I first met Grand Valley State throws coach Sean Denard when he was a heavily-bearded freshman thrower at Naperville North High School in the suburbs of Chicago. I was (and still am) the throws coach at a rival school, and was less than thrilled to see a guy who appeared to be in his late ’20’s show up to compete for the NN Huskies.
Like dry white wine and certain types of mold, however, we grew on each other over the years, and when Sean went off to Mount Union College and came back an unrepentant throws obsessive, our bond was sealed.
Recently, Sean was kind enough to tell me about his program, the magnificent facilities at Grand Valley, and the growing corps of elite throwers that have relocated to GVSU for their training.
When did you start at Grand Valley State?
I started at GVSU in October of 2014, so while I’m starting my fourth season here, I’ve only been here for about three calendar years.
What are some of the highlights of your time there?
My first year here, our men’s team came in unranked at the NCAA DII Championships and finished as National runners-up. We had three men’s weight throwers earn All-American honors, including second place. It was the best finish in our men’s program’s history. The next year, Darien Thornton, who had finished second the year before, threw the NCAA Championship record in the hammer and ranks only behind Olympian Kibwe Johnson on the All-Time NCAA DII list. I also tell him it is impressive because Kibwe was twenty-eight at the time he set the record, and I think Darien hadn’t yet turned twenty-one as a true fourth-year senior. The Throwers Page ranked our men’s squad as one of the top five programs in all of college that season. Also, last year our women’s team finished as NCAA runners-up indoors and outdoors. Indoors, Dajsha Avery broke the fifty-foot barrier in the shot and earned All-American honors after having thrown thirty feet and gotten second-to-last two years ago at the conference championships. At the outdoor meet, Mary Hecksel, a freshmen, threw thirty-six feet farther than her high school PR in the discus to finish third with a 172’ mark.
Can you describe the facilities at Grand Valley. From what I’ve heard, they are pretty awesome.
We have probably one of the best track facilities in the country.
We have two full-sized weight rooms with eighteen combined racks/pads on them, and another two ‘pod’ style weight rooms with fours racks combined at both the indoor and outdoor track, and a rec center for weight training.
We have four athletic training stations and a chiro/physio who comes twice a week.
Our indoor facility is a 300m turf building with a ceiling high enough that Andrew Evans can non-reverse 65m with plenty of room to spare, although Sam Mattis did hit a light in warm ups, I think. [Note: GVSU holds an elite indoor discus competition each winter. More on that later.]
Indoors, we have a wooden discus circle that I just repainted this year, two additional wood shot/weight rings, and a cement shot/weight circle as well.
We throw discus for distance several times during a given week during the indoor season, and other times we lower the curtains and throw discus/hammer/javelin into them.
Our outdoor fields are used just for throwing and are not drainage areas, so they stay pretty dry throughout the year. We have two shot rings, a hammer/discus cage, and a two-way jav runway. There has to be 5-8,000 square feet of cement too, for drills/spectators.
The wind comes in a pretty perfect 10-20mph right corner cross for the discus. If we have to adjust at times because of weird weather, I will usually just get the wood ring from inside and place it out on the other end of the field so we can still have the desired wind that we need (we use the weight cage as a substitute barrier).
Probably the most important thing about the facilities is the amount of time we get to use them. We can use the outdoor areas 24/7. There are lights out there, so we can even throw at night if we ever really need to.
Indoors in the fall we get the turf building from 12:00-2:00 and during the winter 2:00-4:00. We get the weight rooms for ten hours a week, too.
Everything is also very conveniently located, so you can get from anywhere on campus to practice in ten minutes walking or five minutes by bike.
Can you tell me about your annual Big Throws Clinic?
This is our third year doing our Big Throws Clinic. It started out as a one-day camp for Michigan-area high school throwers and has turned into a two- day meet and clinic.
On Saturday, December 16, we’ll have a weight lifting seminar with Garage Strength’s Dane Miller, Olympic shot putter Justin Rodhe, and USA hammer thrower Sean Donnelly. Each will be disseminating twelve-week training programs and breaking down how to properly execute them. They each utilize three pretty unique training styles. Dane does a four-day upper/lower split with emphasis on snatch, bench and mobility work, while Donnelly uses a three-day triphasic model that utilizes no Olympic lifts and almost exclusively uses single-leg squat variations, and Rodhe uses the “Bondarchuk” system with his athletes. It’ll be good information for college and high school athlete/coaches alike and I don’t think anybody has given out training programs like this since John Smith did at the ITCCCA (Illinois Track and Cross Country Coaches Association) clinic in 2007.
After the weight lifting seminar, we’ll have a dinner before the “wammer” competition. A “wammer” is a 35/25/20lb weight on half a hammer wire. I’ve had a lot of interest from elites about this, but I’m hoping more high school/college athletes sign up.
