Sandra Perkovic is not here for funny

 

A few nights ago, I visited a beer garden in Berlin with some friends, one of whom absentmindedly walked past the bouncer whose job it was to examine people’s bags. The bouncer was German, but he could tell we were not so he switched to English to chastise us.

”Listen,” he scolded. “I ‘m not here for funny!”

There’s poetry in that declaration, and  it captures perfectly the attitude that Sandra Perkovic, two-time Olympic champion, two-time World champion, and winner of forty-two Diamond League meetings, brings to each and every competition.

I was present for the first of those Diamond League wins, at the Adidas Grand Prix in New York in 2010, and it was apparent right away  that the nineteen-year-old Perkovic was something special. On that humid morning when the dead air seemed to suck the life out of the rest of the field, Sandra competed with a passion that demanded attention.

A couple of years later, I saw her throw at the Adidas meeting again, this time in a driving rain with temperatures in the forties. On that day, I stood near Sandra’s coach, Edis Elkasević, both of us freezing the buns off, and watched as he and Sandra conferred between throws. At one point during the competition, an official decided (in spite of the fact that the running events did not even begin for another hour) to block Sandra as she crossed the track to speak with Edis. She did not even break stride.  “You, shut up, you!” she commanded. And he did.

Her adrenaline pumping, Sandra launched her next attempt sixty-eight meters.

So, she is not one to mess around, this Sandra Perkovic.  No less an expert than René Sack, coach of the highly decorated Nadine Müller, told me that Sandra’s ferocity might be the quality that separates her from the other top-notch women’s disc throwers. “She is a nice person,” he said, “but during the competition, she wants to kill you.”

And, at the risk of some throws fans wanting to kill me, can I just get this out of the way right now and state that Sandra is very close to establishing herself as the greatest discus thrower of all time?

I know, I know. No one will ever match Al Oerter’s four Olympic golds, or his remarkable comeback when, as a forty-three-year-old geezer, he finished fourth in the 1980 Olympic Trials. I mean this as no dis to Al. He is deservedly a legend.

So is Virgilius Alekna, with his two Olympic golds and two World titles.

So is Robert Harting, who a few days prior to the women’s disc final, made his last appearance as a member of the German national team. Robert will retire at the end of this season with one Olympic and three World Championship golds.

The one thrower whose list of achievements may still outshine Sandra’s is Lars Reidel, winner of one Olympics and an incredible five World Championships.

Keep in mind that though the Olympics are special and attract a tremendous amount of interest, the World Championships are, for track and field athletes, the same thing minus the synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics. Winning a World Championship gold means surviving a qualification day then defeating the very best in your event inside a huge, often raucous stadium. It is just as difficult as winning an Olympics.

If we can agree that World and Olympic golds are equal in value, then we can say that Al won four major titles, as did Alekna and Harting. That leaves Lars on the top of the heap with six.

As mentioned above, Sandra has two Olympic and two World titles to her credit, so she’s short of Lars in that department. But, consider her forty-two Diamond League wins. Since 2010, she has competed against and defeated her main rivals five times a year at Diamond League venues all over the world. That’s a level of consistency that no other thrower in  history can match.

If Sandra can maintain that level for the next two years, pick up another World title in Qatar, another Olympic title in Tokyo, push her total number of DL wins into the fifties…to me that would make her the best there ever was.

I imagine that Sandra came to Berlin last week quite conscious of the opportunity these Championships offered to further burnish her legacy. A win in Berlin would be her fifth consecutive Euro title, a feat that no athlete in any event had accomplished.

And with a season’s best throw of 71.38m, seven meters farther than anyone else in the field, her odds of winning that fifth title seemed more than deece.

Thursday morning’s qualification round exposed no chinks in Sandra’s armor. She settled matters quickly with a first attempt of 64.54m to lead all qualifiers.

It seemed likely that the battle for silver and bronze would come down to the three German entries,  Shanice Craft…

…who reached 61.13m in qualification…

…Claudine Vita…

….who hit 59.18m, and Nadine Müller…

…who produced the second best throw of the prelims, 60.64m.

Another intriguing qualifier was Italy’s Daisy Osakue, the US Division II collegiate champion for Angelo State University in Texas.

