All posts by Daniel McQuaid

In Berlin

It seemed like the perfect plan. My wife’s sister who lives in Berlin recently had a hip replacement. My wife wanted someone to go and stay with her for a few days to make sure she’s doing okay.

Chivalrous bastard that I am, I volunteered.

My school has the entire week off. I got a great fare on Air Berlin. I made a lunch date with Torsten Schmidt, the coach of Robert Harting, so that I could continue to badger him into helping me understand why the Germans consistently produce great discus throwers.

My wife and mother-in-law dropped me at the airport on Saturday and then headed to the outlet mall while I breezed through security.

Got a couple of magazines. A nice iced tea. A rather excellent gyro.

They begin to call out group numbers. I heard mine, stepped up and handed over my boarding pass and passport, the guy takes a look at it, then looks at me and says “Please step over to the counter.”

As I do, he yells to the counter person “Check his passport!”

At this point, I imagine everyone in the vicinity figured they had just nabbed a terrorist trying to board with a fake passport. I could not imagine what was the deal. Then they told me.

“Sir, your passport expires in two months. You cannot travel to Germany within three months of your passport expiring.”

Imagine my vexation.

I stood there probably looking a bit stunned and watched the plane fly away without me.

After a while, the gate supervisor explained to me that this was a fairly new regulation and that I might be able to get an expedited passport on Monday and they would put me on their next flight, which would not be until Tuesday.

My immensely patient wife came back to the airport to get me and immediately upon our arrival home started working the phone to make sure Air Berlin was going to honor the supervisor’s promise that I would get on the Tuesday flight.

Long story short, they were less than keen about doing that in spite of my wife’s pointing out that that they ought to let a guy know  there might be a problem with his passport before he is ten feet from boarding the plane.

The last person she spoke to in Berlin finally told her that I should show up for the Tuesday flight and basically throw myself on the mercy of the ticket agent.

At that point we had no idea if they’d let me on the flight or if they’d say “tough luck” and make us eat the cost of the ticket.

Luckily, we had one other option. If I could get a new passport on Monday and get to O’Hare by 4:00ish I might be able to use a buddy pass on United (another of my wife’s sisters is a stew) that would at least get me to Frankfort. From there I could figure out how to get to Berlin and then come home on the return portion of my Air Berlin ticket.

If you can’t tell by now that my wife is a saint, just know that she spent about seven hours at the passport bureau with me on Monday and if you think that was a barrel of laughs…try it some time.

Got to go. I’ll finish the story later!

 

How Could They?

Is anyone else astonished that the IAAF chose Qatar to host the 2019 World Championships?

Let’s see…Qatar has been strongly suspected of bribing their way into hosting the soccer world cup in 2022, they have been accused of badly mistreating the foreign workers that they import for construction projects, and the competition will have to be delayed until late September/early October to avoid the insane summer temperatures in that region.

Great call IAAF!

Here are a couple of excellent articles on this matter:

http://www.insidethegames.biz/sports/summer/athletics/1023933-exclusive-iaaf-claim-doha-s-37-million-offer-in-2019-world-championships-bid-was-legal-and-within-guidelines

http://www.insidethegames.biz/blogs/1023916-mike-rowbottom-why-the-iaaf-disregarded-a-herd-of-elephants-in-the-room-to-give-doha-the-2019-world-athletics-championships

Any thoughts? I just don’t know what to think other than to wonder if the IAAF  is as corrupt as FIFA.

–McQ

Stories from the 2014 European Championships, Part 2: the Men’s Discus

The discus qualification rounds were held during the evening session of the first day of competition (Tuesday, August 12) and the weather was excellent, as was my view of the cage:

photo (56)

Those photographers did not linger very long, and I was able to take some nice vids from my seat, which was in the last row–a testament to the intimate layout at Letzigrund.

Here, by the way, is a link to those vids:

I was especially jacked up about the prospect of seeing two of the all-time greats appearing in this competition, one–Robert Harting–still at his peak, the other–Virgilius Alekna–nearing the end of the road.

I had the pleasure of seeing Alekna compete four times in the old Letzigrund Stadium when he was in his prime. Here is a link to a vid I made of the 2000 competition when he hit 70 meters on four of six throws:

And here is a link to an article I wrote about the 2005 Zurich meeting and a rather humorous encounter I had with Alekna the next day:

http://mcthrows.com/?p=96

Suffice it to say, I am a big fan of that man. He always carried himself with great dignity. After those 70-meter throws he might raise an arm to acknowledge the crowd, but at the same time he’d smile sheepishly, seeming almost embarrassed by the attention.

I’ve always wondered if he felt like murdering Robert Fazekas in 2004.  If you recall, Fazekas prevented Alekna from enjoying a well-deserved victory lap celebrating his second Olympic gold. Fazekas defeated Alekna but not the drug testers in Athens, so Alekna received his medal in a delayed ceremony. Fazekas also kept Alekna from collecting a share of that year’s Golden League grand prize money by handing the large Lithuanian his only Golden League loss that season (athletes had to go undefeated to get a piece of the big prize).

But to be honest, it is difficult to imagine Alekna getting really cheesed off about anything. He reminds me of the ancient Roman hero Cincinnatus, who in times of war would set aside his plow, lead the Romans to victory, then quietly return to his fields caring nothing for glory or acclaim.

Harting, on the other hand, is more like Achilles. He carries himself with an undeniable air of superiority. And, like Achilles, he has earned the right to do that by defeating all challengers. In The Iliad, the Trojans are full of piss and vinegar as long as Achilles is away from the battlefield. But the minute he shows up looking to avenge the death of his friend Patroclus, they know it is all over for them.

So it is with the world’s best discus throwers. When I ran into Piotr Malachowski, the Polish record holder and this season’s world leader with a throw of 69.28m, in New York last June the first thing I said to him was “It is great to meet you. You are a fantastic thrower!”

