In June of 2012, my colleague Pat Trofimuk and I drove to Drake University in Des Moines to cover the NCAA Championships for the now-defunct Long and Strong Throwers Journal.The five-hour drive across the cornfields of Illinois and Iowa gave us the opportunity to examine the lineups for the various throwing events and to predict which would be the most hotly contested. One event that we agreed would offer very little in the way of drama was the women’s discus. Arizona State’s Anna Jelmini was the clear favorite, the only thrower in the field who had consistently thrown in the 58-60 meter range all season and certainly the only one likely to reach that distance under the pressure of an NCAA Championship final.
True, Anna had also been considered the favorite going into the previous year’s NCAA meet only to be denied when Northwestern Louisiana’s Tracey Rew nailed a three-meter PR to claim the title, but the odds of that kind of ridiculousness happening again seemed remote.
Once the competition began late on a humid Iowa afternoon, Anna did her part by hitting a 58.79m opener that, as far as I could tell, assured her of the win.
Then, a funny thing happened in round five.
As the evening progressed and the humidity dropped and a gentle breeze floated in, a young lady from San Diego State with two first names, a violent fixed-feet finish and the rather odd habit of carrying the discus next to her right hip as she turned out of the back of the ring stepped into the cage and deposited a throw just short of the 60-meter line.
The exact measurement was 59.99m, a four-meter PR.
That young lady’s name was Whitney Ashley,and that throw made her the NCAA champion. It also began a series of events that led to her qualifying for Rio by winning the Olympic Trials last weekend.
Whitney trains at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, and to get some insight into her improbable rise to the top of her sport, I spoke with her coach, Art Venegas. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
Coach, the first time I ever noticed Whitney was when she won the NCAA title in Des Moines in 2012. When did you first start working with her?
I was at Chula Vista while Whitney was at San Diego State, and her head coach had just hired a new throwing coach, the shot putter Dorian Scott, and she knew that Dorian had a lot of shot put background but needed help with the discus so she sent them over to me to get information and then Dorian worked with her off the stuff we were doing together. Her average was in the 180’s, and I was very interested in having her go to the training center, but the people in Indianapolis said unless she throws within two percent of the “B” standard–which was in the mid-190’s– she could not come no matter what you say. Interestingly enough, it was that one throw in Des Moines that got her over the “B” standard. Her next best throw was way under what she would have needed, so that throw in Des Moines had more implications than just “wow what a great moment!”
She started at the training center in the fall of 2012 and she immediately had a breakout year. In the spring of 2013 she was able to get second at the USA’s and make her first international team, She went to Russia for the Worlds and had foul issues there, but she trained extremely well while in Russia which told me there were some good possibilities here. She didn’t cave in. She was throwing good enough to make the final if she did not foul out. She had to get used to keeping her focus that deep into the season. Then, by 2015 the goal was to make the finals at the World Championships, which she did, and now the minimum goal is to get six throws in Rio, to be in the top eight.
She is one of the few fixed feet throwers that you’ve coached. Can you talk about that?
Well, more and more now people in the US are doing it. Dave Astrauskas, the coach from Wisconsin, came over to the training center and I told him everything about how I teach it, and he said he was going to give it a go and now Kelsey Card is doing great with it.
The belief used to be that fixed feet throwing was best for someone with super long levers like Franz Kruger,
You’re talking about the two-kilo, and with the men it is still true. You rarely see a guy 6’1 or 6’0 be successful throwing fixed feet. It’s still nice to have long levers with the 1k, but the one-kilo discus changes the whole equation. I’ve always said that women are like two-thirds the power of men, but their disc is one half the weight. Even in the bench, there are not many guys benching 600, but there are quite a few girls benching 300,
How strong is Whitney right now?
She is just getting strong. Her future is completely out ahead of her. We’ve got to keep growing the engine and keep the athleticism, but her bench is around the 260-270 range, and her best power clean is around 105-110k. Her jerk is 110k, and her squat is about 175k with a nice deep squat,
For the women how do you decide who should stay fixed feet and who should reverse?
It depends on who the coach is and how much they know about each technique. In the reverse in most cases, you work the ground early and are loaded up over the right more. In the fixed feet you are more upright and you barely stay on the right leg before you transfer to the left leg. But, the big thing that I want to emphasize is that fixed feet throwing is a complete sequence that is different in every way than just a regular throw without a reverse.
So, the throw is set up differently?
It is so simple for a young coach to say, “look, we do traditional technique like Wolfgang Schmidt and now I’m going to have my people throw non-reverse.” But that is not the true fixed feet technique.
Who would you say is a great example of a pure, fixed-feet technique?
