Coming to America

2010 New York Diamond League

Since 1886, the Statue of Liberty has beckoned the world to “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” and the world has complied. Unfortunately for those of us who love the throws, the world has been much stingier about sending its best tossers to compete on our shores. This summer though, the IAAF has taken pity on us huddled masses of throws fans yearning to see Olympic medalists, and through the creation of the Diamond League has found a way to entice the world’s best throwers to compete on U.S. soil.

Brand spanking new this summer, the Diamond league represents an expansion of the old Golden League format. Fourteen Diamond League competitions are scheduled for this year, in venues as far afield as Eugene and Shanghai. Each meeting offers $450,000 in prize money and the chance for competitors in thirty-two different events (fifteen of which are featured in a given meeting) to accumulate points toward winning a “diamond trophy” and $40,000.

The Adidas NYC Grand Prix Meet, held June 12th on Randall’s Island a few miles up the East River from Lady Liberty, was the first U.S. meet to receive Diamond League status. The meet organizers chose to host the women’s discus and shotput, along with the men’s javelin,  and based on the number of Olympic and World Championship medalists who showed up to compete, diamonds should now be considered a throwing fan’s best friend.

 

Women’s Discus

The first throwing event contested on this partly sunny and fully humid afternoon was the women’s discus. The field consisted of six top Americans, most prominently defending Olympic champion Stephanie Brown-Trafton, who set the meet record last year with a toss of 63.97m. Two prominent foreign throwers came to join the diamond hunt: Helsinki bronze-medalist Vera Pospisilova-Checklova, representing the Czech Republic, and nineteen-year-old Croatian sensation Sandra Perkovic, the 2009 European Junior champion who blasted a 66.85m PR early this spring.

A young thrower of great promise, Perkovic helped enliven a competition that otherwise appeared to suffer from the heavy air and lack of a helping wind. Her aggressive style brings to mind some past Eastern European discus greats such as Vladimir Dubrovshchik and Vasily Kaptyukh who eschewed the standard slow-to-fast rhythm in favor of a “start fast then really haul ass” approach. The focus of Perkovic’s technique seems to be generating a lot of speed out of the back with an aggressive swing kick, catching the disc waaaay high in the power position and then knocking the crap out of it with a fixed-feet finish and a ferocious yell. After whanging one of her warmup throws loudly off the right side of the cage, she adjusted her stance at the back of the ring, placing her right foot a bit to the left of the center line and let rip a first-round 61.96m which gave her the early lead over Aretha Thurmond’s 60.99m and Chechlova’s 60.71m. Brown-Trafton, who looked very uncomfortable during warm-ups, opened with 55.67m.

An uneventful second round saw only Chechlova reach the 60-meter line (60.12m), and an even less eventful third round (no 60-meter efforts) was spiced up only by a 59.70m toss from former University of Illinois thrower Gia Lewis (who earlier this season posted a 62.75M PR) and a long, loud Perkovic foul in the 66-meter range.

The throwers were re-ordered after round three with the top six advancing. That left the young Anna Jelmini (in spite of a very respectable third round 58.67m) and the veteran Brown-Trafton (who did not improve on her first round effort) out of the mix. I had a nice chat with Stephanie after the competition, and was struck by her humility and thoughtfulness. She was in a difficult place mentally, and it may be that she has not yet adjusted to the increased expectations created by her Olympic victory. She said that she was throwing great last season but then felt like “a light bulb switched off at the World Championships.”  She finished 12th in Berlin, and took the setback hard. “I felt like I let my family down,” she told me. “Like I let my country down.” This season, she was admitted to the Project 30 program set up by USATF to funnel financial support to potential 2012 medalists, but the burden of trying to justify that support has weighed heavily on her. “It’s almost like I need to forget about being Olympic Champion,” she commented. “I know the only reason I’m getting into the Diamond League meets is because of my title, not my marks…but I want to get back to that place where I wasn’t thinking about that or about  the money. I have to find a way to succeed in this new chapter. I have to find a way to get back to my comfort zone, or to find a new comfort zone.”

That sense of uneasiness has intruded on her efforts to find a technical groove. When asked which aspect of her technique she was focusing on improving, she replied, “There are so many things!  That’s why I’m a mess right now.” After reflecting for a moment she said that what she most needed to do was to hit a wider power position with more upper body wrap, and that she’d been taking a lot of non-reverse throws as a way of finding that position. Unfortunately, she doesn’t feel like she accelerates the discus well from a non-reverse finish, so it is not likely to provide the long-term answer. “If I can find a way to hit that power position, block, and use my reverse to accelerate the discus, it’s going to go far.”

It will be an interesting summer for Brown-Trafton as she attempts to recapture her Beijing form. In spite of her struggles, though, she remained optimistic. “All these challenges…it’s like yoga. It’s flexing me in ways I never wanted to go, but in the end it’s going to be really good for me.”

The final three rounds of the discus competition brought no fireworks, although Thurmond solidified her hold on second place with a 61.19m effort and Perkovic reached 61.59m in round six. Her 61.96m held up for the win and put her first among women discus throwers in the race for the diamond trophy.

 

Women’s Shot

Do you have trouble making choices? Me, too. Team Edward or Team Jacob? I still can’t decide! Same with the glide and rotational shot. I love them both, so I was one happy dude watching this competition.  Heading the glide contingent were Natalya Khoroneko-Mikhnevich, the Beijing silver-medalist from Belarus, and New Zealander Valerie Vili, the current Olympic Champion.  Also on the start list was 2009 European Indoor champion, Petra Lammert of Germany who is probably best known for using a glide variation in which she reaches with her right leg out of the back then steps into a wide, short-long style power position. It would have been fun to see that, too, but during warm-ups it became evident that she had switched back to a standard short-long glide. I asked her about the switch after the competition, and she told me that she had suffered a serious elbow injury falling over the toeboard in practice. As she rather charmingly put it, “the radius kaput was outside.” She is still recovering from the resulting surgery, and said that a standard glide puts less stress on her elbow.

Rounding out the field were four Americans: the fine rotational throwers Sarah Stevens and Jill Camarena, and gliders Kristen Heaston and Michelle Carter whose meet record of 18.43m was about to go kaput as well with Mikhnevich, Lammert, and Vili all carrying PRs of over 20 meters. The final thrower in the mix was Cleopatra Borel-Brown from Trinidad.

It was Camarena who first dispatched the record with a round one 18.99m, her spin technique looking very sharp. Her reign as record-holder lasted approximately two minutes though, as Mikhnevich managed a 19.51m opener. Mikhnevich held the lead and the record until the end of round two when Vili took custody of both by hitting 19.93m.

The Belarussian took a run at Vili with a third round season best toss of 19.80m, but that is as close as anyone would get. Vili, if not exactly in top form, showed great consistency with her final three throws of 19.81m, 19.88m, and 19.82m. Camarena’s 18.99m held up for third.

After my previous conversation with Brown-Trafton, I was interested to get a sense of how Vili was holding up under the pressure of the high expectations created by her recent run of dominance.  She is not only the defending Olympic and World champion, but recently put together a 28-meet undefeated streak, a remarkable achievement considering the high level of competition offered by the likes of Mikhnevich and her Belarussian counterpart Nadezhda Ostapchuk. During the pre-meet press conference, and also when interviewed after the competition, Vili exuded confidence and went out of her way to say that she welcomed competition. “I’m always quite happy and proud to be in a situation where I get challenged and give the crowd a good competition to watch. It is not that exciting when you go out and win automatically, whereas if you’ve got someone chasing you like today with Natalya, it’s good.”  She acknowledged feeling some pressure as the defending Olympic champion but added, “the Olympic Games were two years ago. This year we look upon 2010 and there’s new people coming through. And you’ve just got to face the competition that’s here now. Get on and do what you have to do.”

