Sandra Perkovic is not here for funny

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…who reached 61.13m in qualification…

…Claudine Vita…

….who hit 59.18m, and Nadine Müller…

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

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

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

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

But advance she did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how it came about.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which she proceeded to whang into the cage.

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

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

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

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

Here are the happy medalists:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I asked her if it was possible that having a delayed start to her season had helped her throw well in Berlin by keeping her fresh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His friend spoke up.

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

With that they strode off in search of Sandra.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

A sweaty and glorious night in Berlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hence the noise. Hence the madness.

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

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

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

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

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

Then, things got a little nutty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humid air. No wind. Enclosed stadium.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The moment did not last.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did he study?

”Sports, of course!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not so simple, this qualification business

 

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

Some made qualification look easy.

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

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

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

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

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

For some, though, it was not so simple.

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

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

Afterwards, he seemed perplexed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just one of those days?

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

 

 

 

 

Deutschland über alles

Call it “heaven” or “nirvana” or “Iowa.”

Call it what you want, but if you are a fan of the shot put, what took place in the shadow of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in the heart of Berlin today was pretty close to perfect.

Especially when you consider that this spot, known as Breitscheidplatz, was the site of a terrorist attack in the winter of 2016. Typical of such incidents, the attack was meant to destroy Breitscheidplatz as a thriving public place (the attacker struck during a popular Christmas market).

Part of the German response to that effort was to wedge a world class shot put competition into the narrow confines of the Platz.

 

They built a wooden platform approximately four feet high, covered it with turf, erected some temporary bleachers, and invited people to come and watch for free.

And come they did.  The atmosphere (and I mean this as a compliment) reminded me of a high school football game on a warm September evening in a small town in the United States. People cheered and chanted and dressed in semi-ridiculous outfits. An entire section wore matching red hats and lime green t-shirts.

There was an endearingly lame pep band. There was recorded music (everything from Michael Jacksons’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” which elicited a 19.54m toss from Luxembourg’s Bob Bertemes, to Billy Squier’s “Slowly Stroke Me” which greeted Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Kemal Mesic as he walked into the ring for his third throw sitting on two fouls. He went 18.70m and missed the final).

There were large video screens. The one that I was facing showed a slo-mo replay of every…single…throw.

There was drama. In round three, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Mesud Pezer dropped one right at the automatic qualifying line of 20.40m only to have his effort nullified as a foul. He protested, and as the officials discussed the matter, the crowd was treated to several slo-motion replays of the throw, which caused them to boo lustily when it appeared that Pezer had commited no obvious infraction. It seems that he was called for the phantom right heel on the toeboard on his reverse, similar to what happened to Joe Kovacs in last year’s World Championships. This time, however, reason prevailed and the call was overturned. Pezer’s throw turned out to be 20.16m, enough to secure him a spot in the final.

There was big time homerism. Homegrown favorite David Storl received an ovation for warming up (two fixed-feet glides, one around 19.00m and another around 20.60m), for being introduced, and for hitting an automatic qualifier of 20.63m on his first attempt (he reversed on that one).

As round two ended for Storl’s group, the competition was briefly halted while the MC for the night interviewed David.

I ‘m not sure that was totally fair to those in the field who were still hoping to hit a qualifying mark, but the crowd loved it.

And that’s the thing. The crowd was active and happy and alive throughout the entire competition. How often can you say that about any track and field preliminary?

One thrower who thrived on the atmosphere was Nick Scarvelis, representing Greece.

”Qualifying situations are almost always in an empty stadium at nine in the morning on the opposite side of the track from some empty stands,” he told me after making it through to Wednesday’s final with a season best of 20.20m. “So I ‘d like to see more of this type of thing.”

I was curious as to where the throwers took most of their warmup attempts, as they seemed to be allowed only two on site. Had they warmed up at the Olympic Stadium practice facility before traveling to the Platz?

“No,” Nick explained. “We warmed up at another practice track. They actually put a ring in the middle of a park inside of a university. There was like a three-hundred-year-old column next to the shot put ring. But it was still a twenty-minute drive away, so it wasn’t exactly ideal.  A lot of guys were complaining, but I didn’t mind. The music. The atmosphere. Throwing in the shadow of the church. I loved It.”

Two others who prospered were Craoatia’s Stipe Zürich, the bronze medalist in last year’s World Championships, and Poland’s Michael Haratyk, the silver medalist from the 2016 European Championships in Amersterdam. Each surpassed the automatic qualifying mark on his first attempt, and they are the two most likely to give Storl some trouble as he strives to notch his fourth European Championships title.

The final will take place inside the Olympic Stadium on Tuesday night, and though there might well be 50,000 fans going nuts for Storl, I don’t know if the atmosphere there or anywhere else can match what the Germans created tonight.

At one point during the competition, the bells of the Kaiser Wilhelm Church rang out.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Xl4Zpe74t6c

I won’t say they were heralding a German shot put renaissance, a return of David Storl to his top form. There was something more to that sound. A little defiance maybe, and a lot of joy over thousands of people coming together on a warm Berlin night to…well…to have fun.

 

 

 

 

 

David Storl is ready to rumble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McQ: Are you more confident using your old technique?

David: Yes.

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

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

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

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

McQ: How long have you known Wilko?

David: I know him since 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilko: Yes, it was.

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

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

McQ: And it worked well?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McQ: In America, it is pretty much gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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