What I Learned from Talking with Gwen Berry

In the  days leading up to the USA Championships, one’s thoughts turn to big throws and  those that produce them.

One of my favorite contenders to make the team for the World Championships in London is the American record holder in the women’s hammer, Gwen Berry.

Gwen was nice enough to chat with me for a few minutes recently. Here are some things I learned from our conversation.

The woman can handle adversity.

In May 2016, Gwen broke the American record in the hammer with a toss of 76.31m at the Ole Miss Classic in Oxford, Mississippi. That throw earned her $30,000 in performance bonuses.

She got to keep none of it.

I wrote in detail about this situation last summer. You can find that article here: http://mcthrows.com/?p=1511

Basically what happened was that Gwen got suspended by USADA in the days following her American record throw because several weeks earlier she had self-reported her use of a common asthma medication called Breo. She never failed a drug test. There was never a question of why she took Breo. Simply put, she has asthma and like many people with asthma she needs medication once in while to be able to breathe.

Apparently, none of that mattered to USADA, and for a time last summer, it looked like the infraction would cost her a chance to compete in the Olympic Trials. Gwen was devastated.  According to her coach, John Smith, the stress of the controversy, of seeing her reputation tarnished “nearly killed her career. It took a lot to keep her going.”

In the end, Gwen was given a short suspension, which ended just in time for her to compete in the Trials. She was, however, stripped of her American record and the $30,000 she had earned in setting  it.

Then,  shortly after Gwen’s case was adjudicated, USADA published a decision in a case involving a swimmer who was charged with exactly the same violation…and let off with a “public warning.”

You can read about that case here: https://www.usada.org/sam-tierney-receives-public-warning/

I don’t know about you, but were I Gwen, I’d have been more than a little chapped. And I, for one, would not have blamed her if after breaking the American record again this  spring–this time with a toss of 76.77m–she’d have directed some choice words and perhaps a celebratory middle finger USADA’s way.

But, Gwen is not like that.

I asked her if she uses that whole controversy as motivation, if she enters the ring during competitions thinking “I’m going to kill this one to stick it to USADA.” Here was her reply:

“I don’t necessarily think of it like that. When I get in the ring, I want to kill one for everyone who doubted me early in my career. It took me a long time to figure out the hammer. The weight came easy for me, but not the hammer, so I guess when I get into the ring I think ‘this throw is for everyone who doubted me in the past.’ I don’t worry about USADA. I believe that everything happens for a reason. I know that life sucks sometimes, but the whole thing made me a stronger thrower and person.”

Indeed.

 

Gwen Berry and Morgan Spurlock have something in common.

Remember him? He’s the guy who made the Super Size Me documentary.  IMDB describes its premise this way:  “While examining the influence of the fast food industry, Morgan Spurlock personally explored the consequences on his health of a diet of solely McDonald’s food for one month.”

The main consequence was that subsisting on a McDonald’s-only diet made him feel like crap.

Gwen can relate.

After qualifying for the Olympics last summer,  she arrived in Rio two weeks before the women’s hammer competition. The plan was to get acclimated to her surroundings and develop a routine that would help her feel comfortable when it was time to compete.

But she could not stomach the food in the athlete’s village, and McDonald’s was her only alternative other than a two-week fast.

So, in the days leading up to the biggest meet of her life, Gwen took every meal under the golden arches.

Like Spurlock, her McDonald’s binge made her feel awful, and she did not qualify for the hammer final.

She is ready though, if she makes the squad for the World’s in London, to try a different tack.

“I will not go there early,” she vowed. “I will try to keep my normal regimen for as long as I can. If I qualify for London, I’ll go there a couple of days before my competition.”

According to Coach Smith, jet lag tends to hit athletes three days after arriving in a distant land, so Gwen will have to cut it pretty close and literally show up  two days before the hammer prelims.

She is confident she can make it work.

“That’s what I did in Japan,” she said (referring to her IAAF Hammer Challenge win in Kawasaki last May). “I’d never thrown 73 meters overseas before, and I threw 74.13m there.”

 

Gwen can throw great, even when her back is killing her.

When my back spazzes on me, I like to lie on the floor and whine so that  my wife will bring me snacks.

Gwen is made of sterner stuff.

This  past February, a month before the USA Indoor Championships where she was scheduled to compete in the 20-lb weight throw, Gwen strained her back so badly that she could barely throw or lift. According to Coach Smith, her workouts during the four weeks prior to the championships  consisted almost entirely of back rehab.

Two weeks out, she was convinced that she would not be able to compete.

Ten days out, she was able to throw a 25-lb training weight about 18 meters, and Smith convinced her to go to Albuquerque and take a whack at competing.

She did, and ended up throwing 25.60m to break the world record.

 

College kids these days are really soft.

Back in my day, if you stayed up late reading Goethe and got a craving for a freshly baked cookie you were out of luck. Even if you could convince a fraternity brother to take a break from his quantum mechanics homework and drive you to Seven Eleven, the freshest thing you could get was probably a pack of Chips Ahoy that had been on the shelf since the mid Phanerozoic Eon. It was balderdash, I tell you.

But times have changed, and now if you are a student at Ole Miss you can get freshly baked cookies delivered to your door any time between the hours of 9:00am and 3:00am.  And the person who delivers them to you might just be the American record holder in the women’s hammer.

Let her explain.

“I can’t work a real job,” Gwen told me when I asked how she was supporting herself. “So I deliver for Insomnia Cookies.  I practice every day at about 2:00pm, and then I go to work until 3:00am. I don’t mind it, though, and they are great about letting me take time off when I need it.”

One of those times is right now as she prepares for the US Championships. If she makes the team for London, her hiatus could be  extended for a couple of months.

Coach Smith says that she is ready not only to make the team but to extend the American record. His hammer throwers train with a wide variety of implements–heavy and light on both regular and shortened wires–and he keeps meticulous track of how  far each thrower throws each implement each practice.

Based on her training throws, he says that Gwen “is in much better shape now than when she broke the American record.”

So, if you happen to be in Oxford, Mississippi this fall and find yourself ordering up a late-night cookie, be ready. When you open your door you may well come face to face with a World Championships medalist.

And one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “What I Learned from Talking with Gwen Berry”

  1. Just as a clarification, the Sam Tierney case was not exactly the same. The rules for TUEs are different depending on the level of the athlete. And arbitrators have shown more leniency in the case of younger athletes. The decision in the Tierney case specifically mentioned that, as Berry was a more seasoned international competitor and Tierney is at a national level and had only been in the doping pool for one month, Berry should have know the rules better and therefore was given a more severe punishment. I don’t necessarily agree with the reasoning, but the arbitrators acknowledged the cases were similar and therefore made efforts to distinguish why the penalty was different

    1. Martin, as usual you are the voice of reason. You’d think, though, that even with Gwen being a veteran the fact that she self-reported using Breo would have been a pretty strong indication that she had no nefarious purpose.

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