John Smith on Raven’s bomb at USA’s

Holy crap, there is some great shot putting going on in this country right now, and if you signed up for the NBC Gold package you got to see a good chunk of an epic women’s shot competition at the USATF National Championships last week.

When the Sacramento dust cleared, the United States had the two leading women’s putters in the world, and the defending Olympic champion was, surprisingly, not one of them.

Unfortunately, NBC Gold coverage of the final three rounds was spotty, and throws fans were left to piece together the action as best they could by checking the live results page.

Luckily,  John Smith, coach of newly minted US champion Raven Saunders, agreed to provide not only his perspective on a truly amazing competition, but also to share some insights into the training that has made Raven the thrower to beat at the Worlds in London this August.

Here’s the way things played out on a sweltering afternoon in Sacramento:

Dani Bunch got the party started  with throws of 18.92m and 19.18m in rounds one and two. The latter toss seemed likely to have secured her a ticket to Worlds.

Michelle Carter,the aforementioned Olympic champ, got rolling in round three with a 19.34m toss, which appeared likely to guarantee  her a trip  to London.

Raven, meanwhile, struggled to find a groove. After an immensely disappointing fourth place finish at the NCAA meet two weeks earlier, it would have been good for her and Coach Smith’s state of mental health if she had killed one early, but it was not to be.

Her opener was an easy 18.30m safety throw, good enough to buy five more tosses and to briefly quiet her version of the little voice we all have in our heads that says things like, “You blew it at the NCAA’s so for sure you’ll blow it here!” but unlikely to clinch a spot in the top three.

A round two 17.75m gave any lingering doubts a bit more credibility, and after a foul in round three, the little voice in her head rose to a bellow.

Actually, it was Coach Smith’s voice this time.

According to Smith,  “the foul was sixty-three and a half feet. That  throw would have put her on the team! She nailed it. She watched it. She stepped out. So she got her rear end chewed for that.”

Meanwhile, Felisha Johnson bumped Raven to fourth place with a third round toss of 18.64m.

Maddeningly, NBC Gold went offline for a few minutes as the the top eight were re-ordered for the final three rounds.

At that point the top three were Carter (19.25m), Bunch (19.18m), and Johnson (18.64m).

I recall Charles Barkley once making fun of fans who listened to NBA games on the radio. Imagine what he’d think of us throws geeks reduced to staring at the live results page on the NCAA site in order to keep up with what was happening in the shot while NBC Gold went to break and, upon returning to the air, took us on a guided tour of downtown Sacramento. Loved that vid of the steamboat, though!

In round four, Raven hit 18.58m, which did not move her up in the standings.

Carter went 19.28m, but the top three remained unchanged.

All those marks were well within Raven’s reach if she could just find her rhythm.

According to Smith,  she was in shape to launch a big one.

“Two days before  the  competition, she threw sixty-five feet with an eight-pound shot, full reverse staying in the ring, so I knew she was ready. In a meet Raven can always match or throw a foot farther than what she does in practice with the eight.”

So, he was confident as Raven stepped in for a fifth throw that she was perfectly capable of moving into the top three.

Instead, she fouled again.

As a throws coach, I often imagine being in a similar situation and saying just the right thing to my athlete who then heads back into the ring and blasts out the throw of his life.  Usually, it’s something along the lines of “You got this! Keep your chest up going  to the middle and you’ll be fine!”

John Smith, however, operates in the real world where emotions run hot especially during a long afternoon in the searing California sun with a spot on the national team in the balance.

So what did he say to Raven after her fifth round foul?

“You’d better get your ass moving, because they’re writing your obituary right now!”

Moments later, Dani Bunch dropped a fifth-round 19.64m, for a new PR and the lead.

Moments after that,  Monique Riddick stepped in and killed her final throw of the day. It measured 18.89m and knocked Raven down to fifth.

Now, I’m no fan of zombie movies, but my friends who are tell me that it is possible for someone to look really dead but still not be dead.

That turned out to be the case here, and Coach Smith used an analogy from another movie genre to describe the moment:

“After Riddick hit that throw, Raven spit on the ground like Clint Eastwood would do in the movies before he got ready to kill someone. Connie {Price Smith, former Olympian and current head coach at Ole’ Miss} said that when she saw Raven spit on the ground, she knew Raven was going to hit that last throw.”

Hit it she did.

According to Coach Smith, “It wasn’t a pretty throw, but it was evil. It was an evil throw. It had no height on it, and she  was a little bit over-rotated.  But it was nasty.”

Nineteen meters and seventy-six centimeters worth of nasty, to be exact.

A PR.

A national title.

A world lead.

A redemption from the embarrassment of the NCAA meet.

And, definitive proof that at the international level the  glide shot technique is dead?

Certainly, Michelle Carter might quibble with that suggestion, but in Smith’s view, “On  the women’s side, we are the best shot putting nation in the world because we made the leap to the spin.”  

He argues that in order to be a world class glider, an athlete must have a huge stand throw. A glider striving to throw twenty meters would have to stand mid-eighteen meters to have a chance.

Smith believes that the rotational technique makes it possible for a less powerful but more athletic thrower to reach world class distances.

Watching the progress of Jill Camarena-Williams (the now-retired bronze medalist at the 2011 Worlds) convinced him of this.

“Jill was a fifty-nine-foot glider, then she became a sixty-six-foot spinner and I always felt like Connie was a better athlete than Jill. I always wanted Connie to spin when she was throwing, but she never wanted to do it. Back then, [the 1980’s-1990’s] you only did the spin because you couldn’t glide.”

As he became more and more devoted to the rotational method, Smith developed a practice progression for refining his throwers’ technique.

“The drill work is non-reverse stands, non-reverse half turns, then something called non-reverse ‘giant steps,’ where you start in the back, step to the center, pause, then do a half turn and throw non- reverse. Then we do ‘walking fulls,’ where you turn, step, turn and throw kind of in slow motion. From there we do non-reverse fulls and then reverse fulls.”

“With Raven, practice is a non-reverse full into a net followed by a  non-reverse throw into the field.  [Note: Coach Smith has a net set up at the outdoor throwing facility at Ole Miss] She starts with a sixteen-pound shot, then moves to a twelve, then an eight, and finally a three-kilogram. Then we start over with the sixteen.” 

“Some days, Raven might take seventy to eighty throws.  We keep going until the numbers die off so much that practice is over. She might repeat that progression three or four times and she might start out with ten to fifteen throws into the net (stands, half tuns, giant steps) before she even does fulls.”

She will continue with some variation of that system for the next six weeks then travel to  London where she and Dani Bunch will try to prove to the world that the glide is dead, with Michelle Carter along to make the counter argument.

And, while there are many amazing tourist attractions in that city that are suitable to dress up a broadcast, please NBC Gold, this time stay with the women’s shot from start to finish! Based on what happened in Sacramento, it will be worth it.

 

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