His reply?

“Yes, but Harting always beats me.”

What makes Harting an interesting character, though, is that in conversation he is very self-deprecating. I ran into him in that same hotel lobby in New York where I had spoken to Malachowski, and he was extremely gracious. He had just arrived from the airport after a trans-Atlantic flight but he patiently answered my questions, and then answered some more following his win the next day at the Adidas Grand Prix meeting. Here are links to those two interviews:

Anyway, it turned out to be an interesting juxtaposition watching these two great champions, both competing in flight one of the prelims in Zurich. Alekna looked as smooth as he ever did, but simply could not generate the power necessary to reach the 64-meter automatic qualifier mark. The best he could muster was a first-round 59.35m.

Harting, flush with power, qualified easily by hitting 67.01m on his first attempt.

Gerd Kanter also looked sharp in the prelims, throwing 65.79m to go one-and-done.

Malachowski ended up taking all three of his attempts, ultimately reaching 64.98m.

I left the stadium that night thinking that we might see a pretty good battle between those three in the next day’s final.

As mentioned in my last post, I headed over to the Hilton Hotel early the next morning in order to attend a German team press conference. Afterwards, I sat down in the lobby to make some notes and eventually looked up to see a very tall man ambling past the front desk. It was Torsten Schmidt, a 2004 Olympian and, since last November, the coach of Robert Harting.

From what I understand, Germans, unlike Americans, are not comfortable with casual friendliness. My brother-in-law has told me that when a German meets another German he must speak to that person in a formal way until given permission to switch over to a more familiar style of address. In the press conference I had just attended, for example, I noticed that at least one of the German reporters had addressed David Storl as “Herr Storl” even though the reporter was much older than the shot putter.

I was a worried then, that I might cause offense by springing upon the unsuspecting Coach Schmidt and interrupting a heretofore peaceful morning stroll.

But doggonit, a fellow only lives once, and how often do you see the coach of the world’s best discus thrower wandering through a hotel lobby?

So, I pounced.

And it turns out he is a really nice man. I think he spent the first couple of minutes of our conversation wondering who in the hell I was and why in God’s name I was asking him questions, but eventually he understood that I was a fellow discus geek and we had a very nice chat.

He told me that he had retired from competition in 2007, and by 2009 was coaching young throwers at the German training center in Berlin.

I asked him if he felt a lot of pressure going from coaching teenagers to coaching the defending Olympic champion, but he said no because Harting has such a clear idea of what he needs to do to perform well, and that even when his form is a bit off he is strong enough to throw far.

In fact, according to Coach Schmidt, Harting’s entry was flawed on his qualifier, but he was able to muscle it 67 meters.

After a few minutes, I wished Coach Schmidt good luck in that night’s final, and headed off to the stadium to watch the women’s hammer qualifying.

It rained throughout the entire hammer competition, but the sun reappeared as I made my way towards the train station with the idea of heading back to Winterthur to relax for a couple of hours before returning to Letzigrund for the evening session.

On the way, I stopped at a plaza in downtown Zurich stocked full of track-related activities and displays, and dominated by this temporary wooden structure:

photo 1

The reason that all of the table umbrellas are tied up is that the wind was really whipping, and eventually blew so strong that the start of the evening session was delayed some 90 minutes.

After a nice nap back at my brother-in-law’s apartment, I saw news of the delay on Twitter but wasn’t sure how it would affect the start of the discus final, so I headed over to the Winterthur train station in plenty of time to get back to Letzigrund in case it proceeded on schedule.

And who should I run into on the train platform, but the fine Dutch discus thrower Eric Cadee and his girlfriend Kai Kand, the former heptathlete from Estonia.

I met Eric last June when I retrieved his shoe on Randall’s Island in New York. It was the day before the Diamond League meeting, and I had headed over to Icahn Stadium to see if any of the throwers were practicing. Eric was there with 2012 Olympic silver medalist Ehsan Hadadi, and they wanted to try out the ring but it was entirely filled with water from a morning shower.

I quickly snapped into Coach McQuaid mode, rounded up a broom and some towels, and cleaned up the ring. Eric just wanted to take some easy shoe tosses, and I shagged for him so that he didn’t have to keep walking through the wet grass. He and Ehsan were both very pleasant to talk to, and after they were done practicing I taped a quick interview with each. You can find those interviews here:

Unfortunately, Eric did not throw well in the qualifying in Zurich, so he was on his way to attend the discus final as a spectator.

It was great fun talking to Eric and Kai on the journey to the stadium, and I couldn’t help but fantasize about some day coaching their children. They are smart and friendly and just happen to be world class athletes. Eric and Kai, if you read this just know that the Chicago suburbs have lots of parks and excellent schools.

I mentioned that Malachowski seemed not to be at his best, and Eric said that he (Malachowski) was struggling with his timing and confidence. “I told him, just remember you are the defending European champion. You’ve thrown 71 meters!”

When we arrived at the stadium, the wind was swirling, the temperature was dropping, and the decathlon javelin was just getting underway. This meant that the discus final would not begin for another two hours.

Always one to make the best of a bad situation, I filled the time by eating brats and pretending to be interested in the decathlon.

Finally, the javelin sector lines were removed, the discus sector lines were set out, and the finalists were ushered into the stadium.

I had paid 140 francs for a second row seat hoping to be close to the cage for the final, and I was definitely close:

photo 3

The problem was that Harting’s presence made the discus a marquee event, and in order to give the folks watching at home a great view…

photo 5

…they totally blocked mine.

See that giant camera pointed at the stands? That was there to film the reaction of the coaches throughout the competition.

It is probably good that they did not point that camera at me, because while I do not speak German, I do know a universal hand signal that would have expressed my feelings precisely.