The purpose of the weight training seminar was to give more time during the weekend to go further into parts of throwing that we couldn’t get done previously in one day, and the point of the wammer competition is to give the hammer throwers another championship stage for their careers and help promote the sport. While there’s been plenty of indoor discus competitions around the world the last twenty years, not many people even use the wammer as a training tool. This will be the first ever competition for it, and I think that if people use them the right way they will throw everything further so I’m hoping to influence the sport and help younger throwers improve their training with this tool. Men will throw 35lbs, high school boys 25lbs, and women 20lbs. John Smith told me he thinks he will send his women up, but wants them to compete with the 25lbs ball as they already throw it over 30m in training. I don’t know if the rest of the field will be ready for that yet…
The next day, on Sunday morning, we’ll have three learn-by-doing segments intermittent with three classroom sessions by Rodhe, Miller, and Donnelly on various issues from technique to lifestyle. I think we may also do a panel discussion on Facebook live and let people write in questions. Halfway through the day we’ll have lunch (Brittany Smith made 150 bomb sandwiches last year for the clinic) and a multi-weight shot put competition using Rodhe’s glove. [Note: Sean informs me that “bomb” sandwiches are what old people like me would call “really good” sandwiches.] Last year, Big 10 Champion Rachel Fatherly beat Olympian Taryn Suttie by just a few centimeters. Throwers will get three throws each with a light and heavy shot, furthest total distance wins.
Last year on the men’s side, Lucas Warning won the men’s event and went on to place 10th at the DI Meet as a glider. With our new volunteer coaches at GVSU I think we might have a deeper field than last year…[more on this below].
After the last learn-by-doing segment (we do three stations at once, shot/disc/hammer, campers choice each time) we’ll have the Elite Indoor Discus National Championships, Alex Rose has won the last two meetings. Jason Young won the first ever meet in 2010. Last year we also had Olympian Andrew Evans and American College Record holder Sam Mattis compete along with World University Games Champion Reggie Jagers. They should all be back this year, and I’ve also got confirmations from NACAC U23 Champion Brian Williams and Olympian Jason Morgan. On the women’s side, NACAC Champion Beckie Famurewa won last year, and I’m hoping we can get more women to come and compete this season. I’ve concluded that being a female professional discus thrower might have the smallest market of all the track events, and so there are not many professionals and the ones that are usually live out west. Either way, I’ve contacted 300 college coaches to send their athletes to this meet and a number of professionals, but time will tell if they feel confident enough to come out here in December.
One of the ways I’m trying to help the women (and men) with this weekend is by working with USATF to make this part of their development programs for the throws. Each event group gets three to five mini-camps at the OTC each year to train, work with the biomedical people and get good weather. Right now, there is a proposition being considered to take one of the discus camps and move it to this weekend in Grand Rapids. They would fly out and house and feed all their men’s and women’s discus throwers for the weekend, and have them go through several training sessions in throwing, lifting, Functional Movement and other evaluations, and finally the discus competition. One of the ideas is to use it as a half way measuring point before and after USAs and to also help decide how and who to fund for the future. We will find out in a month or two if that will happen. Everyone I talk to seems really positive about the change, and I’m hoping it will allow us to get someone like Mason Finley out here so we can honor him before the competition for his performance at Worlds this past year.
I understand you’ve got quite an interesting group of elite athletes set to train at GVSU this year.
This year I have five volunteer throws coaches on staff. There are no limits in DII on this situation, and with our facilities and location a lot of athletes have converged to train here this year.
GVSU alumni and NCAA Champion Darien Thornton is working on his masters degree and training here for the hammer throw. He finished 7th at USA’s last year.
Sporadically throughout the year, but probably not until December (he just got an invite to train full time at the OTC) my hammer thrower Sean Donnelly will get a training session or two in here. He finished third indoors in the weight and outdoors in the hammer this season. Last year, Donnelly and I collaborated with Cal Dietz on weight room stuff, while I did the throwing side. This year we are going to move towards a little bit of a different approach to training, with a shorter indoor season due to the Worlds being held the first week of March (this has pushed the USA’s up to the second week of February rather than second week of march) and with Sean being able to throw outside in California.
My girlfriend, Brittany Smith, is a nineteen-meter shot putter for Nike and has been training here on and off since 2014. She was coached the last two years out in Kansas, but made a change this year and will be working with Ryan Whiting starting in October. She’ll move out to Phoenix at some point, but we’ll see each other every couple weeks. I help her out with whatever her coaches are having her do when they are not around.
New this year, Olympian Alex Rose will be training at GVSU. He spent the last two years as a graduate assistant at Aurora University (in Aurora, Illinois) but he and his wife are originally from this area. She got a job in Grand Rapids, so things kind of fell into place there. He works online with Dane Miller on technique and lifting, so I will act as a mediator to help Dane and Alex have the highest level training and communication possible.
Also new this year is World Championship competitor Dani Bunch. She has been coming here since 2014 on the weekends as she’s been dating and now married to one of my former athlete’s brothers who lives in the area. After getting married this fall, they’re getting a home together in town and things worked out with all of our infrastructure to give her a good training environment and group. She’s still working with her coach at Purdue, it will just be more satellite than before. Dani’s Husband, Zach Hill, is the Michigan state high school record holder in the shot put and has a similar role that I have with Brittany. I’ll facilitate their training to the best of my ability.
The last member of the group came together just this past weekend as Tia Brooks contacted me to train at GVSU. She is a local kid from Grand Rapids, and she is just coming back from taking a year off from competing and will use this year to get ready for Worlds/Olympics in 2019/2020. We’re still working out the details of her stay, but like the others I’m just going to provide whatever service she needs to help her throw far and train well.
Each one has a little different of a situation. I’m not everybody’s coach, but I’ll be an important resource to make sure they train and live at a high level. This is all kind of new to us, so we’re not sure how the group is going to work. I’m sure the dynamics will change over time, but I think it’s a pretty high level training group of professionals akin to what you might find at the Olympic Training Center or Oxford or Phoenix. I hope that each of this group of Laker Elite throwers can throw farther than they would on their own, and that it also encourages other athletes to form long-term training groups to improve our sport.