Of Manatees and Germans

So every day at the beginning of class I show my students the “BBC One-Minute World News.” The BBC generally covers topics like genocide and terrorism, just the thing to get a bunch of sixteen-year-olds excited about semicolons, but every once in a while they sneak in a fun story about koala bears or some such, and a few weeks ago they featured a manatee named Snooty who lives in Bradenton, Florida, and is the oldest captive manatee in the universe.

I could not wait to show my daughter KC some Snooty vids when I got home that night (turns out he is all over Youtube) as she loves animals as much as I do and and suffers as grievously as I do over the fact that my wife forbids us from owning one.

We gave up arguing long ago as the wife is an attorney and we know that crossing her means spending the winter living in the shed.

But the wife loves to travel, and it does not take much convincing to get her to head to Florida for spring break.

And truth be told, she loves animals as much as KC and me, as long as someone else is in charge of taking care of them. So she was happy to book us a flight to Tampa and a hotel room on the beach in Sarasota (just ten miles from Snooty and Bradenton). Here, by the way, is Snooty:

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Truth be told, I had an ulterior motive for wanting to visit Bradenton. Last August, at the European Championships in Zurich, I struck up a friendship with Torsten Schmidt, one of the throws coaches in the German national system, and I knew that Torsten and his training group were going to be spending a couple of weeks at the IMG Academy in…Bradenton.

That’s right,  Snooty the Manatee and German discus throwers in…the…same…place.

No, I will not shut up.

So we (me, my wife Alice, KC, and KC’s extremely affable friend Eileen) caught a flight to Tampa at the crack of dawn last Sunday, and that night Alice, Torsten, and I sat down for an excellent seafood dinner not far from the IMG campus.

Torsten, who threw the disc for Germany in the 2004 Olympics, is an extremely tall, extremely affable man who admits to two obsessions aside from throwing: television and cake.

He and his training group (Julia Fischer, Robert and Chris Harting) had recently dined at the Cheesecake Factory, an experience he spoke of  with great reverence.

“I hear they have really good hamburgers,” my wife interjected.

“No,” he corrected her. “I do not go to the Cheesecake Factory to eat burgers. I go to eat cake.”

Four pieces, apparently. Two double chocolate and two Oreo.

In addition to the quality of the local cake, Torsten had other reasons to be happy. Robert’s recovery from knee surgery (he tore his ACL last September) seemed to be going well. Chris had been throwing practice PR’s. And Julia had, that very day, made a breakthrough when Robert suggested she try an abbreviated windup.

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We celebrated by inhaling seafood together. During the meal, I peppered Torsten with questions about German throwing technique while my wife graciously offered advice on his relationship with his girlfriend, Sanna,  “The man should always say yes,” she told him. “Then you will both be happy!”

After we dropped Torsten back at IMG, my wife gave him the ultimate compliment: “He has a good aura.”

The next day, the girls tried to kill me with exercise by making me join them on a kayaking tour of the local waterways. Afterwards, even my aura was sore.

On Tuesday, we got to meet Snooty. And he did not disappoint.

Snooty lives what could accurately be described as “the good life.” Come to think of it, he and my daughter have a lot in common.

Both consume massive amounts of vegetables.

Both like to spend their days floating around looking cute.

(Here is my little manatee)

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Both have been raised entirely in captivity, and would be unlikely to survive in the wild (“wild” in my daughter’s case meaning any town where you’d have to walk farther than 100 meters to find a Starbucks).

At least my daughter feeds herself, though. Do you see Snooty in the background of this picture? He is looking up at a pile of vegetables that he knows are meant for him.

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He won’t touch them, however, until one of his handlers…

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…leans over and offers them to him bit by bit.

That woman and her fellow Snooty-keepers spend several hours per day shoving produce into Snooty’s snoot.

And forgive me for digressing, but to those of you who have been contemplating switching to a vegan diet in order to lose weight, who looks better–the meat-eater with his elbow on the rail, or the 800-pound vegetarian floating in the background? I thought so.

Anyway, it turns out that Snooty often shares his home with various injured or traumatized manatees who will at some point be returned to the wild. These sorry creatures are forced to fend for themselves at feeding time so that they do not get too comfortable with humans. Here is Snooty’s current roomie wrestling his dinner from the clutches of a traffic cone:

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This youngster currently weighs in at 500 pounds which, in the manatee world, qualifies him as emaciated. He will not be released from Chez Snooty until he hits the 800 mark.