There are, however, indications that, like Brown-Trafton,  Vili  has found life at the top to be a bit complicated. Shortly after Ostapchuk ended Vili’s streak by defeating her at the Indoor World Championships in March, Vili fired her coach of eleven years and began training with former French national coach Didier Poppe. An article I read mentioned that Vili was making some technical changes under her new coach, and I asked her if a desire to modify her technique was the motivation behind the coaching switch. “I really don’t want to talk about that, “she replied. “I’ve already moved past that.”  Clearly this was an emotional issue, and I did not want to pry but I was left wondering if the pressure of staying on top really was getting to her. If not, why would her first loss in two-and-a-half years lead her to fire her coach? She said that she was excited about refining her technique under the guidance of Poppe, and that she felt like she had a lot of room for improvement, but did not go into specifics, saying only that “Change is always good, you know?”

In any case, it was really fun to see her throw. She is extremely athletic for her size, and does a fantastic job with the short-long glide, staying down and wrapped during her glide and then driving right-to-left through a very wide base. She sometimes appeared to hesitate slightly upon landing in her power position, but that may be the result of her focusing on some technical matter that she’s working on with her new coach.  She’s only twenty-five years old, and if any current thrower has a prayer of getting near Natalia Lisovskaya’s 22.63m world record it would seem to be Vili. She laughed when I told her I thought she could make a run at the record some day, and reminded me that “no one has thrown twenty-two meters in a long time.”  She’s a formidable athlete though, and after watching her pound out throw after throw of nearly 20 meters, I think she’ll be the next to cross that 22-meter barrier.

 

Men’s Javelin

One glance at the start list for the men’s javelin made it pretty clear that another meet record was in grave danger. All five foreign entrants came in with PRs anywhere from eight to twelve meters beyond the 79.16m thrown by Brian Chaput in 2005, including three (Andreas Thorkildson, Tero Pitkamaki, and Vadims Vasilevskis) who have thrown over 90 meters. Petr Frydrych, a twenty-two-year-old from the Czech Republic was the first to break it, with a round one toss of 84.45m. Andreas Thorkildson, the 2004 and 2008 Olympic champion, took it from Frydrych with a throw of 87.02 in round two. Frydrych responded with an 85.04m toss in round three, and that duo remained in first and second the entire way. Pitkamaki of Finland, Thorkildson’s friend and rival, finished third at 82.57m.

In talking to Thorkildson after the competition, it became clear that when God was handing out brains, looks, and talent twenty-eight years ago, Andreas somehow managed to get to the front of each of those lines. Like most guys, I would normally kind of hate him for that, but he was so polite and laid-back that I could not help but like him.

When asked about his rivalry with Pitkamaki (they have dueled 54 times during their careers with Thorkildson holding a 28-26 edge) he replied, “We get along well. When Tero won his world title (in Helsinki) I was happy for him. When I win I hope he’s happy for me.” He attributes his ability to avoid shoulder and elbow problems to gymnastics exercises that he includes in his training regimen and to keeping his practice throws to a minimum. “I believe in being fresh for every time I go out. I know that a lot of people throw a lot more than me, but so much of the technique is split-second technique …if I start throwing bad after fifteen or twenty throws and I don’t feel like it’s getting better, I shut it down.”

His favorite lift is the bench press (195k PR) although he’s pretty good at power cleans as well (155k PR from the hang)  and his attitude towards handling pressure is something that I’ll bet every coach wishes they could bottle and distribute to their athletes.  “People at home expect me to win and I do what I can to win,” he explained. “But, you’ve got to know that you’ve got good days on the track and you’ve got bad days on the track. I don’t think anyone is going to hate me if I don’t throw well for one day. At the end of the day, it’s still entertainment.”

I can’t think of a better word to describe the experience of watching these remarkable throwers on a warm summer’s day on Randall’s Island. Here’s to the IAAF, and to diamonds, my new BFFs!

by Dan McQuaid

this article originally appeared in the Long & Strong Throwers Journal in August 2010

A Truly Weltklasse Weltklasse

2003 Zurich Weltklasse

The thing is, I’m no Euro-basher.   I like my fries French, my chocolate Swiss, and my beer German.  Or Austrian.  Or British.  Come to think of it, Swiss beer is pretty tasty as well.  And Belgian?  Holy cow.  Nine percent alcohol by volume!  Ever wonder why the Germans always swung through Belgium on their way to invading France?  Fire down a couple of Belgian Trappist ales, and you will wonder no more.  What’s remarkable is that the German soldiers were able to find France at all after sampling the Belgian brew.

That said, there is one thing about Europe that drives me crazy. Camera crews behind the throwing rings.  I know.  I know.  In the grand scheme of things this is no big deal.  But darn it, I don’t have x-ray vision and when I pay my thirty Euro to see some throws I want to actually see some throws and not a cameraman’s back.  There I was though, having staked out a prime spot in the standing room section of Leitzigrund Stadium during this year’s Zurich Weltklasse meet, admittedly packed in like a sardine, but content with my sardine-like condition because I had an unobstructed view of the discus ring.  At least while the ring was empty I did.  Then, a couple of minutes before warm-ups began, some dufus wheeled over a humvee-sized television camera and parked it right in my line of sight.  I understand the logic here. Televised track meets are a big deal in Europe, and (another reason to love these folks) the throws are a featured part of the telecasts.  Hence the need for cameramen with a clear view of the throwing ring.  But what about the people who pay to see the meets in person?  I may be going out on a limb here, but I’d wager that most of us who purchased tickets in my section at the Zurich meet this August did so with the intention of watching the best throwers in the world launch the platter.  I know I did, and so, much vexed and doing my best to cuss in Swiss, I elbowed my way through the packed crowd to a better view a couple of sections over.  In doing so, however, I was forced to abandon a freshly purchased cup of very smooth Swiss pilsner.  That, I do not forgive.

But what of the competition?  Veeery good stuff.  Unlike last year, when it looked like Robert Fazekas and Mario Pestano were the only ones who’d had their Wheaties, it became clear after a couple of warm-up rounds that Fazekas, Reidel, and Virgilius Alekna were all in fighting trim.  Reidel, having sat out last year’s Weltklasse due to injury, looked buff (as a man of the New Millennium I can feel comfortable saying that about another guy) and determined.  He dominated the Weltklasse for most of the 1990’s, and appeared quite anxious to resume his spot at the top of the awards stand.  Unfortunately, even for a stallion like Lars anxiousness has a way of mutating into over-anxiousness and the big man (after opening with 65.33m and a foul) rifled throws number three and four into the cage.  He regained his composure to finish with 66.52m and 66.53m, good enough for third place but certainly not the definitive “I’m baaaaaaack” he had hoped for.

Virgilius Alekna was on a similar mission in Zurich.  After putting the hammer on Lars with multiple 70-meter throws in 2000 and 2001, he displayed a remarkable degree of sluggishness last year in coughing up his title to Fazekas.  Not so this year.  A couple of effortless 70-meter warm-up tosses showed that he remembered to pack his mojo.  Brimming with confidence, he strode into the ring during round one and nailed a 68.95m, just to give everyone else something to ruminate on between throws.  Here’s how good he was:  After each of his next four throws (68.61m, 68.54m, 67.15m, 67.25m) he walked out of the ring head bowed in disappointment.  And he wasn’t showing off.  Clearly, he had the stuff to break 70 meters, but just couldn’t quite get hold of one.  Fazekas must have put the Hungarian Stink Eye on him for round six though, because he launched one out of bounds to the left, a rarity for a right-handed thrower.

Aaaaah, Fazekas.  The Sultan of Speed.  The Hungarian Hurricane.  The first time I saw him throw (at the Weltklasse in 2000) I dismissed him as a wildman who would never be able to control his quicks.  Of course, I’m the same guy who used to make fun of Adam Nelson’s bullwhip left leg action until he started throwing 22-meters on a weekly basis.  Even in 2002 when Fazekas seemed to win every big meet, I suspected him of being a flash-in-the-pan.  Not any more.  After watching him take down Alekna with a 69.14m in round two, I am a believer.  In spite of his goofy “Don’t rush me I’m in a trance” windup ritual, and his warp-speed entry into the throw, I have become a big admirer.  He’s tough.  He’s consistent (four out of six throws over 67 meters with no fouls) and he’s going to pose one hell of a problem for anyone interested in winning the gold medal in Athens.