Ah well, it was still fun to be that close.

Shortly before they opened the ring for warmups, it began to rain.

The Zurich ring has a good reputation. In New York, Harting told me he really likes throwing at Letzigrund, and Sondra Perkovic has said the same thing.

But there was something about the combination of the misting rain and the cool temperature that made the surface almost unmanageable.

Harting actually fell down performing an imitation.

And I don’t care how confident you are, that has got to shake you up a bit.

Throughout the competition, Harting took frequent strolls across the track to check in with Torsten.

photo 4

Most of the competitors did the same. Here is Martin Wierig conversing with his coach, world record holder Jurgen Schult:

photo 1

 

Here is Robert Urbanek with his coach:

photo 1

 

Malachowski had several animated conversations with the Olympic shot champion, Tomasz Majewski.

photo 3

Malachowski had told me that he and Majewski were best friends, and they acted like it. I do not speak Polish, but based on their gestures and facial expressions it seemed like their interactions went something like this:

“Throw farther, you idiot!”

“I can’t! The ring is a mess!”

“I don’t care! Just find a way!”

That photo above was taken after the competition though, and you can see that Majewski was genuinely pained when his friend was unable to defend his title.

Harting opened with 63.94m, followed by a foul when the discus slipped out of his hand, followed by one of those throws that he always seems to come up with: 66.07m in round three.

He passed in round four, hoping that the rain might let up a bit and let him extend his lead…

photo 2

…then fouled both of his final attempts. On his sixth throw, his right foot landed on the rubberized surface surrounding the ring and I thought he was going to do the splits.

Kanter, who had spent time between throws performing imitations on the track right in front of me…

photo 1

…finished second with a 64.75m toss, followed by a very happy Robert Urbanik…

photo 5

photo 2

…whose second round toss of 63.81m held up for the bronze.

You will notice that Harting is shirtless here, and that he is surrounded by a bunch of photographers.

After his final throw, the whole stadium was ready to see him rip his shirt off–his usual mode of celebration following a big win.

Harting, though, decided to have some fun with those expectations and performed a couple of fake shirt rips…

photo 1

…before peeling it off and pretending to take a nap on the track.

photo 3

His was not the only ecstatic celebration of the night, as French decathlete Florian Geffrouais seemed at one point about to jump on me:

photo 2

photo 3

photo 4

photo 5

 

One last observation regarding the men’s discus. The Germans are huge! Harting is a big man. Wierig is bigger. Fellow finalist Daniel Jasinski is even bigger. And Jasinski’s coach is the biggest dude I’ve ever seen!

photo 4

Do you see Majewski there talking to Malachowski? The guy in the red jacket next to Tomasz is Jasinski’s coach, and he…is…bigger…than…Majewski! Bet he doesn’t have any trouble getting his athletes to listen to him.

So, a couple of days later, Saturday morning to be exact, I headed back to the Hilton for another German press conference. This one mainly concerned the women’s hammer, which I will post about later, but afterwards I walked out into the lobby and who should meander by but Torsten Schmidt.

The poor guy must have wondered what he had to do to make it through the lobby without some idiot American jumping out from behind a potted plant.

But we had another really nice conversation! He said that prior to the competition the discus throwers had been told three times in the holding area that they would be taken to the ring in “10 minutes.”  Somehow, ten minutes stretched into an hour and then nearly two hours before they were actually brought out for warmups.

Then, as mentioned above, it was very difficult to find comfort with the throwing surface.

Most of the throwers also quickly gave up trying to perform imitations between attempts due to the slickness of the rubberized surface around the cage. That is why Kanter came over to the track to work on his steps, apparently finding a dry patch just in front of the stands.

It all added up to a potential disaster for  Harting,the prohibitive favorite, and for Torsten who must have felt the weight of expectations as well.

One thing that I was struck by throughout my week in Zurich was how much it meant for these athletes to medal at this meet. Obviously, the Olympics and World Championships are a bigger deal, but based on the reactions of the winners and losers, I’d say not by much.

I got the sense, especially from the Germans, that they felt great pride in representing their country. Each time I passed through the Hilton lobby, I noticed several German athletes watching the live feed from the stadium and cheering loudly when their compatriots performed well.

So it could not have been easy for Torsten to have watched Harting bite the dust during an imitation and then struggle mightily to find a semblance of rhythm.

“So,” I finally asked, “what did you say to help get him through it?”

“We decided that he needed to keep more bend in his knees so he could keep his balance. Fortunately, that was enough.”

Just then, Harting showed up. He looked at Torsten and then at me and then his eyes widened and he exclaimed, “You again!”

I held out my hand.

“Hello, Robert. Dan McQuaid. Congratulations on your victory!”

As we shook, he looked again at Torsten and said, “This guy is always hanging around asking questions!”

“Yes,” I replied. “Your coach is telling me all of your secrets.”

“Secrets?” he shot back. “There is no such thing as secrets!”

“Secrets,” he continued, tapping a long finger against his temple, “are only doubts!”

And with that he turned and strode confidently away looking fit and ready to storm the walls of Troy.

 

 

The European Athletics Championships Part 1: Men’s Shot

leitzigrund

 

I’ve done my share of dumb things in my life, but one thing I got right was that I married the perfect woman. She is beautiful and nice and very patient with me, and…I’m not going to say this is the most important thing, but…she has a brother who lives in southern Germany just across the border from Switzerland. He and his wife also rent an apartment in Winterthur, Switzerland, which is a 20-minute train ride from Zurich, which is where the 2014 European Athletics Championships were held this month…which I got to attend all because I married the right woman.

A fantastic week of competition at Letzigrund Stadium began on the morning of Tuesday, August 12th with the qualifying rounds of the men’s shotput.