Most everybody who does it in Europe. There’s only one woman who does a traditional pivoting action and does the fixed feet finish–and does it very well by the way–and that is Melina Robert-Michon. She lands early, turns her foot on the ball of her foot, and then transitions out. But, if you look at all the top German men and women, you look at Imrich Bugar, you look at Whitney, they turn in mid-air and they turn their hip around at least to twelve-o’clock and then they quickly transition out to the left leg–you don’t want to spend too much time on the right leg
It’s a more exaggerated hip and foot turn in the air?
Yes. Get pre-turned in the air and then transfer quickly to the left leg. And there are a lot of other things involved. The whole thing I’m telling you is that you have to have a whole sequence that takes you there.
Do you feel like fixed feet throwers have to be a little more patient?
No. It’s actually a little more violent. What it comes down to is that they have to have a good feel for the different factors that make the form work. One thing we find is that if you transfer quickly onto the front leg you don’t need a high and low orbit like you do with the other technique. The discus can stay pretty much flat the whole way around because of the counter movement. When the hip gets ahead, you throw your arm opposite–you wrap it around,
What’s the plan for Whitney between now and the Olympics?
We need to get back into a good training phase. She will go to London to compete and will be pretty beat up in London from our training, so don’t expect big marks. Then, after that we will start tapering down. We will take off for Rio, the whole training group together and come back from Rio together so we can train together for the Diamond League final.
How long will you be in Rio?
Two and half weeks.
There was a little of a controversy about the scheduling of the women’s discus in Rio with the finals the morning after the prelims.
It is a little bit of a controversy because it hasn’t been done before. We are fine with it.
Is that why they scheduled the women’s disc that way at the Trials?
Yes, we wanted to approximate it. The only reason its not the same is that the time zone is different, but by the time we are there a few days that won’t matter. When they make the final they are flying on air anyway. They could throw at three in the morning and it won’t matter, they will be so happy
What advice are you going to give Whitney about the qualifying?
What I tell my athletes all the way from Godina to Brenner–everybody–I tell them the same thing: treat the qualifier as if it were the final. Do not go through thinking you are too good for it. Go in with fire. Try to get the auto and get home early, but do not float around. I won’t mention names, but I saw some Americans who were very good throwing very easy in the prelims at Beijing, and then they couldn’t find the intensity later. It is very important to approach the qualifying with high intensity. It is so different in the field events than say a 100-meter runner who knows they are in control and can relax going into the finish line. Percentage wise there is so little difference between being stuck in a dead-end 57-meter throw and a real high-end 66-meter throw and once you get stuck you hit it and you hit it and you think you are going hard, but your implement doesn’t go anywhere.
You have to be ready to hit it. And in the final, I have nothing to say. That’s the only goddamned reason you are throwing. If I have to say something, there is something really wrong. That’s where my coaching ends as far as mental preparation because the final is what it is about.
What is Whitney like during competition?
Very independent. She and I have learned to work a system. She likes very few cues, and she likes the cues she is comfortable with. We practice those cues before the meet, and let’s say I said something to her that we hadn’t practiced before the meet, that would not go well. She like the cues she is comfortable with.
So you guys have a nice system.
I had to learn a system. She likes to be in charge. I’m a married man, I get it. And I learned from my great women throwers at UCLA, You learn what their different personalities are and Whitney feels comfortable if we establish early how it is we are going to approach the meet. And I have both men and women who are like that, and I have throwers who say “throw it at me and see what happens”– more loosy-goosey types, The other thing is she is very independent. She doesn’t need a lot of babysitting to get ready to compete. Some athletes feel better if I’m around them the whole time to keep them calm. With Whitney, I just need to let her know where I’m going to be and what’s going to happen and she’ll sit on her own for an hour or two hours getting prepared. I’ll give her a whistle so she knows where I’m at in the stands. One thing she had to get used to with me is I like to get close enough during the competition to be able to say “that looked great” or give them one little cue that has to be worked on for the next throw.
Now she is very comfortable with that.
When do you find out which flight she will be in at the Olympics?
The day before. And that can sometimes be tough in the long throws if you are in the first flight because you have to get there so early in the morning, but we won’t have that problem in Rio because both groups in the women’s disc will throw in the late afternoon or early evening.
Aren’t the flights sometimes huge in the Olympics and World Championships?
They can be. It’s two flights no matter how many total throwers have qualified. At the Worlds in 1995, John Godina threw in a flight of twenty-five. It took an hour and seven minutes between throws.
What will it take for Whitney to make the final in Rio?
It depends on the conditions. The discus is pretty great up at the top, and I think 62 or 63 meters will do some damage, and over 60 will make the final.
Do you think a fixed foot thrower has an advantage in a big meet?
Yes, if the form is properly developed because that technique, if properly done, the consistency is better. And the fouls are less. If you see Whitney with a foul by her name it’s because she stepped out.