One happy note before closing.  Carl Brown, in what I believe was his first competition of this magnitude, showed up great.  He looked a little nervous warming up, but the locals really seemed to embrace him and gave him a nice ovation during introductions.  That must have settled Carl down because he opened with a solid 64.25m,  backed that up with 64.20m in round five, and ended up finishing sixth.  The question remains as to whether or not Carl is the man to lead an American discus throwing Renaissance.  He’s quick, smooth, and technically sound, but needs to find another two or three meters somewhere if he wants to bow-wow with the big dogs in Athens.

One sad note before closing.  Franz Kruger, a true gentleman and a heck of a fine thrower, stunk it up.  Though he looked to have added several pounds of solid muscle over the past year (remember, it’s okay for guys to say that about each other now) Franz barely made the finals in Zurich (his best throw was 63.00m) and staggered home in eighth place. A dismal result for a guy who two years ago seemed ready to challenge Reidel and Alekna for the title of Big Chief Discus.  Since he did not seem injured in Zurich, I must conclude that his recent marriage has done him in.  All I can say is, welcome to the club.

Just kidding.  Thanks as always to my beautiful wife for somehow managing without me for a week.  Thanks to my brother-in-law Larry and his lovely wife Suzie for putting me up.

by Dan McQuaid

this article originally appeared in the Long & Strong Throwers Journal in October 2003

Weltklasse Zurich Discus 2002 & Linz Grand Prix Shot Put 2002

This August, for the third summer in a row, I was blessed with the opportunity to travel to Europe to view some fantastic track and field.  As in the past two years, I was able to attend the Weltklasse Zurich Golden League Meeting, but after that my itinerary changed due to the cancellation (apparently owing to lack of corporate sponsorship) of the Weltklasse am Rhein thrower’s meet.  To assuage my disappointment over the passing of this remarkable event, I decided to venture by train into Austria to catch the Linz GPII meet.  I’ll forever be glad of having made that decision, as it introduced me to the considerable charms of a part of Europe which I had not previously explored.  What follows is a brief description of my experiences at the Zurich and Linz meetings.  For complete results, check out the meet web sites.  For a fantastic experience, get over there next year and check out these meets in person.

 

Friday, August 16, Zurich, Switzerland

I’m standing with Larry, my brother-in-law, on the street outside Letzigrund Stadium sipping a beer amid the hustle and bustle and sizzling brats that characterize the Zurich Weltklasse track meet.  The road running along the east side of the stadium is blocked off to traffic, and numerous booths have sprouted here vending food and beer to the giddy multitudes milling about on their way into the arena.  Robert Fazekas, the fine Hungarian discus thrower, hurries past and I note that he is a young man of thick neck and fierce countenance.  Though he lacks the “How’s the weather up there?” ranginess characteristic of most seventy-meter discus throwers, to look upon him is to understand why the Huns succeeded in barging their way into Europe a thousand years ago.  Tonight Fazekas, fresh off a win at the European Championships, will attempt to barge his way to the top of the awards platform—quite an exclusive piece of real estate considering that only Lars Reidel and Virgilius Alekna have set foot there over the past ten years.

Unfortunately, Reidel will not be competing tonight as injury caused him to pull the plug on his 2002 campaign several weeks ago.  To me, this is a bummer of major proportions as half the fun of the Zurich discus competition is watching the crowd in the north end of the stadium swoon over their favorite ubermensch.

Fortunately, the field, sans Reidel, is still stacked.  Present are Fazekas and another recent addition to the seventy-meter club, Dmitri Schevchenko of Russia.  Present as well is Alekna, the defending Olympic and Weltklasse Zurich champion.  Franz Kruger, the 2000 Olympic bronze medalist and a bit of a local favorite himself is also in the field, a pleasant surprise to me as he told me in conversation a year ago that, due to the demands of medical school, he would not be competing outside of South Africa this year.

The presence of these gentlemen combined with the ever present smell of brats and very tasty local beverages is enough to produce an intoxicating sense of anticipation as Larry and I enter the stadium and maneuver for an unobstructed view of the discus cage from the north standing room section.  Much to my dismay, however, it is apparent during warm-ups that a major case of the blahs has infected the field on this perfectly gorgeous, windless evening.   I have seen Alekna take eighteen competitive throws in various meets over the past two years, and I’d estimate eighty percent of them traveled past the sixty-seven meter mark, including four of six throws over seventy meters at this meet in August, 2000.  Tonight, he comes nowhere near sixty-five meters in warm-ups.  Nor does Kruger, who seems to be a bit jumpy, many of his warm-up throws landing out of bounds beyond the right sector line.  Shevchenko is also unable to get it going in warm-ups, in spite of the strength evident in his Ruthian physique.  Fazekas looks fast and aggressive, clearly a man on a mission, but barely threatens the sixty-five meter line.  As the competition begins, it is quickly apparent that the warm-ups were no fluke.  The early leader is Mario Pestano of Spain, a thrower who appears to be cut from the same mold as Fazekas: not huge, but quick and strong.  He opens with 65.37, a mark that holds up until the end of round two when Fazekas nails 66.81, ultimately the winning toss.

Even though the big guys never find their mojo (Kruger finishes third with 64.98, Alekna fourth with 64.83, Shevchenko sixth with 63.29)it is still fun to see a variety of throwers from around the world and their different approaches to technique.  Alekna is remarkably nimble for his size (6’8”, 280?) and uses what I would call a classic “American” technique with a wide leg sweep out of the back and an aggressive reverse out of the power position.  The South African Kruger, and Germany’s Michael Mollenbeck each employ more of a swing kick out of the back, and a very efficient-looking fixed feet delivery.  Shevchenko reminds me of Fred Flintstone tip-toeing his way into his bowling delivery.  When his right foot touches in the middle of the ring his left foot has barely left the back, and Lord only knows how he gets it grounded at the front in time to deliver the disc.  Watching Fazekas cracks me up as he, like most of my young throwers, is an ardent proponent of the “haul ass out of the back and hope for the best” school of discus technique.  Only he throws far.  Fazekas is also the current king of goofy windups, apparently falling into some kind of trance at the back of the ring with the discus held out in his left hand (as if offering it to the cameraman stationed just outside of the cage) before finally switching hands, winding quickly and zooming his way across the circle.   Not the kind of approach I’d recommend to my young throwers, but it clearly works for him.  He has been a dominant thrower this summer, and finishes this night the new Weltklasse Zurich champion.

Monday, August 19, Linz, Austria

 

It is fifteen minutes before the start of the shotput competition at the Linz Grand Prix II meet, and Paolo Dal Saglio is fuming.  John Godina and Adam Nelson have just been summoned to participate in a pre-meet “Introduction of Champions” ceremony, and the shotput officials have refused to allow warm-ups to continue in their absence.  I’m no lip reader, nor do I understand Italian, but it is pretty easy to tell from his gestures and body language that Paolo has taken issue with that decision.  His protests are to no avail, however, and all he can do is stand around and watch along with everyone else while Nelson, Godina, and a dozen or so other track and field notables are paraded around the track in what look to me like antique fire engines.

As the ceremony ends, Nelson and Godina jog back to the shot ring where the entire field is allowed two more warm-up throws each.  Everyone except Paolo.  He is the last thrower in line, and as he enters the ring for his second warm-up toss the head shotput judge steps into the ring with him and informs him that warm-ups are over.  While I think it is ridiculous not to give these guys all the warm-up tosses they want (Why wouldn’t the officials do everything in their power to help the athletes put on a good show?) I admire the nerve of this man as he refuses to budge even after Paolo literally tries to shove him out of the way.  Finally, Paolo slams his shot onto the concrete and storms out of the ring, Godina and Nelson rushing over to calm him down.