Tuesday also marked the beginning of my never-ending quest for unobstructed sight lines from which to view the throws. I say this good-naturedly, as the folks in Zurich did an amazing job of hosting this meet. Inside the stadium there were dozens of volunteers, all dressed like this…

volunteers

…and all utterly determined to be helpful.  It didn’t matter that I only speak English. It didn’t matter that it took me about ten minutes to figure out which Swiss coins I needed to hand over every time I bought a brat. It didn’t matter that when I said “brat” it sounded like “brot,” the German word for bread. Everyone I dealt with at Letzigrund was cheerfully patient.

Actually, the volunteers did not know it, but the most helpful thing they did all week was to take public transportation to the stadium with the rest of us. Any time I got confused as to which tram or bus I should board, all I had to do was to find and follow members of the purple army.

I intend to write more later about the way the meet was managed because I think the organizers had some great ideas about how to engage the fans. And, as I discovered when I returned to the States, the television coverage of every event including the throws was astonishingly thorough, so they did a great job of engaging their viewers as well.

The one person they apparently were not worried about accommodating was the Handicam-wielding obsessive throws fan who shelled out 100 to 140 francs per day to see the likes of Robert Harting and David Storl compete and wanted to see the way they moved through the ring rather than just watching their heads bob up and down behind a barricade of television cameras and portable shelters for the athletes.   In other words, me. Here, for example was my view of the men’s shot prelims:

shot prelim

They ran flights simultaneously in two rings, each of which was substantially hidden from view.  Luckily, there was not much drama to the proceedings. Everybody knew that Germany’s David Storl was going to qualify on his first throw (I think the automatic mark was 20 meters) and then dominate that evening’s final.

There was even talk of him breaking the meet record of 22.22m held by the great Swiss putter Werner Gunthor.

What intrigued me about Storl was that he had been throwing with a fixed-feet finish this summer after winning the last two World Championships using a violently aggressive reverse. Apparently he knew what he was doing, because he tossed a PR of 21.97m a couple of weeks prior to the Euros using his new style, but I was dying to find out the reasoning behind the switch.

Storl did, in fact, dominate the competition that evening. You can find the results here:

http://www.european-athletics.org/competitions/european-athletics-championships/2014/athletics/event/mens-shot-put/phase=atm051100/index.html?intcmp=[#]-schline-calltoaction

But he did not look very comfortable, and after finishing one throw with an awkward looking semi-reverse, he limped from the ring and sprawled out on the ground for a couple of minutes.

As he held a half-meter lead over Spain’s  Borja Vivas and Poland’s Tomasz Majewski at the time, I expected Storl to pass his final two attempts, but much to the delight of the crowd…

crowd shot

 

…he did not.

By the way, the view of the shot final was much improved over that of the prelims:

shot final

 

Here is the video that I took that night:

http://youtu.be/VT_O5u8CBXo

It certainly does not match the quality of the televised version, but I did include a brief clip of a cameraman pursuing the women’s 10,000 meter runners around the track on a Segway.

When the competition ended, I knew I was very unlikely to get anywhere near Storl to ask him why he had switched to a fixed-feet glide. There were about a million credentialed media members in the stadium who would get first crack at him. Here is a partial view of the temporary media offices erected next to Letzigrund to accommodate them all..

press offices

…and when I say “partial view” I mean it. This is less than half the total number of them.

Also, they were holding the medal ceremony that night, so I knew Storl was going to be tied up for quite some time.

I decided, therefore, that my best bet was to stalk his coach, who was sitting one section over from me. Unfortunately, every time I approached him he was either on the phone or in deep conversation with the guy sitting next to him and I didn’t want to interrupt. Okay, he got up to go to the bathroom once, but not even I am weird enough to approach a strange man in the men’s room and start questioning him about shot put technique.

Before long, the post competition festivities began…

high wire

…and I headed back to Winterthur without solving the mystery of the fixed-feet glide.

Fortunately, another possibility soon emerged.  On the way out of the stadium, I got a look at a list of press conferences scheduled for the following morning. The German team was staying at the Hilton out near the airport, and were going to make athletes available to the media at 9:30am.

The efficient Swiss public transportation system made it quite easy to get to the airport. The Hilton operated a free shuttle  every fifteen minutes. Long story short, at 9:25 the next morning I walked into the London Room of the Hilton Hotel and took a seat among half a dozen journalists. Sitting at the front of the room were three German athletes (I think they were heptathletes), a coach, and a media liaison.

heptath press conf

 

Precisely at 9:30, they all began conversing in German.

Holy cow, did I feel like a fish out of water. I had no clue what anyone was saying, and after a few minutes was about ready to slink out of there when I heard the door open behind me and saw the media guy look up and smile. The person who entered uttered the word “morgen” in a deep but tired-sounding voice, and I knew it was Storl.

The man of the hour, he was ushered right up to the podium and began answering questions, once again all in German.

storl press conf

I was embarrassed as hell, because this was clearly a news conference meant for the German press, but no way was I getting this close without asking my question.

I raised my hand, and when they called on me I decided to take the humble approach.

“Pardon, may I speak English?”

I’ve never had six heads, so I can’t say for sure that’s how the media guy looked at me, but let’s just say he was plenty surprised.

Storl took it in stride, though, and I finally got my question answered. Why had he switched to a fixed-feet style? He had injured his knee shortly after the Glasgow Diamond League meet and had changed his technique to protect it until he could have surgery after the season.

I followed up by asking him if he was surprised by how far he had been able to throw without a reverse. Everybody in the room including Storl laughed when I asked him that, but he acknowledged that yes, he was pleasantly surprised by his success with his modified style.

And that was it. The reporters resumed pelting him with questions in German, and I walked out of there thinking that getting to talk to Storl had made the whole trip worth while. Little did I know that there was lots more excitement to come.

