There is no NFL-style draft for graduating collegiate throwers, no carnival of excess where the most promising among them are paraded in front of television cameras and offered multi-million dollar deals to join the professional ranks.
For a college thrower, going pro often means going without–without regular coaching, without regular treatment for injuries, sometimes without regular meals.
The challenge is to find a way to stay in the sport long enough to reach your athletic prime. In a recent interview, 2004 Olympic shot put champion Adam Nelson reminisced about living in a closet under a stairwell Harry Potter style during his first year as a pro. Curtis Jensen, currently in his fourth year as a professional, broke twenty-one meters for the first time ever this season while working two and sometimes three jobs to support himself. Gwen Berry and Jessica Ramsey, two of the best young throwers in the US, have paid the bills at times by working for a company that bakes and delivers fresh cookies to college students at all hours of the night.
So, if it is a glamorous lifestyle you seek, put down that metal ball and start working on your mid-range jumper.
I know that other countries have different systems for developing their athletes. In Germany, for example, the best throwers are offered a chance to enlist in the army or the police force where they receive a salary while training full time for much of the year.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with the 2018 British shot put champion Amelia Strickler, and I was curious to find out what life is like for a professional thrower in that country.
It’s funny talking to Amelia because she sounds as American as apple pie. Not once during our conversation did she refer to cookies as “biscuits” or the bathroom as the “loo.”
That’s because Amelia grew up on Ohio, and is a 2017 graduate of Miami of Ohio University.
She feels, however, a deep connection with her adopted country. According to Amelia, her mother, a British citizen, “raised me very British. We celebrated all the British holidays in my house growing up, and we visited my family there all the time. When I started having success in college, I knew I wanted to represent Britain some day.”
Amelia graduated from high school with a shot put PR of 42’2”. During her freshman year, she upped that to 48’7”. As a junior, she broke the school record with a toss of 55’5 ¾” and finished twelfth at the NCAA Outdoor Championships. A promising senior season was derailed by stress fractures in three different leg bones during the winter of 2015/2016. Amelia ended up taking a medical redshirt, but that summer she competed in the British Championships for the first time.
She remained healthy during the 2016/2017 season, her final year at Miami, and managed a PR of 56” (17.12m) but a lousy performance at regionals kept her out of the NCAA finals.
With her mother and sister planning a move to England, Amelia jumped the pond for good that summer. She quickly became the second ranked putter in the country and qualified to compete in the European Team Championships.
Talking to Amelia, it became obvious that post-collegiate putters in the UK have one significant advantage over their counterparts in the US: the club system.
As is commonly the case in European countries, sports in the UK are not affiliated with schools. Rather, various communities sponsor clubs.
Amelia explained that the clubs are organized in different tiers, “kind of like NCAA division I, II, or III. I went with a club, Thames Valley, that was really competitive. We won the premier division last year.”
Though the clubs do not support the athletes financially, they provide something that can be hard to come by in the US: meets. Lots of meets.
For post-collegiates in the US, opportunities to compete are not hard to come by during the college season when there are lots of invitationals that allow open entries. But once mid-May rolls around, the NCAA regionals begin the invites end and those not yet accomplished enough to snag spots in Diamond League meets are out of luck for a good chunk of the summer. And forgive me for stating the obvious, but it is awfully hard to get better at your event if you can’t compete regularly.
According to Amelia, the league that her club is part of, the UK Women’s Athletic League, holds one meet per month in June, July, and August, “but there are also Southern League matches around London that I can do as well.”
The club meets are held in venues that remind Amelia of the home facility at Miami of Ohio. She says they are well attended. “The sport is much more popular over here. Football takes the cake, obviously, but there is a much bigger following for track and field.”
This, too, is likely a byproduct of the club system.
“It’s just so easy for people to get involved with the sport here.There are quite a few tracks around, and it is easy for people to join a club. This system encourages kids to get involved in athletics at a much younger age. A lot of them will do it with all their friends.”
So finding competitions is no problem for post-collegiates in the UK, but like their counterparts in the US, they still face daunting challenges in trying to extend their career. Though Amelia is the current British shot put champion, a 17.26m PR and a promising future have not been enough to secure financial support from the British Athletics Federation. She currently lives with her mother, works mornings in a local shop, and commutes two hours by rail every day to a practice facility that she pays to use.
She is also on her own in trying to secure top-flight coaching. When she first arrived in the UK, Amelia tried to rely on Steve Manz, her coach at Miami. She regularly sent him practice videos and solicited his advice, but that was clearly not an ideal arrangement. At the 2017 European Team Championships she met former British discus champion Zane Duquemin, who was trying to finance his own throwing career by coaching on the side. She heard good things about Duquemin, who also coaches current British discus champs Jade Lally and Brett Morse, and so began making the two-hour trek to the town of Loughborough to train with him.
The results have been promising.
In spite of a torn calf muscle that interrupted her training this winter, Amelia has had a solid outdoor season. She hit that PR of 17.26m on June 9th, won the British shot title later that month, and represented Britain at the recent World Athletics Cup in London where she greatly enjoyed her first experience competing in a large stadium.
“It was amazing, to be honest. I’ve never thrown in a big stadium quite like that before, and to have that big a home crowd as well was awesome. At the NCAA championships in Eugene, there was a big crowd, but they don’t really bother with you if you’re not from University of Oregon. At the Cup, people were waving flags, and I heard someone yell ‘Go, Amelia!’ when I walked into the ring. And it wasn’t my coach’s voice, either!”
Next up for Amelia are the English Championships followed by the European Championships this August in Berlin.
Getting sponsored by the British Federation would make life easier going forward. She’d have free access to Federation facilities and physiotherapists. To obtain that sponsorship, though, she is likely to have to break the 18-meter barrier.
“That’s been my goal for a long time,” she said. “Things haven’t gone my way the past two or three years with injuries. It’s nice being a professional now and able to choose the meets I compete in. Looking back on the NCAA season where you have a meet every single weekend, I can see how the injuries might have occurred. Now I try to be selective, be prepared, and make the meets count. I think 18 meters is doable this year.”
A perfect end to the season would be an 18-meter throw in Berlin followed by an invitation to the Birmingham Diamond League meeting followed by a sponsorship offer from her Federation.
That’s a lot to have riding on these next couple of meets, and I wondered if that would make it difficult to stay focused on the task at hand as she stepped into the ring.
“For me, I’m still new to being a professional, and I just try to put that stuff out of my mind, For example, at the British Championships this year I knew if I won I’d get selected for the Athletics Cup, and that was something that I really wanted to do. My attitude was ‘I’m going to throw far today.’ At meets, I just try to worry about myself and not let those outside pressures bother me. I love the atmosphere of a big stadium and a big crowd,”
She will get all the atmosphere she can handle in Berlin, as one of the more charming aspects of German culture is their passion for the throws. They will show up in force to cheer on 2015 shot put World Champion Christina Schwanitz who, after two injury-plagued years, is back in 20-meter form.
Oh, and running concurrently with the women’s shot, both prelims and finals, will be the men’s discus where one Robert Harting will be making his final appearance…ever. Think that stadium will be rocking?
Maybe Amelia will be able to tap into that energy, blast out an 18-meter throw and take a big step forward as a pro. Either way, she’ll be back at the grind this off-season, hopping aboard that Loughborough train day in and day out hoping it will eventually take her to the big time.