After bidding a reluctant farewell to Snooty and his anorexic friend, we headed for  IMG and what I anticipated to be the highlight (sorry Snooty!)of the trip: watching Torsten’s group practice.

As previously mentioned, Torsten’s group consists of three discuswerfers, and the first to begin werfing  in this particular session was Robert Harting.

After several years under the tutelage of Werner Goldmann, Harting asked Torsten to take over his training in November of 2013. Watching them interact on this absolutely gorgeous Florida evening, I could tell that they were a good match.

I’ve never seen Harting practice before, so I don’t know if this was typical, but he approached this session with great focus and intensity. There was no laughing. No small talk. No smiling, even. He conferred with Torsten after each attempt, whether a stand or full, and seemed utterly intent on finding a way to make the next throw go farther.

It reminded me of the stories you used to hear around Chicago of Michael Jordan and his approach to training. There was no such thing as a meaningless drill or scrimmage when Jordan was involved. Even after the Bulls started winning titles, he practiced with a fury that few could match.

That’s why Phil Jackson was the perfect coach for Jordan. Naturally laid-back, Phil could interact with Jordan without inciting him. In fact, it is hard to imagine Jordan flourishing under a coach with an aggressive, “in your face” style.

I suspect that Robert and Torsten have a similar relationship. Robert listened intently to Torsten’s advice after each attempt, but that advice was delivered in a quiet, reassuring tone.

This relationship may be the very thing that gets Harting through this difficult period of recovery from major knee surgery. When you are used to being the strongest, toughest mothertrucker in your entire sport the prospect of losing your edge, of falling back to the pack must be agonizing. Obviously, Robert did not anticipate this situation when he signed on with Torsten, but in the end it may prove to be the smartest move he has ever made.

After Harting had thrown for 45 minutes or so, Julia Fischer arrived at the ring. This is an important season for Julia, who was to celebrate her twenty-fifth birthday the following day.

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The 2011 Under-23 European Champion, Julia finished fifth in Zurich last August and needs to raise her game a notch if she is to contend for a medal in Beijing and Rio.

As noted above, Torsten was really happy with the progress Julia made during their time in Florida, but this was her second throwing session of the day and, probably owing to fatigue, she fell into the habit of yanking her head a bit at the finish of her throws many of which sailed off beyond the right foul line.

Torsten and Robert took turns adjusting her technique, largely without success. Towards the end of her session she took extra time to gather herself between throws, and this seemed to help. Either way, she finished the session in good spirits and I would not be surprised to see her make a breakthrough this summer.

I hope so. She seems like a very nice person and she is clearly a fine, fine athlete.

The final member of the group to arrive at the cage was Chris Harting, Robert’s younger brother. Chris is in a situation similar to that of Julia as he is just on the cusp of throwing far enough to make noise at the international level (his PB is 64.99m).

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In order to represent Germany in Beijing this August, Chris must have one of the top three throws by a German man after April 1st (This does not include Robert, as the defending champion gets an automatic entry). With Martin Wierig and Daniel Jasinski leading a strong group of contenders, Chris, like Julia needs to have a breakout year.

We chatted a bit as he worked to loosen up a slightly strained back prior to taking his throws, and he seemed pleased with the progress he had made this off-season and confident about his prospects come the summer.

Unfortunately for me, I did not get to see Chris take any serious throws as in order to give his back a break Torsten limited him to a few left-handed stands.

Yes, you read that correctly. Left-handed stands.

According to Torsten, it is very important that throwers take regular attempts left-handed. Stands. Half-turns. Even fulls. He told a great story about the recently retired German shot putter Ralf Bartels watching the former Olympic discus champ Virgilius Alekna struggle to break the 65-meter line at a practice session. Ralf could not figure out what was troubling the giant Lithuanian until he finally noticed that Virgilius was launching those 60-meter-plus throws…left handed.

Torsten says that throwing left-handed forces right-handed throwers to think about positions and thus helps them to gain a deeper understanding of their technique.

The session ended with Chris whanging a couple of left-handed stands into the cage.

A few minutes later, my wife returned to pick me up and Torsten and I said our goodbyes.

It should be a very interesting summer for his training group.

Torsten, if you read this, thanks loads for greatly expanding my understanding of discus technique.

Sanna, if you read this, take it from my wife, you’ve got yourself a great guy.

Snooty, if you read this, you are a hell of a lot smarter than you look.

Alice, my wife, if you read this…I’m thrilled to be your husband, even if you won’t let me have a dog.

Now, how about a manattee?  They’re cute. They don’t bark. They don’t need to be walked. They…uhhh, what did I do with that key to the shed?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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