Everything you need to know about hosting a world class shot put competition on Main Street

rolling the sand

 “There are 20 million runners in this country. I don’t think there are 20 million track fans.”       

                  –Vin Lananna, Head Track Coach, University of Oregon

Okay, if you love the sport of track and field, that’s a problem. Luckily, people like Milan Donley, Meet Director of the Kansas Relays, have been working overtime to convert some of those non-track fans. For the past three years, the Kansas Relays has held a world class shot put competition in downtown Lawrence. Milan got the idea from street meets held in Europe, and the concept has transferred quite nicely to the American heartland.  Throwers love it. Spectators love it. And the businesses in downtown Lawrence who report a 40% increase in sales on those competition days really, really love it.

Milan, who would like to see other communities adopt the street meet concept, was kind enough to share with me the nuts and bolts of hosting one of these competitions.

The Concept 

In order to lure spectators and grow interest in the sport, Milan is determined each year to put on an entertaining “show.”  That means putting together a world class field (more on that later) and adding a few “extras” such as the KU cheerleaders, t-shirt tosses, a post-competition meet and greet with the athletes, a sound system, and a beer garden.

I know, I know. I had you at “KU cheerleaders.”

The competition  consists of one flight of top-notch throwers taking six throws apiece. In order to accentuate the drama, the flight is re-ordered after the third and fifth rounds. Throwers get to choose the music they want to hear as they enter the ring, and are encouraged to “play to the crowd.”  Milan seems quite pleased with the fact that Christian Cantwell (as a University of Missouri alum) is booed heartily by the pro-Jayhawk locals.

cantwell 2

The way that attendance has increased (1,500 in year one to 3,500 this year) would seem to indicate that Milan has accomplished his mission of showing people a good time.

The Setup

 A local quarry donates 400 cubic yards of crushed limestone for the landing area (which is in turn donated to the city of Lawrence). Since the street is not perfectly level, the thickness of the landing area varies from approximately 6 inches just in front of the ring to 3 feet at the opposite end of the sector (approximately 85 feet away).

The ring itself is set in a portable 10′ by 10′ concrete slab built according to specs that Milan obtained from the folks who run the shot competition in the Zurich train station.

Stopboards are placed at the end of the landing area, and barriers and bleachers are set up along the sides to keep spectators safe and comfortable.

Add in a couple of tents to shelter the athletes, a beer garden run by a local establishment and you have everything you need for a great competition.

The city of Lawrence donates the labor necessary for the setup and takedown. Setup begins at 6:00am and takes 5-8 hours. The competition is held at 6:00pm, and the city begins removing the limestone at midnight. By 6:00am the cleanup is done.

Here are a some views of the competition area:

overhead view

reese

cantwell

crowd shot

The Budget

The cost of holding the Kansas Relays shot in downtown Lawrence is $50,000. Part of that money is accumulated through donations from local businesses such as restaurants and banks, and part ($20,000) comes out of the Kansas Relays budget.

The majority of that $50,000 is devoted to putting together a world class field of putters. The very best shotputters in the world can command an appearance fee of $7,500 to $9,000. Less accomplished throwers may settle for $2,500 or less. Each is given $300.00 for travel as well as a per diem and hotel accomodations. The prize money is $1,000 for first place, $750.00 for second, and $500.00 for third.

I feel the need to digress here for a second because I don’t want people who are unfamiliar with the sport to get the wrong idea.

 As is often the case, the money paid to athletes may seem like a lot to us average Joes. Nine thousand dollars for one day’s work? Sounds pretty sweet. But paydays for shotputters are few and far between. The best of the best (recent World and Olympic champions) might get invited to a handful of decent-paying meets per season, and might quickly find themselves uninvited if their performance slips a bit.  Opportunities are even more scarce for those who have not quite achieved “best of the best” status. I recently spoke with a 21-meter putter who has never made a World Championship or Olympic team  and now, at the age of 30, is facing the liklihood of having to retire due to financial considerations. There just aren’t enough paying meets out there to allow him to make a living.

And that’s not good for our sport. As Gia Lewis-Smallwood has recently demonstrated, some throwers do not find their groove until long after they’ve left the security of the college environment. For the United States to field its best team at the Olympics and World Championships, we’ve got to give developing athletes a chance to make some money.

The great thing about street meets is that they help fill that need while also expanding track and field’s fan base.

Anyhow, Milan asks that each thrower arrive the day before the competition so that they may attend a dinner with local doners, and that they stick around after the event to pose for pictures and interact with the spectators, and he says the athletes have been great about doing just that.

I have spoken to two putters who participated in this year’s Kansas Relays street competition, Cory Martin and Justin Rodhe, and they both greatly enjoyed the experience. Milan said that the throwers he has come to know would like nothing better than to have a series of street meets held each summer in the USA. So, if you decide to host one of these competitions, you will be dealing with motivated, personable athletes who will do everything they can to make your event a success.

I would advise anyone who is considering putting on a street meet to contact Milan. He is a great guy and very happy to share his expertise.

 

 

 

Is Gia the best female American discus thrower ever?

2011 IAAF World Outdoor Championships

As a matter of fact, she is.

Here is the evidence.

Exhibit A: US Women’s Discus Throws over 65m

65mb

Okay, I know that’s hard to read, but I couldn’t cut and paste the damn thing without the margins going all goofy. Basically, what you’ve got there is a list of the 40 throws of 65m or better that have been produced by American women.  By  no means does Gia dominate that list. Suzy Powell has the most throws over 65m with ten, followed by Gia with nine.  Stephanie Brown-Trafton has the farthest throw on the list (67.74m) followed by Powell (67.67m) and then Gia (67.59m).  However, take a look at…

Exhibit B:  Throws over 65m in International Competition

67.59m  Gia   (Glasgow)

66.29m Gia  (Zagreb)

65.77m  Gia  (Oslo)

65.59m Gia (Paris)

65.38m Powell  (Rethimno)

65.10m Aretha Thurmond (Monaco)

This list, she does dominate.  And why, you may ask, is that a big deal?