As the competition begins, it quickly becomes apparent that Paolo’s outburst would be the only fireworks going off in the men’s shot ring this evening.  As in the Zurich discus competition, the athletes appear sluggish and off kilter.  Nelson is the class of the field, winning with what is for him a fairly pedestrian put of 20.67.  The other Americans in the field, Kevin Toth and John Godina, stagger home in fifth (20.07) and sixth (20.04) respectively.  Though it is odd to see Godina struggle like this, Toth’s difficulties come as no surprise to me as I am his bad luck charm.  I have seen him throw in person on at least half a dozen occasions over the past four years, and he has stunk it up every time.  A typical performance by Toth when I am in the stands involves a lot of fouling and a lot of cussing, and tonight is no exception.  Hopefully, he will not read this and kill me, but I figure it is high time I share my secret with the world. It is lonely business being a bad luck charm.

Anyway, even though nobody gets off a big throw it is, as in Zurich, great fun to see European throwers and to muse on their different approaches to technique.   Szilard Kiss of Hungary appears huge and lumbering, but spins his way to second place with 20.25.  He reminds me of the kind of athlete we high school coaches come up against on occasion: so big and powerful that he can beat most people in spite of suspect technique.   By contrast, Milan Haborak of Slovakia (who finishes third at 20.11) has a very nifty spin.  He is quick and smooth, and hits a nicely wrapped power position. Clearly, someone in Slovakia knows how to coach the rotational shot.   The guy who I am most interested in though, is the German glider Ralf Bartels.  I have been an ardent student of the German approach to the glide since I was in high school in the 1970’s, and it is exciting to get a look at the latest incarnation of the legendary German short-long technique.  I love the way he uses his left arm coming out of the back of the ring.  Before leaving the back he raises up on his right toes sort of like Ulf Timmerman, but as he does so he cranks his left arm back so that his palm is facing skyward and his left thumb is just about touching the middle of his back.  As he drops into his glide and reaches toward the toeboard with his left leg, he swings his left arm in the opposite direction so that the back of his hand ends up directly in front of his face.  It looks kind of goofy, but really seems to help him stay back while gliding.  One aspect of his technique that I do not like, however, is that after driving hard into the throw with his right hip and leg his right foot actually comes off the ground before the shot has left his hand.  But, as with Robert Fazekas in the disc, he seems somehow to have found a technique that works for him without consulting me.

I have plenty of time to ponder these and other great matters (Why is wine so cheap in Europe? And so good?  Can a person overdose on chocolate?  Did I really see a woman sunbathing nude along the RhineRiver yesterday?  Is this what heaven is like?) as I walk back to my hotel after the meet.  Linz is a beautiful city, and I am very glad that I ventured here.  As always, I am eternally grateful to my beautiful wife Alice Wood for letting me make this trip, and to Larry and his lovely wife Suzie for putting me up and putting up with me. I hope to get back over here again next year, provided Toth doesn’t get his hands on me in the meantime.

by Dan McQuaid

2012 NCAA Outdoor Championships

Tucked into the cornfields of Iowa, there is magic place. A place where courtesy is the rule and not the exception. A place where you can get a reasonably-priced motel room even when the World Pork Expo is in town. A place where you can get one of the comfy seats at Starbucks at 8:00 on a Saturday morning. A place where they will charge you $6 for a milkshake but only $3 for a quality beer. A place where almost every June world class throwers gather to compete.

Yep, I’m talking about Des Moines, Iowa, site of this year’s NCAA Division I Track and Field Championships. With four winners from 2011 returning to defend their titles in the throws and some formidable challengers eager to knock them off, there promised to be plenty of drama at this year’s meet. Determined to witness it first hand, my friend Pat Trofimuk and I piled into my Prius on a hot June morning and hauled butt “Born to be Wild” style across three hundred miles of sun-drenched cornfields. Our motto: If they chuck it, we will come.

 

Men’s Discus

We arrived in Des Moines and made our way to Drake University just in time to catch the flight one warm-ups for the men’s discus. The layout at Drake is spectator-friendly. The long throws are contested on a large field outside the stadium, but not so far away that you feel like you’ve been banished to a remote island. There are two throwing cages, one right next to the stadium and one about 100 meters distant. The farther cage is right next to the javelin runway, which allows the discus or hammer to be contested concurrently with the jav. This layout would come in handy on a couple of occasions during the week ahead.

There is a grass berm running along one side of the field that wraps around behind the farther cage and the javelin runway providing an excellent vantage point for spectators. That’s where the discus was contested, and as warm-ups began, Pat and I staked out a nice spot on the grass directly behind and above the cage.

With defending champion Julian Wruck taking a redshirt year to prepare for the Olympics and manage a transfer to UCLA, this competition was wide open.  The top returning finishers from last year, Mason Finley of Kansas (3rd), Chad Wright of Nebraska by way of Jamaica (6th), and Tyler Hitchler of Nebraska by way of Nebraska (7th) were all slotted into flight one.  This was a matter of chance because, as was the case in 2011, the twenty-four qualifiers from regionals were divided into two randomly-selected flights.

It was a nice day to throw the disc. Sunny. Eighty-some degrees. It was hard to pin down the direction of the wind (they had divider flags strung all over the place and it seemed like they kept blowing in different directions), but it definitely wasn’t a bad wind and if nothing else it kept the humidity at bay.

As seems to often be the case in high-pressure meets, most of the throwers looked a bit tentative in the early going. Wright got off the best throw of the first flight, 59.29m in round three. He doesn’t have the height of the classic discus thrower (I’d guess he’s around 6’2”) but he looks like he’s got long arms and he moves really well. Same for Hitchler, who put himself into second place with a round-two toss of 59.09m, and Andrew Evans of Kentucky, a sophomore who came in with a regional seed of 55.67m, opened with 51.91m then improved to 58.91m in the second round. Next best after Evans was Geoffrey Tabor, a junior from Stanford, who reached 58.67m in round two. Tabor is another guy who does not look like he’s tall enough to be a top-notch discus thrower, but he uses an extremely aggressive right leg sweep to develop speed out of the back (kind of like the Hungarian thrower Zoltan Kövágó) and attacks every throw with passion. Out of all the throwers we’d see throughout the week he had my favorite yell. It’s hard to describe, but even the Incredible Hulk would be impressed.

Finley’s best in prelims was 57.93m. He doesn’t have the classic discus build either. He’s certainly got the height, but at 420 pounds he is much thicker than any elite discus thrower I’ve ever seen. Current world champion Robert Harting, for example, is 6’7” and weighs around 280.  Finley was not happy with his performance in prelims, as 57.93m did not assure him a spot in the finals. He told us later that his coach kept admonishing him to stop dropping his left shoulder out of the back and pulling his head through the power position, but that he just couldn’t feel what he was doing wrong.

As flight one finished up, the competitors from flight two were marched out to the cage. They had been gathered in a holding tent near the edge of the stadium, and that’s where the flight one throwers would spend the next hour or so waiting to see if they’d made the finals (the top nine overall advanced).

The big gun in flight two was Oklahoma senior Luke Bryant, another smooth, technically excellent thrower who looks a bit undersized for the discus. He came in with the best throw out of regionals (60.24m). Other possible contenders were Jared Thomas, a senior from South Florida with a PR of 61.26m, and Lonnie Pugh, a Michigan State junior who finished eighth last year and came in with a 58.39m regional toss.

The main attraction in flight two, though, was the Texas freshman Ryan Crouser.  He has that classic, lanky discus-thrower build, but is also powerful enough to have put the shot 20.29m indoors. That combination of size and strength is generally limited to Marvel Comics characters, and many American throws fans are hoping that young Ryan eventually mutates into World Class Discus Man and rescues us from the current European domination of that event.

