastic day of competition.

Men’s Javelin

It has been a long time since the United States developed a javelin thrower with the pop to medal at a Worlds or Olympic games, and the Adidas Grand Prix will feature three young Americans who hope to make that leap.

Riley Dolezal…

Riley

 

Sean Furey…

furey

 

and Tim Glover…

glover

 

…whose season best of 84.09m is the farthest throw by an American this year.

 

The goal for the Americans will be to show that they belong in a competition that also features 2013 World Champion Vitezslav Vesely of the Czech Republic…

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,,,,two-time World Championship medalist Guillermo Martinez of Cuba…

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…and one of the finest young throwers in the world, Thomas Rohler of Germany…

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…who threw a PB of 87.63m at the Zurich Diamond League meet last August.

 

Women’s Disc

Watching Olympic champion Sandra Perkovic throw the discus is alone worth the price of admission. Nobody competes with more passion than the Croatian Sensation, who is always a threat to break the 70-meter mark.

sandra

 

That is especially true when Sandra is going against stiff competition.

Included  in the field in New York will be the only woman to have defeated Perkovic over the past two years: Gia Lewis-Smallwood, a veteran American thrower who posted a huge 69.17m personal best last August.

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Looking to gain ground in her attempt to secure a third Olympic berth in 2016, the 2008 Olympic champion Stephanie Brown-Trafton will also be competing in New York.

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A young thrower just beginning to make some noise on the world scene is Cuba’s Yaimi Perez,…

perez

 

…who has posted a PB of 66.23m already this season, and whose presence could provide Perkovic with the spark she needs to blast some big throws.

 

Men’s Shot

An astonishingly successful group of Americans will provide the fireworks in this event.

Joe Kovacs has the farthest throw in the world this year (22.35m)…

joe

 

 

 

…while Christian Cantwell…

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…Ryan Whiting…

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…and Reese Hoffa…

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…are all former World Champions.

 

 

Toss in the young American Jordan Clarke (who finished second at the Rome DL meet)…

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…the fine New Zealander Tom Walsh (PB 21.37m)…

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…and O’Dayne Richards of Jamaica (PB 21.61m)…

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…and you have the makings of a sensational competition.

 

Throws fans, don’t miss this chance to see some of the best in the world! Sunday. Randall’s Island. The jav begins at 9:40am, the disc follows at 10:55am, and the shot caps off the throwing events at 1:45.

Oh, and I hear some fellow named Bolt will be running the 200.

 

 

NCAA Predictions: The Shot Put

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Pat Trofimuk is a large man with a sensitive side and an extensive knowledge of NCAA throwers. Pat competed at Illinois State University alongside NCAA javelin champ Tim Glover (who will be competing this weekend at the Adidas Grand Prix Diamond League meet in New York) and multiple NCAA medal winner Brittany Smith (who competed on Sunday in the Birmingham DL meet).

So when Pat talks, whether about choosing the proper stuffed animal or predicting NCAA throws winners, I listen.

I hope you will, too. This is the final part of our NCAA throws preview.

Women

Raven Saunders of Southern Illinois won the indoor meet with a titanic put of 18.62m.

raven

LSU’s Tori Bliss was a close second indoors with a nearly-as-titanic toss of 18.67m.

bliss

 

Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s Kelsey Card…

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…Kansas State’s Dani Winters…

winters

 

…Missouri’s Jill Rushin…

rushin

 

…and Kent State’s Danniel Thomas…

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…have all thrown 17.50m+ this outdoor season.

Not to be forgotten is Iowa State’s Christina Hillman…

hillman

 

…the defending champion who has a PB of 18.15m from the 2014 indoor campaign and has thrown 17.45m outdoors this year.

And the champion will be…

Raven has gone 18 meters twice outdoors, most recently an 18.12m toss at her conference meet.

Tori has hit 18 meters just once outside, but it was a big one: 18.49m at the LSU Invitational on May 2.

No one else has the horsepower right now to hang with those two.

This is a tough one for me because I am friends with Tori’s high school coach Mark Harsha of Portage, Indiana, but I also have great respect for Raven’s coach at SIU, John Smith.

Trof is going with Tori.

I’m putting my money on Raven as Smith is the Dark Genius of big meet preparation.

Wild Card: Hillman. She has had, for her, a mediocre outdoor season, but she has been through the wars and has the consistency of the glide technique on her side.

 

Men

It takes a world class shot putter to win the NCAA men’s title.

Need proof?

Defending outdoor champion Ryan Crouser of Texas (21.14m)…

CROUSER Ryan 13NCAA KL

 

…and indoor champ Stipe Zunic of Florida (21.11m)…

stipe euro

 

…are currently ranked 8th and 9th in the world.

Darrell Hill of Penn State (20.86m)…

hill

…ranks 15th.

A few centimeters behind Hill lurks Buffalo’s Jon Jones …

jones

…who hit 20.70m on April 2, and has gone 20.33m as recently as his conference meet.

Throw in Cornell’s Stephen Mozia and his 20.18m toss from April 18,..

mozia

 

…and you have yourself what could pass for a pretty good Diamond League field.

And the champion will be…

Hill is a brute. Fast. Strong. Technically sound. I would not be surprised to see him succeed on the international circuit a couple of years from now.

Jones is a monster as well. He hit that 20.70m throw in spite of training through a knee injury that has bothered him the entire year.

Mozia is fast! And really fun to watch.

Crouser is the  two-time defending champ who seems like he has been throwing at an elite level since he was about twelve. He is also incredibly powerful. Two years ago when he won his first title he had, I believe, one fair throw out of six. That was a “safety” throw that one of the other guys in the flight told me was the slowest, most deliberate spin he’d ever seen. The result? A toss of 20.31m to edge ASU’s Jordan Clarke for the win. So even if he is feeling messed up technically, Crouser can still use his immense talent to conjure up a big throw.

Unfortunately, that won’t be enough to beat Zunic. In a world class competition, Stipe has the most world class experience. He finished fourth at the European Outdoor Championships last August, and 6th at this year’s European Indoor Championships one week before defeating Crouser at the NCAA indoor meet.

That experience will get him through what looks to be an epic competition.

Wild Card: Virginia’s Filip Mihaljevic. Like Stipe, he has the eastern European  mojo going.