That is a big deal because the throws on this list were taken inside of stadiums overseas.

I’m not going to condemn anyone for seeking out windy climates in an effort to break a record or achieve an “A” standard.  But throwing bombs on the California coast has zero relevance when it comes time to go up against the best of the best at the Olympics or the World Championships, which are held…inside of stadiums overseas.

In order to contend for a medal, a female discus thrower must set aside  the distractions of travel and the lack of those lovely ocean breezes and throw at least 65 meters.

Among American discus throwers, Gia has become the best at doing just that.

There are those who would argue that Stephanie Brown-Trafton should be considered the best ever after winning  gold at the 2008 Olympics. I am a big fan of Stephanie, who is on the comeback trail after giving birth nine months ago. Last week, at the Chicagoland Throws meet she told me that she is feeling good and just needs to build up her strength levels in order to return to peak form. But the peak form that got her the gold in Beijing in 2008 with a throw of 64.74m is unlikely to win her a spot on the medal stand in Beijing in 2015 or in Rio in 2016.  Sondra Perkovic, the defending World and Olympic champion, has shown a consistent knack for throwing 68-69m at the biggest meets. Australia’s Dani Samuels is having a great year, and there are a handful of others who have recently thrown 65+m in stadiums.

The only American thrower ever who has shown the ability to hang with that crowd is Gia.

Actually, she has done more than hang with them as of late. Last week in Glasgow in this stadium…

 glas stad 2

 …she handed Perkovic her first loss of the season by launching a PR throw of 67.59m.

Gia is now the only thrower to have defeated Perkovic over the last two years. That alone might qualify her as the best.

 
                

 

 

Where does that leave us? Part 2: The Women

My last post examined the prospects of US men making the finals and/or medaling next year in Beijing and the following year in Rio.

Now, let’s consider the ladies.

The Discus

Moscow Results:

8th:62.80m  Bronze: 64.96m  Silver: 66.28m  Gold: 67.99m

Sacramento Results:

3rd:  Shelbi Vaughan 59.75m

2nd: Liz Podominick 59.96m

1st: Gia Lewis-Smallwood 65.96m

2011 IAAF World Outdoor Championships

Gia’s career seemed dead in the water just a couple of years ago, but she pulled off a rare trick for an American thrower: she found a way to stay in the sport long enough to find her groove.  She finished fifth in Moscow, and has shown the ability to throw 64-65 meters overseas in stadiums.  She is also, to my knowledge, the only thrower to defeat Sandra Perkovic in the past two years. (Fun Fact: over 600 people have climbed Mt. Everest in that time).  The big question is, can Gia at thirty-five years of age hold off the ravages of time long enough to get on the podium in Beijing and Rio?  If she does, it will be a great, great moment for American throwing.

(This just in! As I am about to post this article, Gia has thrown 65.59m to take third at the Paris DL meet)

Another question: Can 2008 Olympic champ Stephanie Brown Trafton come all the way back from taking time off to have a baby? She had to be encouraged by her performance in Sacramento (58.84m), but she and Gia are about the same age, so…

A final question: What about the youngsters? Shelbi Vaughan is a special athlete, but she cannot be expected to throw bombs overseas in August after enduring the rigors of the NCAA season, especially if she continues playing volleyball. Whitney Ashley (fifth in Sacramento at 58.68m) is another gifted athlete waiting in the wings. (Fun Fact: At the 2013 Adidas Grand Prix meet, Perkovic’s coach told me that he thought Ashley had a lot of potential but that she should reverse instead of using a fixed-feet finish).

Outlook: In my dream scenario (the one that does not involve Angelina Jolie) Gia and Stephanie both elbow their way onto the podium next to Perkovic in Beijing or Rio.

 

The Javelin 

Moscow Results:

8th: 61.30m  Bronze: 65.09m  Silver:66.60m  Gold: 69.05m

Sacramento Results:

3rd: Leigh Petranoff  57.80m

2nd: Brittany Borman 62.05

1st: Kara Patterson 62.43m

kara

 Does anyone else view the javelin as a fickle event?  Three weeks ago in New York, I watched the Australian javeliner Kathryn Mitchell throw 66.02m easy as pie and Linda Stahl (a German) throw 67.32m easy as strudel. Then, earlier this week at the Lausanne DL meeting, they went 58.23m and 63.20m respectively.

Outlook: Given the “on any given day” nature of the event, it is entirely possible that Borman or Patterson could make the final in Beijing and/or Rio. A medal, though, is unlikely. Their best route to the podium at a major international meet is to pull a Gia and stay in the sport into their thirties (Mitchell, by the way, is having her best season at the age of thirty-one).

 

The Shot Put 

Moscow Results:

8th: 18.09m  Bronze: 19.95m Silver:20.41m  Gold: 20.88m

Sacramento Results:

3rd: Tia Brooks 18.83m

2nd: Felisha Johnson 19.18m

1st: Michelle Carter 19.45m

carter 2

Loads of potential among this threesome of young gliders, two of whom have already garnered significant international experience. Tia was 8th in Moscow, Michelle missed the bronze by a centimeter.

Outlook: There is no reason the US should not have two shot finalists in Beijing and Rio. And after that?  Valerie Adams is only twenty-nine, but the Herculean effort behind her seemingly effortless domination of the sport (two Olympic, three Indoor World and four Outdoor World golds since 2007) has left her contemplating retirement after 2016. Carter, who threw an American record 20.24m last season, is only a year younger than Val, but seems to be just coming into her own. If she can hang in there for another Olympic cycle after Rio, she might be able to contend for that rather large open space at the top of major championship podiums.