Bryant was Mr. Steady during prelims, going 59.50m, 59.36m, and 59.11m. That put him into the overall lead, and throwing in flight two meant that he could roll right into the finals without having to go bake in the holding tent for an hour.

Thomas secured his spot in the finals with a third-round toss of 59.26m. I thought that Crouser looked a bit cautious. There has been talk of him struggling with injuries during the outdoor season, and he didn’t seem that dynamic in the ring. He clenches his left arm as he turns out of the back the way Suzy Powell-Roos does, and he lacked the fluidity of most of the other throwers. That said, he punched his ticket to the finals with a round-two 58.13m.

The guy from flight two who really impressed me was Texas A&M freshman Dalton Rowan.  He is tall and lanky like Crouser, but what set him apart was his speed. All twenty-four throwers seemed to be using the same basic technique template. Slide the left armpit over the left knee. Get the right foot off the ground quickly. Generate power with an aggressive right leg sweep. Finish with a violent reverse. What stood out about Rowan was that he moved through those positions faster than anybody else. He’s still pretty light in the butt (232 pounds) and not super strong (bench:255lbs for 3 sets of 3, hang clean: 125k for 1 of 3) but he can really haul.

He also is a young man of great enthusiasm and confidence. His secret for handling big meet pressure? “Got to have the memory of a goldfish, dude. No matter what happens I just tell myself, ‘you already know how to do it, so just get out there and do it.’” After opening with 55.55m and 56.72m, he needed a big effort in round three to get in the finals. Summoning his inner gold fish, he banged a 58.85m to move temporarily into sixth place overall.

As the flight two guys took their third throws, the flight one throwers were marched from the holding tent back out to the throwing area. At that point, Finley was hanging on to the number nine spot. Just as he and his fellow flight one competitors neared the discus cage, Pugh unleashed what appeared to be a 60-meter throw. Finley said later that when he saw that throw land his heart “dropped.” Luckily for him, and for the local EMTs, Pugh stepped on the front of the ring for a foul.

Mason did not immediately take advantage of his reprieve. His opening throw of the finals was a disappointing 56.16m. Crouser, sitting in eighth and up next, nailed a 59.77m to move into third place, a remarkable throw for a freshman under any circumstances and truly amazing if he was, as we suspected, not at one hundred percent.

No one else made any noise in round four until Wright (60.98) became the first to break the 60-meter barrier. Bryant responded with 60.94m.

Mason remained stuck in neutral in round five (56.98), while Rowan, Tabor, and Hitchler all hit respectable 58-meter throws without moving up. Evans and Crouser fouled, making for a pretty uneventful round until Wright stepped into the ring then quickly stepped back out in order to let an official sweep a bug out of the way.

Those who follow the sport will remember what he and Hitchler went through last year as their coach, Mark Colligan, shockingly, passed away here in Des Moines the day of the discus final. Carrie Lane, hired in September to succeed Colligan, told me later about the difficulty of replacing a beloved coach who adhered to a rather idiosyncratic technical model. She had to figure out the best way to proceed with each individual thrower: help them improve while sticking with the technique they had gotten used to, or move them toward the more standard throwing style that she favored. In Wright’s case, Lane discovered that her approach to technique meshed quite easily with the way he had learned to throw growing up in Jamaica, so they were able to find common ground without too much trouble. Lane even found herself, late in the season, adjusting Wright’s technique using “Mark Colligan terms.” This Colligan/Lane combo proved to be a powerful mix, as Wright drilled a fifth-round 62.79m to take a commanding lead.

Bryant responded with a foul, and then Mason ambled into the ring having apparently decided to try a novel approach: listening to his coach. “On my last throw,” he said later, “I just figured he must be right so I just trusted him and really over-exaggerated not pulling my head and not dipping my shoulder.” The result was enough to warm the heart of coaches everywhere: a three-meter improvement to 61.02m which launched him from ninth place all the way to second.

That was it in terms of final-round fireworks. Wright finished with a foul and Bryant closed with 60.42m to end up third.

 

Women’s Javelin

The women’s javelin competition ran concurrently with the men’s discus, but no worries. Because they were using the discus cage that sits right next to the javelin runway, it was possible to follow both events at the same time.

That was nice, because I really wanted to see Oklahoma’s Brittany Borman try to defend her title. Borman, who looks like what the actress Emma Stone would look like if Emma Stone could clean 100k, has had a fantastic throwing career at Oklahoma but one characterized by dramatic unpredictability. She finished second in the NCAA discus in 2010, came into the 2011 meet as one of the favorites and… fouled out of the prelims. She also finished second in the jav in 2010, came into the 2011 meet as the clear favorite and…looked very shaky in the prelims before righting her ship and knocking out a fourth-round 54.32m for the win. In April of this year she launched a 59.42m missile, thus announcing herself as a potentially world class javelin thrower and…hit only 50.89m at the regional and came into Des Moines ranked second behind Stanford freshman Brianna Bain (50.92m). So, it would be interesting to see which version of Borman showed up.

The illogical logic of randomization put Bain in flight one and Borman in flight two, thus giving Bain the chance to maybe get into Borman’s head a little bit by knocking the crap out of one early, but she couldn’t manage it. Her first-round 50.01m was her best throw of the prelims, putting her in second behind Emily Tyrrell of Montana State (50.50m).

Borman took over the lead with her first attempt (52.15m) then pretty much sealed the deal with a round-two toss of 56.27m.

That throw seemed to take the starch out of  the rest of the field, as the first two rounds of the finals produced only two fifty-meter throws, Borman’s fourth-round 53.09m and Bain’s fifth-round 51.11m.

The snoozefest continued into round six until, out of the blue, Bain hammered one. I imagine Borman had an uncomfortable moment or two there while waiting for the measurement. Kind of like me when the doorbell rings and I have reason to suspect that one of my sisters-in-law might be in town. But she needn’t have worried. Bain’s 54.93m gave her a new PR and sent a message to her fellow underclassmen that she’ll be the one to beat in 2013, but it was not enough to pull off the upset.

 

Women’s Discus

Last year, Arizona State’s Anna Jelmini came to Des Moines as one of the favorites, threw quite well (57.97m), held first place going into round six, and lost the title to an unheralded thrower, Tracey Rew of Northwestern Louisiana who PR’d by three meters.

No way something like that could happen two years in a row, right?

Aside from Jelmini, the top returners from 2011 were Tennessee’s Annie Alexander (3rd), Michigan State’s Beth Rohl (6th), and San Diego State’s Whitney Ashley (7th), none of whom had come within two meters of Jelmini at regionals where she posted 57.49m.

Rohl and Ashley were both slotted in flight one, and as warm-ups began (around 5:00) the sun started to ease up a bit and a light breeze continued wafting in, making the conditions quite pleasant for throwers and spectators.

Rohl and Ashley each punched their ticket to the finals during round one, Rohl hitting 55.69m and Ashley producing a 42-centimeter PR of 56.22m. None of the other flight-one throwers would advance. That included Brittany Borman, who had to skip the javelin awards ceremony in order to report for the discus. She looked really smooth technically, but just didn’t seem to have much pop and could manage only a round-two 52.48m. I asked her afterwards if she was exhausted after throwing the jav in that sun for two hours but she no, she felt fine and was not sure why she couldn’t get off a better throw in the disc. It was kind of a sad way to end what had been an outstanding college discus career, but she was already looking forward to competing in the javelin in the Olympic Trials and beyond. She plans to continue training at OU under her current coach, Brian Blutreich, and with two NCAA jav titles and the Olympic B-standard under her belt, she could not be blamed for losing a bit of focus in the discus.

Jelmini had to be feeling pretty good as flight two was brought out to take their warm-up throws. The weather was getting nicer by the minute, and nobody in flight one had done anything that might cause her undo worry. She snapped off a couple of warm-up throws in the 60-meter range, and looked relaxed and confident even when she mistimed one and yanked it badly down the left foul line. Her coach, Dave Dumble, encouraged her to “face the throw longer” as she appeared to be pulling down a bit with her head and left arm as she sprinted out of the back of the ring.