Coming nearly three months after the end of a long collegiate season, Daisy’s qualifying throw of 58.73m was impressive. Making her achievement all the more remarkable was the fact that two weeks earlier, while training in Turin, Italy, she had suffered a scratched cornea when struck in the eye by an egg thrown from a speeding car. The incident put Daisy squarely in the middle of a recent controversy over the anti-immigrant stance of the newly elected Italian government led by Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte. It has been suggested, much to Conte’s chagrin, that the assault on Daisy was inspired by his government’s inflammatory and often racist rhetoric.

Either way, it was a traumatic and extremely ill-timed experience for Daisy and made it seem unlikely that she’d make an appearance in Berlin, let alone advance to Saturday night’s final.

But advance she did.

A storm that rolled through just after the men’s javelin final on Thursday left pleasant weather in its wake and helped to create absolutely lovely conditions on Saturday.  Here are Coach Sack and Nadine Müller enjoying the cool evening air at the warmup ring outside the stadium…

…as Edis Elkasević and Sandra Perkovic plotted their assault on that fifth straight Euro title.

Eventually, the athletes were loaded aboard carts and transported inside…

…where they were greeted by 60,000 spectators ready to support a solid lineup of German athletes including medal contenders in the men’s high jump, women’s long jump, and of course the disc.

And for a while, Germans held the lead in all three of those events.

I know nothing about the high jump or long jump, so I can’t say whether or not things played out as expected there, but you can count me as very surprised when Nadine Müller entered the fifth round with a three-meter edge over Sandra in the disc.

Here’s how it came about.

Nadine entered the meet with a season’s best of 62.73m (a bit subpar for her as she has surpassed the 65.00m mark every year since 2009) and in round two, she bumped that season’s best to 63.00m.

It’s hard to imagine Sandra being rattled by Nadine’s throw, but for the first four rounds, she clearly was not her normal butt-kicking self.

This was odd, as Sandra seemed in excellent shape at the warm-up track. Here she is smashing a pre-meet power position throw:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=1Tyh3SX6nec

She caged her first attempt of the competition, though, then went 59.09m in the second round on a throw that looked like it might have gotten a piece of the cage as well. She followed that up with a round-three 59.97m.

I’m not gonna lie, it was weird. The crowd was understandably pro-Deutschland, and they were going nuts the whole time over the high and long jumps and over their discus trio, but those folks appreciate great throwing and they clearly wanted to see Sandra go 70.00m. They  gave her plenty of love each time she entered the ring, and she was the only non-German thrower afforded the honor of having a quick burst of rock music blasted through the PA system before each of her throws to signal folks to stop watching the jumps for a second and pay attention to the discus.

Sandra usually thrives on that stuff, but on this night, she looked lost.

Meanwhile, Claudine Vita put herself in second place going into the reordering with a third-round toss of 61.23m, while Daisy (58.09m) and Shanice (59.73m) each earned the full six throws with their second-round efforts.

As the fourth round began, the place was going absolutely bonkers. The German high jumper, Mateusz Przybylko, was locked in a duel for the gold medal and his every attempt inspired huge cheers from the fans. At the same time,  German long jumper Malaika Mihambo, was contending for gold as well, so there were lots of reasons for folks to make noise.

I kept wondering how the throwers dealt with all the distractions they faced in a competition like this. For sure, noise and excitement must be preferable to throwing in front of the docile and comparitively sparse crowd that showed up for the morning qualification rounds, But on this night it was not unusual for a discus thrower to be midway through their windup only to have 60,000 people erupt over a high jump clearance. And the masterful way that the Germans managed the proceedings on this night, using the large video screens and the PA system to cue the fans when a big moment was unfolding, caused frequent delays at the discus cage. Whenever a race was about to start, or even when the runners were being introduced, all throwing stopped.

So I can see why some athletes, especially those who had not experienced this type of atmoshphere before, might struggle to maintain  focus.

But Perkovic? There is nothing she hasn’t seen and contended with throughout her long career.  Bad weather. Bad officiating. Huge crowds. No crowds. At the Rio Olympics, she opened with two fouls in the qualification round and in the finals and still came away with the gold medal. And clearly, someone with forty-two Diamond League wins knows how to squeeze out an excellent throw even when feeling “off” on a given day.