The Hammer

Moscow Results:

8th: 72.70m  Bronze: 75.58m  Silver: 78.46m  Gold: 78.80m

Sacramento Results:

3rd: Amber Campbell 71.35m 

2nd: Jessica Cosby Toruga 71.72m

1st: Amanda Bingson 75.07m 

bingson

In the past two seasons, three American women (Bingson, Cosby Toruga, and Jeneva McCall) have thrown 74 meters or better. Cosby Toruga is thirty-two, but both McCall and Bingson are just two years out of college.  Same for Gwen Berry, who threw 73.81m last year.

Outlook: For Beijing and Rio, getting two in the top eight is certainly attainable. Beyond that, one or more of the Bingson/McCall/Berry trio needs to get her PB into the 77-78 meter range to increase the odds of hitting a medal-winning 76m in a major championship.

 

 

 

So where does that leave us? Part 1: the men

The 2014 USATF championships are in the books, but with no World or Olympic titles to shoot for this year it seems like a proper moment to size up the state of the throwing events in this country and to speculate on what it will take to medal or at least make the finals next year in Beijing and the following year in Rio.

The Hammer

Here are some results from last year’s Worlds in Moscow:

8th Place: 77.57m   Bronze: 79.36m   Silver: 80.30m  Gold: 81.97m

Sacramento results:

3rd: Chris Cralle 72.83m 

 2nd: AG Kruger 73.34m

1st: Kibwe Johnson 74.16m

kibwe

 Kibwe’s PB is 80.31m, but at 33 years of age his chances of making the finals in 2015 or 2016 appear slim. Same for Kruger, who is 35. Chris Cralle is young (26) but with a PR of 74.55m he is going to have to find a way to stay in the sport long enough to get to the point where he can throw 77m to 80m consistently.

Outlook: Not so good. It would be a huge step forward just to get someone in the final eight in Beijing or Rio.

 

The Javelin

Moscow results:

8th: 80.03m    Bronze: 86.23m   Silver:87.07m   Gold: 87.17m

Sacramento results:

3rd: Tim Glover 78.87m

2nd: Riley Dolezal 79.27m

1st: Sean Furey 81.10m

furey

If 80m gets you into the final again in 2015, all three of these guys would obviously have a shot. A medal? Hmmmm. Glover is the youngest of the three at 24, and has the longest PR (84.01m) but he graduated college this spring and must find a stable training environment if he is to lead the US to international respectability.

Outlook: Forget about 2015 or 2016, but my 2020 vision says that if Glover can stay with it he might be the guy to break through.

 

 The Discus:

Moscow results:

8th: 63.38m   Bronze: 65.19m  Silver: 68.36m Gold: 69.11m

Sacramento Results:

3rd: Mason Finley 61.04m

2nd: Bryan Powlen 61.05m

1st: Hayden Reed 62.19m

reed

The good news? The 26-year-old Powlen is the old man of this crew. Finley has decided to give up shot putting to focus on the disc, and Reed is clearly a fearless young man. The bad news?  There is a veteran group of discus throwers on the international scene all of whom have shown the ablility to throw 65+ in stadiums–68+ in the case of by Robert Harting, Piotr Malachowski,  Gerd Kanter, and Ehsan Hadadi.

Outlook:  As a Chicago White Sox fan, I love to make fun of the Cubs and their hundred-years-and-counting title drought. The suffering of their supporters has reached Biblical proportions, with no end in sight. Sadly, American discus fans are in the same boat.

The Shot Put

Moscow results:

8th: 20.39m  Bronze: 21.34m  Silver: 21.57m Gold: 21.73m

Sacramento Results:

3rd: Reese Hoffa 20.78m

2nd: Kurt Roberts 21.47m

1st: Joe Kovacs 22.03m

joe

Consider the humble cactus. It flourishes in the type of dry, barren soil that kills off most other plants. Same for American shotputters. No one knows exactly what factors have conspired to keep the United States from regularly producing world class jav, hammer, and disc throwers,  but whatever those factors may be (lack of governmental support, the predominance of football, an evil curse) they seem to have no affect whatsoever on our ability to crank out excellent shot putters.

Looking  at the numbers those guys put up in Sacramento, would anyone guess that  three men who have thrown over 21 meters this season were forced by injury to withdraw from the competition?

My teenaged daughter would call that “sick!”

Outlook: Hard to imagine an elephant fitting in a room full of American shot putters, but it’s not going away until one of them wins an Olympic gold medal.  Will our phalanx of phenoms finally overwhelm those cursed European gliders? Majewski is getting long in the tooth and has been injured quite a bit lately, but Storl is still young and still…Storl.  If nothing else, the shot final in Beijing and Rio should be riveting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tim Glover ready for the next step

glover

A two-time NCAA champion while throwing for Illinois State University, Tim Glover will try to show that he belongs at the top of the professional level as well when he competes in the USATF Championships this Sunday in Sacramento.

Glover announced himself as a world class javeliner this April when he unloaded a world-leading  84.01m in Knoxville. Currently, that throw ranks him 13th in the world.

It is a bit remarkable that Tim was able to unleash a throw of that caliber because at the time he was still attending classes at ISU three days per week from 9am until 3pm.

He attributes his improvement partially to an increase in strength.  With a 315-lb bench press, a 500-lb back squat and a 319-lb power clean the javelin has been “feeling light” in his hand.

Also contributing to his breakthrough is his ability to maintain speed on the runway.

“Last year my coach (Scott Bennett) came in and we worked all speed. I dropped some weight and focused on how fast I could go..never could catch one, or any for that matter. I would always miss the point and it  got frustrating but I kept reminding myself that this year was a transition year and if I wanted to improve in the future the speed would have to increase. This year my speed isn’t crazy on the runway but it is faster and more comfortable. I am still working on keeping it up through the crossovers and also working on driving out not up.”