Speaking of technique, it was interesting to note the variety of approaches found among the women. While almost all the male discus throwers looked alike technically, almost none of the women did. Jelmini has a unique way of holding the discus—she sort of cups it against her forearm, and she chalks her throwing arm from wrist to elbow to keep the disc from sticking. Whitney Ashley lets the disc drop down near her right knee as she leaves the back of the ring. Nebraska junior Morgan Wilken seems to throw her head and right arm towards the center of the ring as a way of creating momentum out of the back and then sprints under the discus and into the power position. Also, unlike the men, there were several fixed-feet throwers among the ladies, including Ashley and Morgan.

Throwing sixth in her flight, Jelmini stepped in and took control right away. Her 58.79m opener put her into the lead by two-and-a-half meters. She followed that up with a round-two foul (another yanker down the left foul line) and a round-three 55.12m. Queuing up behind her and into medal contention were Alexander at 56.69m and Ashley Hearn of UC Davis who smoked a second-round 56.30m, ran over to the spectator berm, flashed her coach a big smile and declared, “That, was a PR!”

The top five heading into the final then were Jelmini, Alexander, Hearn, Rohl, and Ashley.

Jelmini got back on track in round four and fired a 58.34m—again almost two meters better than everyone else, but not quite the coup de grâce she was hoping for.  Otherwise, it was a quiet round, with no changes in the rankings.

Suddenly, in round five, things got interesting. By then, the weather was just about perfect. The harsh sun was gone. The breeze was blowing in. The opportunity was there for someone to nail a big throw.

The first to take advantage was Rohl. Her 56.85m jumped her into third place.

Next up was Whitney Ashley, and she absolutely killed one. Her coach let out a yell as the disc bit near the 60meter line.  A few seconds later the exact distance flashed up on the board: 59.99m, four meters farther than her PR coming into this meet. She was now in first place.

Ashley Hearn was up next and, remarkably, came veeeery close to trumping Whitney Ashley’s bomb as she hit the sixty-meter line…but just barely fouled at the front of the ring.

God only knows what was going through Jelmini’s head as she stepped up for her fifth throw. The conditions were right for her to throw 60 meters and retake the lead, but could she do it after being knocked out of first by a miracle throw two consecutive years? She did an impressive job of keeping her composure, but could only reach 58.19m.

Not much action in round six until Hearn got in and drilled 57.94m. She told us later that she had struggled the entire year until just before regionals when she and her coach decided to change her windup so that she kept more weight on her left leg. That helped her get out of the back efficiently, and basically saved her career. That sixty-meter foul has her determined to continue throwing post-collegiately.

Whitney Ashley finished with a 56.41m toss. Jelmini had one more shot at retaking the lead, but could manage only 56.75m. She stood in the ring for a long time after the throw landed.

 

Men’s Javelin

Covering the throws in the heat of June makes a man powerful thirsty, so after the first day’s events were over we retired to a West Des Moines pub called Old Chicago where they have an awesome beer selection and where, on Wednesday nights, every third beer is free. Yes, you read that correctly.

We woke up Thursday morning feeling thoroughly refreshed, and headed to the Blank Park Zoo to while away some time before the Day 2 throwing events. My favorite exhibits were the tortoises and the animatronic mastodon. I also came away with a very nice blackmail picture of Pat cuddling a baby seal doll.

Last year, Tim Glover of Illinois State had the javelin title sewn up after his first throw—an 80.33m bomb that left everyone else fighting for second place. A year later he arrived in Des Moines stronger (a 125k bench—up from 105k, and a 130k hang clean—up from 110k), more experienced, and determined not only to defend his title but to reach the Olympic A standard of 82.00m. He had come close earlier this season with a toss of 81.31m at the Sea Rays Relays.

Stepping up to challenge Glover were 2011 runner-up Matthias Treff of Virginia Tech, Texas A&M’s Sam Humphreys (3rd in 2011) and Florida sophomore Stipe Zunic (4th in 2011). Also in the hunt was Oregon freshman Sam Crouser, who posted a fine 76.70m toss in the regionals. Humphreys likely posed the biggest threat, as he came in with the leading throw out of regionals (77.94m) after winning the Big 12 meet with a PR toss of 78.98m. He is also a very large man who looks like he could punch out a steer.

Glover, Treff, and Crouser were all slotted into flight one. Warmups began at 2:00, and it was smoking hot out by then. There are a few small trees scattered on the spectator hill overlooking the jav runway, so Pat and I grabbed a spot underneath one of them, but there was still no escaping the oppressive heat. I know that journalists are meant to be impartial, but Pat is a teammate of Glover’s, so I’m not going lie—we were rooting for him big time and hoping that he’d open up with a monster toss like last year.

Unfortunately, that was not to be the case.

Glover put together an okay series, 73.46m, 75.42m, 71.69m, but could not deliver a knockout blow. He ended up second in the flight, behind Treff’s 75.83m. Crouser, like Humphreys an imposing physical specimen, could manage only 70.09m.

Out marched flight two, and into the tent went Glover with a lot of time to think things over.

Now it was Humphreys’ chance to turn up the heat, and he wasted no time, opening with 76.93m to take the lead. But that was the best he could muster (he followed up with 75.01m and 76.76m) and it was not likely to hold up against Glover.

Heading into the final then, it was Humphreys, Treff, and Glover, followed by two seniors—Ignacio Guerra of Western Kentucky (74.84m) and Ben Chretien of McNeese State (74.78m).

Illinois State throws coach Erik Whitsitt told us later that the lack of a big throw from the second flight gave him a chance to help Glover regroup. “Ever since Tim hit his big one at the Sea Ray Relays, he’s been focused on getting the A standard rather than competing. Before the final, I just had to settle him down…convince him to just go out and get the win and stop thinking about throwing 82 meters.”

Mission accomplished. The newly relaxed Glover hammered an 81.69m to take a commanding lead. Humphreys responded with 79.62m in round five. They were the only two who managed to improve over their preliminary throws.

I asked Pat if he was worried when Glover started slowly in prelims. “No,” he replied. “The thing about Tim is that he’s got a heart and a cannon.” Both came in handy on this day.

The good news for javelin fans? Each of the top three will be back next year.

 

Women’s Hammer

Going in, this appeared to be a contest between three throwers each of whom had a remarkable month of May.

Alena Krechyk of Kansas by way of Belarus had set a school and conference record of 69.02m at the Big 12 meet and followed that up with a 68.23m toss at regionals.  Jeneva McCall of Southern Illinois had broken the Missouri Valley Conference record with a throw of 68.58m and then nailed 69.13m at regionals. Amanda Bingson of UNLV did not break the Mountain West Conference record when she won her third consecutive title with a throw of 67.94m, but her 71.04m regional toss led all qualifiers.

All three of these ladies were slotted into the second flight.

The women’s hammer ran concurrently with the men’s jav, and my vote for Man Most Likely to Suffer Heat Stroke went to Coach Whitsitt who had to scramble around the spectator hill for two hours trying to coax a jav title out of Tim Glover while also keeping tabs on ISU hammer thrower Brittany Smith. A 2011 finalist, Smith tossed a solid 66.19m at regionals but then, according to Whitsitt, fell into a bit of a funk. “The big thing with us,” he explained, “is that we are expected to compete at the conference level so we have to peak them a little bit…then we have to create another mini-peak for the regional and national championships. Brittany’s last week of practice was probably one of her worst all year just because she was kind of feeling beat to crap, but she started to liven up a bit the last two days.”

She certainly looked lively during warm-ups, dropping a couple in the 65-meter range and flashing Coach Whitsitt a thumbs up. She then took charge of flight one with a fine series: 67.31m, 67.54m, and 68.45m. Behind her were the 6’3” Swede, Ida Storm of UCLA (65.68m), and Jenny Ozorai, a native of Hungary competing for USC (65.20m).