So I knew for sure that Sandra would regain her composure during the reordering  and set everything straight on her fourth throw.

Which she proceeded to whang into the cage.

I’m sure Nadine would have loved to take advantage of Sandra’s mysterious loss of rhythm and put a little more distance between them, but in round four she managed only 61.99m. Daisy, seemingly oblivious to any and all distractions, nailed a near-PB of 59.32m in round five to move into fifth place, while Claudine and Shanice each fouled their fourth and fifth attempts.

The swallows returning to Capistrano. My mother-in-law ringing the doorbell while I am taking a nap. Some things in life are inevitable.

And so it was with Perkovic. She finally found her rhythm on her fifth throw, a toss of 67.62m, which secured the gold medal and restored natural order to the throwing universe.

Both Sandra and Nadine fouled in round six, but Shanice Craft drilled a 62.46m which jumped her past Vita into third place.

Here are the happy medalists:

Daisy ended up fifth, and the experience left her utterly stoked.

”This year has been so wonderful!” she exclaimed after the competition. “I did my PR (59.72m) at the Angelo State Relays in April, then I won the DII nationals, then I came to Italy, went to the Diamond League meeting in Rome, won the U23 Mediterranean Championships, came her and got fifth. So, like…wow!”

“My first goal was to make it to the finals, so I got to the finals and I was like ‘Wow, what did I just do?’ Then I tried my best to get in the first eight so I could get three more throws, and I don’t know, I just ended up fifth! I ‘m super overwhelmed, so I think I ‘m talking too fast. It is something crazy! I would never have expected it, fifth place in Euro from nowhere?”

And what was it like throwing in front of 60,000 fans?

“I loved it! The cheering! It’s a big stadium, so I was scared that I wouldn’t react to it the right way, but I think I got the right thing!”

I was curious how she managed to stay sharp over the course of a very long season, and Daisy gave equal credit to Nathan Janusey, her throws coach at San Angelo State, and Maria Marello, her coach in Italy.

“They talked a lot and coordinated everything.  And our head coach Thomas Delbert helped me a lot. He knows that I am a transfer student from Italy. He says ‘Don’t worry. Just do this, this, this for San Angelo, then you can do this, this, this for Italy.’ So it worked out great.”

I was also curious how a thrower from Italy ended up attending a university located in San Angelo, Texas.

“They chose me! I got a message from Coach Janusey on Facebook ‘Would you like to come to San Angelo?’ I was like, ‘Uh, I don’t know.’ Then I talked  to my parents and my coach, and they said ‘It will be a great experience, so you have to try it.’”

“It was hard adjusting at first, but we have athletes from all over the world. After a month, I got friends. This is thanks to my biggest problem—my parents say that I can talk to walls, that I can talk to any living thing or not living thing!”

Like Daisy, Shanice Craft was positively giddy over her performance.

She moved to Berlin a year ago to join the training group of Robert and Julia Harting under the direction of Coach Marko Badura, and she was very happy with her new situation.

“I love it! Before, I was in Mannheim and I didn’t have a training group. Now I have two very good teammates. We have a lot of fun, and we push each other. It gives me so much motivation to see them work!”

I asked her if it was difficult to maintain focus that night with all the delays interrupting the flow of the competition.

“I should be able to block that out, but today I had big problems. There were so many breaks from the competition that it was very hard for me to stay focused, and I just felt like I couldn’t do anything in the ring.”

“Lots of my friends and my family were here, and after the fifth attempt I thought, ‘No, I can’t do that to them.’  The last attempt, I wanted something big. I came here to get a medal, and I thought ‘No, it’s not possible that I will get fourth place.’  For my last attempt I thought of Robert Harting’s last throw at the World Championships in 2009. I was here at the stadium that night! Before my final throw, I was watching that competition in my head. I had it in front of my eyes.  I wanted to do the same thing that Robert did that night!”

I reminded Shanice that after winning the gold in 2009, Robert had picked up Berlino—the large, cuddly bear mascot—and romped around with him on his back.

“I have to go to the gym more so I can do that next time!”

I spoke with Nadine Müller next, and it turns out that her less than stellar season up to that point had been due to a back injury she sustained in April which cost her several weeks of training.

I asked her if it was possible that having a delayed start to her season had helped her throw well in Berlin by keeping her fresh

in April, before we were to fly to a training camp, the final training I injured my back so I could not fly, I missed a lot of throws, I could not throw for three weeks,

“I have lost so many throws this season,” she lamented. “I hope the rest of this season I can be fine and the next competition throw past 63.00m.”

As with the other throwers, Nadine loved the level of excitement in the stadium, but did not appreciate all the delays.

“I think it’s okay when they start a race to have us break, but there were so many other breaks where they made us wait two or three minutes,  But it is the same always in major competitions.”

Nadine would know, having competed in two Olympics and five World Championships. She won silver in Daegu in 2011 and bronze in Beijing in 2015. I asked if over the years she had been able to develop a method for handling the interruptions.

“Yes,” she laughed. “I‘m the old lady who has so many finals! I think by now it is easier for me. I ‘m a cool down girl, so I can stay focused better than the young ones,”

Just then, the  queen of focus happened by, carrying a large stuffed animal and reveling in another moment of triumph.

She attributed her struggles on this night to an uncharacteristic bout of overconfidence, “Because I was in really good shape, and in the first or second round I was thinking ‘If my discus just go out of the net, I will be European champion.” Maybe I was thinking is going to be easy job for me.”

“Then in the third round  I messed up again, and I said to myself, ‘Oh my god, what is going on? You cannot be yourself?’ Then I also had a nice try in the fourth round, which also went into the net. Then, before the fifth round I started saying ‘Oh my god, your training! Your goals! You have four European gold, and this is your chance for a fifth one like nobody did. You want to miss it?'”

“I told myself before my fifth throw, ‘You want to wait for the sixth attempt in front of a German crowd?’ And then I saw it fly, and I know it is 65.00m plus, minimum. Then I saw 67.62m,

‘All the girls know they need to wait for me and in one round I will get it. I’m used to throws like last year in London, where it was like 69.00m then 70.00m then 70.00m again then 69.00m again. It was an easy peasy competition for me, but this time was strange.”

I asked if she noticed that the crowd was on her side.

“Yes,” she said. “I was fighting against the Germans but they support me! But I didn’t have good, positive vibes around me. It wasn’t the other girls or the crowd.  I was confused, and I never felt that before.”

“The last few days, I had some problems. A bee stung me in training! And one day I was was working and I flipped my ankle. Maybe these things distracted me.”

Having seen how much she relies on Edis during competitions, I wondered if Sondra worried that the stress he must feel on nights like this was might be shortening his life span.

“No, he is a very strong person! After the third round, he really woke me up. He was like, ‘You want the crowd to enjoy this moment or not? Will you waste all your training or will you win a fifth gold like nobody has before?'”

“He knows that if you start talking shit to me, I’ll be like, ‘Are you serious? Now you’re gonna see!”

I ran into Edis a few minutes later. He was slowly making his way through the stands with a friend at his side. He looked drained.

“Come on,” I teased him. “You knew she’d come through.”

His friend spoke up.

“That’s right! We did. It was her fifth European title, so she waited for the fifth throw to win. It all makes sense!”

With that they strode off in search of Sandra.

This was my final night in Berlin, so  I made one last leisurely lap around the stadium then headed for the subway.

Thanks, Berlin, for the most amazing track and field experience  of my life.

Thanks to all the coaches, shop owners, concession stand workers, ushers and and everyone else I ran across on my trip, including my favorite bouncer. Without fail, they did their best to make up for my ignorance of their language by communicating with me in English.  I will never forget their kindness.

And thanks to all the athletes who took the time to chat. I was at the bottom of the media food chain at the Euros, so by the time they got to me in the sweltering mixed zone some had been answering questions non-stop for an hour. I’m sure all they wanted to do was to get the heck of there to celebrate or commiserate with their friends and family, and they were under no obligation to talk to me.  But they were so friendly and so polite, it makes a guy think that maybe he fell in love with just the right sport.

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.