I’ve seen a hundreds of throws competitions in my time, both live and on video. I’ve traveled all over the United States and Europe to see the best throwers, I’ve watched the replay of the 2009 World Championships men’s discus so many times that my wife can perform a spot-on imitation of the BBC announcers describing Robert Harting’s victory celebration.
“He’s shredded his vest, exposing his massive torso!”
You kind of have to hear her do it.
My point, though, is that I’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge about the throws, and that came in handy on the final day of the USATF Championships when I was forced to decide between watching the men’s discus or women’s shot on a beautiful afternoon in Des Moines.
The shot was scheduled to begin inside the stadium at 2:10, the disc outside the stadium at 2:20, so there was no way to watch both simultaneously.
I chose the women’s shot.
The way I figured it, Mason Finley would for sure win the men’s disc. He’s got confidence. He’s got experience. He’s got a World Championship medal. Plus, he’s a giant and remarkably agile man, so no contest there.
The outcome of the shot, though, appeared less certain. The mercurial, eminently watchable Raven Saunders was a definite contender.
Every time she enters the ring it seems as if she might either smash a 20-meter throw or misfire completely and smash some inanimate objects. Either way, smashing appeared likely.
Going head-to-head with Raven was NCAA champ and record-holder Maggie Ewen.
Do you remember the first Shrek movie where Princess Fiona possessed secret butt-kicking abilities that belied her appearance? Maggie is the same way. She looks like a pole vaulter but somehow throws things really far.
Plus, guess whose NCAA shot record she broke this year? I’ll give you a clue. Her first name begins with the letter “R” as in “Revenge.”
Add Michelle Carter, the defending Olympic champion, to the mix…
and we had what promised to be a compelling shot put battle.
So, there I was at 2:00, perched in an upper row of Drake Stadium gazing down on women’s shot warm-ups.
My friend Roger Einbecker had chosen to view the men’s disc, so he headed over there after promising to keep me posted via text messages.
Raven and Maggie each had one pretty far-looking throw during warm-ups, and it seemed like it would be a two-person battle as Michelle struggled to find her timing.
Then the competition began and a funny thing happened. Jessica Ramsey…
…throwing unattached and cloaked in anonymity, stepped up for her first throw and banged out a 19.23m.
I couldn’t believe it.
Two of the guys I was with didn’t even see see the throw because, well, they weren’t paying attention. And frankly, who was? If you were sitting at home thinking, “I’ll bet Ramsey might win this thing,” please let me know and I’ll invest in your psychic hotline startup.
Raven, looking fast through the ring, opened at 18.74m. Maggie went 17.94m, so both would have the full six throws to try to catch Ramsey, who came back to Earth with a 17.65m in round two, while Raven began what would become a string of three straight fouls. Maggie put herself on the podium with a round two 19.09m, then gave us spectators a jolt in round three with a foot-foul that landed at the 20-meter line.
Michelle managed a best of only 17.87m in the prelims, but at the break for the reordering, I still felt good about my decision to stick with the shot.
It was fun seeing Ramsey break out, and it still seemed quite possible that either Raven or Maggie would bust one near 20-meters.
Just then, I got the first text from Einbecker.
That was in reference to the first-round throw of Sam Mattis.
“Okay,” I thought. “That’s fine. Sam will give Mason a push and the folks over at the discus will see a decent competition.” I did not begrudge them that.
Back at the shot, the finalists had been determined and the ring opened for some additional warm-ups. Maggie and Raven each took a handful, tinkering, fine-tuning, like safe crackers trying to get all the notches to line up.
With round four about to begin, another text popped up on my phone… “Finley 65.27m”…followed shortly thereafter by another… “Mattis 66.32m.”
It sounded like an interesting duel was playing out over there, but I was still comfortable with my choice to view the shot.
Then my phone buzzed again.
Now it was clear that something very strange was going on at the discus ring. After three rounds, three different throwers (Sam, Mason, and Reggie) had surpassed 65 meters. And we were not in California.
I’m not gonna lie, I was a little rattled by these texts. My friend Sean Denard, the fine throws coach at Grand Valley State, came and stood by me to watch the shot final and we gazed in bewilderment from our perch in the stadium out towards the long throws area. What was the wind doing? We couldn’t tell. It seemed like the strings of pennant flags marking the discus boundaries were blowing in different directions at once.
We eyed each other uneasily.
When the shot resumed, Michelle put 17.26m, Raven fouled, Maggie hit 18.58m, and Ramsey fouled.
In round five, Michelle went 17.65m, Raven 18.13m, and Maggie finally popped one. Between throws she had stepped to the side and snapped off some imitations, and the seamlessness she demonstrated there finally carried over to the ring.
It wasn’t 20 meters, but her 19.29m toss was good enough to take the lead.
In the final round, both Michelle and Janeah Stewart broke 18 meters. (Fun fact: four of the top seven finishers in the women’s shot –Janeah, Ramsey, Raven, and Jeneva Stevens–all train with John Smith at Ole Miss.)
Raven closed with a foul, as did Ramsey, and Maggie had a national shot title to add to her already jam-packed trophy case.
The discus, however, was not yet finished. My phone buzzed again… “Finley 65.77m”…and again… ”Mattis 66.00m”.
Denard bolted over there to catch the end of it, but I wanted to get interviews with some of the putters, so I headed downstairs to the mixed zone, still content that I’d made the correct decision.
It was fun seeing Ramsey hit what may turn out to be a career-changing throw. It was fun seeing Raven blast through the ring even if she didn’t quite catch one. It was fun seeing the defending Olympic champion compete. It was fun seeing Maggie display what may be the smoothest rotational technique that I’ve ever seen.
But, as I stepped into the chaos of the mixed zone, there went my phone again.
“Nice,” I thought, “Mason gets the win.”
Ah, but the madness continued.
Reggie’s throw was a facility record, the best toss ever by a left-hander, and…I missed it.
Had I the time, I may well have punched myself in the face. Fortunately, the putters chose that moment to start filing into the room.
I’ve interviewed Michelle Carter before, and she has always been super nice. This time was no different as she spoke about the reason she is in less-than-top form, her optimism regarding next season, and her upcoming marriage. You can view that interview here:
This was the first time I’ve spoken with Jessica Ramsey, but not, I suspect, the last. Here are her thoughts on a breakthrough performance:
This was my second interview of the weekend with Maggie, and my ipad mini locked up during both due to a lack of storage. So, good job me. She is as articulate as she is talented, though, so I think you’ll enjoy the portion of the interview that I was able to record.
The discus throwers came through the room next, and I grabbed Mason. I’d last spoken to him when he was a college senior, and a lot has happened in the intervening years. Here are his thoughts on a hellacious discus competition and his recent ascent to the top ranks of the event:
Getting an interview with Reggie was not so simple. I missed him in the mixed zone, so I caught up with him out on the infield. He was happy to talk, but that’s when I realized my mini (not a euphemism) had locked up. Long story short, I ended up using Reggie’s phone to tape an interview with him.
Throughout the weekend, my traveling companions had taken turns helping me overcome my ineptness with technology, so I began referring to them as my “tech team.” I am proud to report that the 2018 USATF champion, the man with the farthest left-handed discus throw in history, is now a member of that team.
Reggie, thanks for your patience and welcome aboard.
You can watch that interview here: