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