Of the flight two throwers, McCall may have faced the greatest mental challenge as she was competing in three events (discus, hammer, shot put) the first of which had not gone well.  The 2010 discus champion, this year she managed a best of 54.05m in the prelims and did not advance to the final. Bitterly disappointed, she let herself grieve for a couple of hours afterwards and then took in a showing of the film “Battleship.” That apparently did the trick, as her opening salvo of 68.47m in the hammer put her into first place.

Meanwhile, neither Krechyk nor Bingson could get it rolling. Krechyk’s second-round 64.58m assured her a spot on the podium, but did not put her in the hunt for the title. Bingson opened with two fouls. “I was just really confused about what was going on because I’d picked up some habits I’d never had before,” she said later. Facing a really lousy end to a fine college career, Bingson stepped over to the spectator area, coaxed her eight-year-old cousin into giving her a hug, and then stepped into the ring and hit 66.96m which put her into third place behind McCall and Smith.

The final was uneventful. Smith, after an hour break, could not recapture her prelim luster. Her best throw in the finals was a round-four 66.26m. McCall extended her lead a bit with a round-four 68.67m, but Bingson continued to struggle, sandwiching a 63.80m between two fouls. Ozorai’s fifth-round 65.91m jumped her over Storm into fourth. Georgia’s Nicole Lomnicka, the 2010 champion, finished an injury-plagued career with a sixth-round 64.55m that moved her from ninth into seventh-place, just behind Krechyk.

That was the last throwing event of the day, which was lucky since both Pat and I felt dangerously dehydrated at that point. Fortunately, Peggy’s Tavern is just a short walk from the track, and they helped us regain our vigor with some of those aforementioned $3.00 beers.

 

Men’s Hammer

Friday morning’s Des Moines Register contained a nice article about Tim Glover, although they referred to him by the rather unfortunate nickname of “Tiny Tim.” Regardless, Pat tucked it in his bag as a souvenir for his teammate, and we headed for the track.

Going in, this shaped up as a ferocious battle: 2010 World Junior Champion Connor McCullough of Princeton vs. 2011 NCAA Champion Alex Ziegler of Virginia Tech. Unfortunately, a few days after McCullough won the East Regional with a throw of 72.40m, it was announced that he had been declared academically ineligible.

That left Ziegler to defend his title against the likes of Florida junior Jeremy Postin (70.23m at Drake, 66.50m at regionals) and UCLA sophomore Alec Faldermeyer (69.89m at Mt. SAC, 67.04m at regionals).

No offense to those guys, but everyone knew that with McCullough absent this was Ziegler’s meet to win, and he wasted no time in doing just that. Throwing in flight one on another sun-scorched afternoon, he opened with 70.86m, improved to 72.96m, and then sealed the deal with a third-round toss of 73.35m.

Postin, also in flight one, put together a pretty nice series himself (69.47m, 69.36m, F) but the way Ziegler was dealing, he had no shot.

Faldermeyer was the class of flight two, his third round 68.37m ensconcing him comfortably into third place. But when the finalists were sorted out and the competition resumed, so did the butt-whipping. You could tell by Ziegler’s reaction to his prelim throws that he felt a big one brewing. He did not look especially thrilled with any of them, and he again showed a little frustration after his round-four toss of 72.59m. Finally, in round five he grooved one, encouraging it in flight with a long, loud yell. When a hammer is in the air long enough to travel 75.78m it leaves you plenty of time to vocalize, and Alex took full advantage.

The effort must have tired him out, as he finished the day with a pedestrian 70.29m, which by the way, would still have been good enough for the win.

Afterwards, Alex said that the break between flights probably helped him. His coach, Greg Jack, had exhorted him during prelims to “finish” his throws and the down time gave him a chance to digest that advice.  I got a chuckle out of this, because I know that his coach, Greg Jack is not a fan of randomized prelim flights. He told me quite emphatically last year that the best throwers deserve the chance to throw in flight two so that they can build on their prelim performances without a momentum-killing interruption. I guess it worked out okay this time, though.

Ziegler is German, and planned to return home after NCAA’s to compete in his National Championships. I am a huge fan of German throwers like Robert Harting and Ralph Bartels, and it was fun talking to Alex about them. Harting, apparently, is a man of strong opinions. I won’t tell you what he said about people who wear straps when they lift, but take it from me—if you ever find yourself sharing a platform with him, leave the straps in your locker.

If he is able to snag the qualifying mark of 76.00m, Alex would then move on to the European Championships before returning to Virginia Tech for summer school. He has one more year of eligibility remaining, so hammer fans might finally get to see a Ziegler/McCullough heavyweight bout next year.

 

Women’s Shot Put

Last year, Arizona’s Julie Labonté steamrolled through a season in which she never lost a collegiate competition. This year, with Lebonté redshirting outdoors, Oklahoma’s Tia Brooks took over as Avenger of the women’s shot.

She also broke my heart.

I love the non-reverse glide, and last year Brooks had a great one. This year, on the advice of her coach, Brian Blutreich, she began using a reverse to “get out over the toe board better” while still being able to save the throw. Whaaaatever.

It’s not like it worked or anything. Okay, she threw 19 meters indoors. She won the indoor NCAA meet by more than a meter over a field that included Labonté. She won the Big 12 title indoors and out. She won the Drake Relays while hitting the Olympic A standard.  She…never mind.

The only collegiate thrower to defeat Brooks this year was Arizona’s Alyssa Hasslen, who blasted an 18.35m toss at Mt. SAC. Unfortunately, Hasslen had since been derailed by injury and would not be competing in Des Moines.

Slotted into flight one, Brooks took the Ziegler approach and let everyone know right away that she wasn’t here to mess. First throw: 18.14m. Second throw: 18.13m. It would take a Whitney Ashley style thunderbolt for someone to challenge Brooks. Redshirt freshman Kearsten Peoples, a spinner who finished second to Brooks in the Big 12 meet and in the regional was probably the only thrower in flight one with a chance to stay close. Peoples qualified in the discus and hammer as well, and certainly has the potential to become an elite shot putter. She’s big, and she can move as evidenced by her sixth-place finish in the disc. Her best toss in prelims though, was a second-round 17.31m, well below her regional mark of 17.74m and not enough to bother Brooks who fouled her third throw and then retired to the holding area with a substantial lead.

Two throwers in the second flight seemed to have at least an outside shot at challenging Brooks. Hammer champion Jeneva McCall had used her highly unusual non-reverse spin technique to reach 17.89m at her conference meet. Hammer runner-up Brittany Smith had thrown 17.92m at Sea Rays. Could one of them find some magic?

It sure didn’t look like it would be Smith, as she struggled mightily to find her rhythm going 16.61m, 16.70m, and 16.52. That put her into eighth place heading into the final.

McCall opened tentatively with 16.06m, but quickly got her bearings and took over second place with a round-two 17.67m.

The top five heading into the finals were Brooks, McCall, senior Annie Alexander of Tennessee (17.36m), Peoples, and Louisville senior Chinwe Okoro (17.21m).

In each of the throwing events, the finalists were given a few minutes to take some warm-up throws, and Smith put that time to good use. After three subpar prelim throws, she was able to find some rhythm during warm-ups and on her first attempt of the finals moved from eighth to second with a toss of 17.80m.

Brooks quickly put an end to any thoughts of an upset with a fourth-round 18.44m. The only other finalist to move up in the standings was Indiana State junior Felisha Johnson whose round-six 17.35m moved her from ninth to fifth.

Afterwards, an ebullient Brooks told us that her favorite lift is the jerk (her max is 130k) and that she had plenty left in the tank for the Olympic Trials,  Coach Blutreich having adjusted her training after she nailed the A-standard indoors.

Pat and I decided to adjust our training as well. Three days of that heat was just too much for us, and knowing that we’d need to leave something in the tank for tomorrow’s men’s shot put competition, we had dinner at Panera and packed it in for the night.