Coach Bennett agrees that Tim’s increased strength has been a big plus, and he also credits Tim’s improvement in “blowing the right side through to the brake” during the last two steps of his throws.

Bennett also believes that Glover has the “perfect demeanor” for his event, describing his as “modest, independent, and even-tempered.”

That temperament will be put to the test on Sunday by a field that includes veterans such as Cyrus Hostetler, Sean Furey, and Craig Kinsley, and last year’s US champion Riley Dolezal. Also competing is  the physically imposing Sam Humphreys. At the Tuscon Elite meet earlier this season,  Humphreys– who looks like he might be able to throw a telephone pole 80 meters– defeated Glover in a battle to determine who would get the final spot in the jav field at the Prefontaine Diamond League meeting that took place over Memorial Day weekend.

Glover is still waiting for his first chance to go up against the world’s best.

A win on Sunday would go a long way toward establishing Glover as a consistently world class performer and possibly get him invited to some meets in Europe where he could show that he is ready to take the next next step.

 

 

 

Queen Val at the Adidas Grand Prix

In ancient Greece, Olympic champions were feted with banquets and parades, immortalized in bronze and marble.

In modern New York, they are largely ignored aside from the occasional bystander who asks, “Do you play basketball?”

Such is the fate of Valerie Adams, two-time Olympic shot put champion, arguably the greatest putter in history but perhaps born 2,500 years too late.

Val came into the Adidas Grand Prix meet in New York City last weekend looking for her 50th consecutive win. Hoping to derail the Adams Express was a field that featured Michelle Carter (who broke the American record last year with toss of 20.24m) and Yevgeniya Kolodko (the London silver medalist and owner of a 20.48m PB).

I was  stoked to get a look at Kolodko and her excellent glide technique, and though I was rooting for Val to get number 50, I hoped that Carter and Kolodko would push her to extend her season best of 20.46m.

Alas, t’was not to be. In spite of perfect weather that had helped produce meet records in each of the two previous throwing events–Robert Harting’s 68.24m in the discus and Linda Stahl’s 67.32m in the javelin–and a raucous crowd that cheered Bohdan Bondarenko  and Mutaz Essa Barshim through the greatest high jump dual in history, none of the women putters could get it going.

Carter opened with a respectable 19.51m, but that turned out to be her only throw over 19.00m. Kolodko had nothing. I could tell she was in trouble during warmups when she took about a million throws, none of which looked sharp, and she fared even worse during the competition with a 17.25m sandwiched by two fouls. I have to think she was injured, but I didn’t get a chance to ask her as she packed up and left while the top six took their final three throws.

Meanwhile, the Carter/Adams dual played out as more weird than dramatic.  Val’s best in the first three rounds was 19.31m, but with the champ on the ropes and vulnerable to an upset, Carter  followed her 19.51m with an uninspired-looking 18.57m and 18.39m.

It must have been a strange feeling for Val not to be the final thrower after the re-ordering, and she quickly set things right with a 19.52m to take the lead. But even after extending that lead with a fifth-round 19.68m, you could tell she was not herself. After each attempt, she looked for advice from a gentleman watching from across the track. Val is coached by two very large Swiss fellows–Werner Gunthor and Jean-Piere Egger–and this man was neither Swiss nor large, so I’m not sure who he was but the advice he shouted to her (“Put your whole body behind it! Get it going on this one!”) was heartfelt and kind of sweet. The sort of advice one might expect to hear shouted by a parent at a middle-school track meet.

After the competition, I had a nice chat with Val that you can view here:

As always, she was humble and upbeat, and afterwards she strode off looking like a champion prize-fighter from back in the day, a bit weary but ready to move on to the next town and flatten the next challenger.

Forgive me for one minute, but I feel the need to switch to Negative Nancy mode.  As I was writing this article and reflecting back on what, by any measurement (5 meet records, 5 world-leading performances) was a fantastic track meet I realized that there was one aspect of it that bothered me.

On this sun-kissed day at Icahn Stadium, the shot put ran concurrently with (and right next to) that magnificent high jump competition.  As the bar was raised closer and closer to a world-record height, the attention of the crowd became completely focused on that event. By the time Bondarenko and Barshim started taking attempts at 2.46m (the world record is 2.45) I’m pretty sure that myself, my friend Peter, and the guy shouting encouragement to Val were the only people in the stadium paying attention to the shot put.

But that’s as it should be. Witnessing a world record is a big, honking deal.

What bothers me is that Valerie Adams, arguably the best ever at her event, will never be involved in a competition like that. The world record in the women’s shot (Natalia Lisovskaya, 22.63m, set in 1987)is so far out there (Val’s PB is 21.24m) and so obviously the result of PEDs that nobody in this age of random drug testing is ever going to beat it.

And that sucks, for Val because it unfairly diminishes her accomplishments, and for shot put fans because it deprives us of the chance to experience a moment in the shot equal to the moment when Bondarenko or Barshim began their approach to the bar and an entire stadium held its collective breath.

Okay. Just had to get that off my chest.

After the meet, my very patient wife, my friend Peter, and I had a fantastic dinner at an Italian place in midtown and then stopped by the athletes’ hotel to have a drink in the lounge overlooking the lobby.  Several beers later, we spotted Val and a couple of friends just back from dinner themselves. I grabbed Peter and dragged him down to meet her, my wife trailing us with her cellphone at the ready.  I’m not sure exactly what we said to her, nor can I guarantee that anything we said made much sense, but she listened to us patiently and agreed to pose for a picture.

val in 14

That’s no basketball player, folks. That’s the best shot putter ever.