 

Men’s Shot Put

If anyone has figured out the secret to throwing well under pressure, it is Arizona State junior Jordan Clark. Yes, he is a big, powerful man (485 bench, 175k clean) but according to Coach Dumble, Clark’s greatest asset is that “he’s got it between the ears.”

“He’s level-headed and confident. He thinks he can win every meet, but he doesn’t put too much pressure on himself.”

That mental strength, combined with Clark’s physical gifts and outstanding technique make him a hard man to beat.

This was not, however, likely to be a one-person show like the men’s hammer and women’s shot. The field was loaded with possible contenders. The first prelim flight alone featured Mason Finley, Auburn’s Stephen Saenz, and the Texas trio of Hayden Ballio, Ryan Crouser, and Jacob Thormaehlen.

As in the men’s disc though, the contenders struggled to find some rhythm in the early going.

Finley opened the proceedings on this, you guessed it, hot, sun-bleached morning by way over-rotating and spinning out of the ring to the left of the toe board for a foul. Crouser stopped in the middle of his first attempt, reset, then threw 18.50m. Clark over-rotated badly on his first attempt and tossed it out of bounds to the left. Ballio, employing an unusual start to his throw (he winds, starts to open to his left, then rewinds and carries out the throw) opened with 18.60m. Thormaehlen hit only 18.13m.

Ohio State’s Matt DeChant was the first to find some comfort. A lefty who throws his free arm way ahead out of the back in the manner of Christian Cantwell, he took the early lead with a round-one 19.46m.

The token glider of the group, Bozidar Antunovic, a 6’6” Serbian throwing for the University of Arizona, opened with 19.25m.

Mason, once again running down the left foul line, got on the board in round two with a toss of 19.33m. Clark took over the lead with 19.56m. Ballio moved up with a 19.24m toss. DeChant reclaimed the lead with 19.57m. Thormaehlen got into the mix with 19.43m, as did Saenz with 19.54

With both flights full of top-notch putters, it was difficult to predict what it might take to make the final, so several throwers stepped into the ring for round three anxious to move up. The first was Finley, whose 19.33m had him sitting in fifth. He did not help himself, though, once again over-rotating badly and stepping over the left side of the toe board for a foul. Crouser, sitting ninth, fouled as well and walked out of the ring clutching his right hand. Ballio’s 19.24m had him in seventh, and all he could manage was 18.94m. Thormaehlen, who finished second indoors, seemed to be intent on hammering a big one, but reached only 18.34m with his third effort and unleashed a growl of frustration as he exited the ring.

Meanwhile, Clark, looking very smooth, popped a 19.57m to tie DeChant (who fouled his third throw) for the lead. He was not on top for long, though, as Saenz blasted a 19.71m to take over first.

Flight two featured two veterans from the Big 10 Conference, Penn State’s Joe Kovacs and Nebraska’s Luke Pinkelman, both of whom had to be considered serious contenders here. If they could match their efforts from the Big 10 Conference meet (Kovacs: 20.85m, Pinkelman: 20.02m) they’d be tough to beat.

Like many of the flight one contestants, Kovacs opened tentatively, hitting only 18.77m. Pinkelman, on the other hand, put himself securely in the final with his opening toss of 19.50m. Kovacs took over second place with his round-two 19.58m, but then Pinkelman (channeling his inner Tressa Thompson with his bent-over windup) drilled a 19.72m to seize the overall lead and drop Kovacs into third. Like Thormaehlen, Kovacs seemed to ratchet up his aggressiveness each throw in an effort to launch one. He got the crowd clapping before his third effort, but could reach only 19.30m. As he left the ring he motioned to his coach that the shot had come off of his hand wrong.

Pinkelman and Kovacs turned out to be the only two throwers from their flight to make the final.

Forty-eight centimeters now separated Pinkelman in first from Ballio in ninth. Literally every one of the finalists had to be sitting there thinking, “You know what? I just might be able to win this thing.”

Round four started slowly though, with only Ballio (19.26m) and Finley (19.38m) bettering their prelim efforts until Clark stepped into the ring. Shot putting is fun to watch, even for the casual fan, because of the aggressiveness of the athletes. I remember NBC doing a feature on Adam Nelson during the 2000 Olympics that focused on his pre-throw routine of shouting, chucking his shirt, and stomping around looking like he wanted to bite someone. NBC figured that would capture people’s interest, and they were right. It is fun to watch guys go a little nuts. I think it is largely because of Nelson that we now have those shot put only competitions in places like the Zurich train station.

But Clark is kind of the anti-Nelson during competition. In spite of the heat, in spite of the pressure of defending his title against a stacked field, his expression never changed, the rhythm of his throws never changed. He rarely yelled. He sure didn’t on his fourth throw. He just stepped in and smoothed it out there 20.40m to take the lead. He actually clapped a couple of times after it landed, but he quickly got his wits about him and took a seat.

Kovacs was up next. He is a powerful young man (his back squat PR is 750), but again could not quite line one up and settled for 19.45m. Saenz followed. He had been chucking with a lot of confidence all day. I was filming the competition and almost missed a couple of his throws because he got into the ring so quickly when his name was called. Accordingly, he jumped in during round four and hit 19.78m to take over second place. Pinkelman responded with a foul.

Not much action in round five. Clark stayed locked in and hit 20.20m. Saenz fouled a 20-meter throw. Kovacs and Pinkelman fouled as well.

And so began round six. Ballio ended a disappointing day with 18.95m. A junior, he will likely be a contender next year. Finley notched his fourth foul of the competition. He told us that his goal for next year was to get his weight down to around 350 pounds so that he can get faster. I, for one, hope he succeeds. He’s a very polite, humble dude who seems a bit lost right now in the shot put ring. If he can find a groove, he’ll certainly be in the mix in 2013.

Thormaehlen, a senior, improved slightly to 19.45m. He looked dynamic in the ring the whole competition, but just could not hit one. Antunovic struck a blow for gliders by hitting 19.51m to jump from ninth to sixth. He’ll return next year. DeChant, another senior, fouled his final attempt. Throwing in the first flight may have messed him up, as he could not find his rhythm after the long break.

Clark urged the crowd to get behind him for his last throw, then let out his first yell of the day as he released it. He hit 19.92m. All three of his throws in the finals would have been good enough for the win.

Kovacs finished with 19.14m, and took his disappointment philosophically. “Sometimes you just fall into positions,” he told us, but on this day he couldn’t quite line one up. He plans to go into coaching and will be looking for a graduate assistant job for next year. He was not sure if he would continue throwing after the Olympic Trials.

Saenz, a sophomore, finished with another foul. He has the Olympic B standard and hopes to represent Mexico at the Games.

Pinkelman never got rolling in the finals and finished his collegiate career with 19.24m, which kept him in third place.

Clark will return to defend his title. He suffers from a couple of herniated discs in his lower back, but he and Dumble have figured out ways to train around that (he squats, for example, using a device called a Pit Shark). If Crouser makes it through next year healthy, if Finley loses some weight and gains some confidence, if Saenz keeps improving, then maybe one of them will dethrone Clark. But, I don’t know. Even in this era of Marvel Comics Superheroes, it won’t be easy beating Superman.

Thanks, Des Moines, for putting on another great meet. Thanks to Pat for his invaluable navigational skills, his vast knowledge of the college throwing scene, and his remarkable patience—he never complained once about the air-conditioning in my Prius not working. Thanks, especially, to my wife and daughter for letting me go off on these jaunts every summer and acting like they are glad to see me when I return.

by Dan McQuaid

Cory Martin Interview

Cory was instructing at the Wheaton North HS Throws and Running Clinic in December 2013.  Dan McQuaid spoke with him about his past throwing success and plans for the future.

The meet report from the 2008 NCAA Championships where Cory was a double winner in the shot put and the hammer can be found in this blog.